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Women in Switzerland were only given the right to vote on a federal level in 1971, a time when every single European country had given women the franchise decades prior, and a time when pretty much every country in the world had done so.

Not only that, but in the referendum of 1971 that enfranchised women, only 65.7% of men (only men could vote) voted in the affirmative to allow women to vote, while 34.3% voted in the negative. In 8 cantons of the then 25, less than 50% of voters voted in the affirmative for women's suffrage, as this map shows.

Yes, it's true that at the canton level some cantons allowed women to vote as early as 1959 on local issues, but I consider this still extremely late as every single European country, except for two microstates, had already achieved this. Also, in the canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden women weren't allowed to vote for local issues until a law suit was brought by two women and won, resulting in the Swiss Federal Court decision in 1991 to allow women to vote in that canton.

I'm very surprised to hear this, and I can't understand why a country like Switzerland denied this basic right to women when pretty much every other single country in the world had removed this outdated restriction. I thought that equal women's suffrage had been an issue which had been fought and settled in "the West" (let's call it) mostly between the start of last century and about the end of WW2.

Is there something particular to Switzerland for why it trailed so far behind other "Western" countries in this regard, and also for why even at 1971 less than two thirds of men voted to extend the franchise to women?

Also, I'm not sure if this question is more suited to the History SE.

3 Answers 3

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A few reasons:

  1. Voting in the Swiss system is tied inextricably to military service: according to the 1848 constitution, paragraph 18, if you can vote, you must serve.

  2. Bad timing. By the time the universal suffrage movement took off, WWI happened. Then when it tried to start again, WWII happened. Then when they finally got things good and ready for women to enter mandatory civil service in the late 50's, a scandal within civil service made it look like it was extremely unsafe for women to be there.

  3. The Swiss system is much more decentralized than other European nations such that individual electors hold a great deal of sway, as opposed to a representative system that could make the decision. All electors were men, and they voted 67% in 1958 to deny women's suffrage. It took each individual canton approving universal suffrage over a period of around 15 years to force the electors to re-address the issue.

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  • Thank you. The constitution was revised in 1874, and article 18 just says that "(1) Every Swiss is under the obligation to perform military service." I haven't seen anywhere that women weren't considered citizens, which according to the Constitution would require women to "perform military service" anyway, so Point 1 I don't understand exactly. Point 3 about Switzerland being more decentralised I'm not exactly sure explains why so few voters didn't want to enfranchise women in a national referendum. From my reading it seems that this was more because of conservative views among the people.
    – Zebrafish
    Commented Dec 29, 2018 at 2:32
  • 4
    @Zebrafish The idea of women in the army was unthinkable until a few decades ago, so point 1 was a strong issue. You're seeing it from a modern perspective, but the reasoning back then was like "If you want to vote you must serve as a soldier; women can't be soldiers, therefore, women can't vote". And "women can't be soldiers" was a fact like "sky is blue".
    – Rekesoft
    Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 9:13
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    @Zebrafish Actually, by the word of the letter it's even harsher than that: women aren't Swiss.
    – Rekesoft
    Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 11:54
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    @Zebrafish Military service -> Citizenship -> Voting rights I would add a drawing if needed, but I don't think it's possible in comments. I don't know the full text of Switzerland 1848 Constitution, but I guess it was very similar to other countries in that women were grouped together with pets and cows - a property of men, rather than beings on their own. You need being a citizen to vote (since, you know, Italians don't vote in the US elections nor French in the chilean ones), and thus, if you weren't considered able to serve in the army, you weren't a citizen, so no vote for you.
    – Rekesoft
    Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 12:16
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    @Rakete I don't need sarcastic comments about drawings, I would like a source for your claim that women were not considered Swiss citizens, and that this was the reasons why they were disallowed the vote until 1971. I would prefer some substantiation to your claim about citizenship and women with regard to Switzerland rather than just claims about women being "grouped together with pets and cows". Also, if the reason is that women weren't considered citizens and you claim that this is the reason for no voting rights, you'd have to also contend they weren't citizens up until 1971.
    – Zebrafish
    Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 12:39
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The are many explanations but from a macro perspective, in my Opinion, War is the best explanation.

In Most countries that introduced women's suffrage the biggest reason why they did so was the two world wars. UK, Canada, and the USA had a Cultural shift during the first world war since a lot of women had to replace men in the workforce.

Germany and Austria both introduced it right after they lost Wolrd war 1. Italy towards the end of World war 2

Russia had its communist revolution during world war 1 and introduced it then. Albania introduced it during the second world war 2 under a Communist regime. France introduced woman's suffrage during World War 2 in 1944

But Switzerland did not fight in the two world wars...

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I'd like to offer an answer even though the question is more than five years old (and I have insufficient reputation to merely comment on Carduus' answer).

I believe the reason is primarily chauvinistic conservatism. I base this on my reading of the country as a 30-year resident, as well as various comments by Swiss themselves, in addition to written articles. As an example, there's an entire article (rather than some concise, perfect little quotation I could pull) in a National Geographic article "Non! Nein! No! A Country That Wouldn’t Let Women Vote Till 1971", which in toto conveys the idea that Swiss men simply weren't ready to allow the women to vote.

This nook of Switzerland is a very conservative place.

They also disallowed women from having their own bank accounts until 1985. I would further point to an award-winning Swiss film about this struggle, a film called The Divine Order (in German, Die göttliche Ordnung), which may be only "interesting" here, and not contribute to a meaty answer, but it covers in some subtle and not-so-subtle ways some of the issues of the time.

And instead of a post-subordinate comment, I'll take exception here to the claims in the previous long answer with its three points, all of which are problematic to me.

Point 1 is the claim that "the Swiss system is tied inextricably to military service", but the linked Wikipedia article section makes no mention of voting whatsoever. Further, the claim that paragraph 18 of the Swiss constitution says, "if you can vote, you must serve", is unsupported by any provided link or any source I can find. In fact, both the cited 1848 version and its replacement, the 1874 version (both German, sorry) of Article 18 say, Jeder Schweizer ist wehrpflichtig. The later version has more text about issued weaponry and money, but both versions are silent in regard to suffrage.

And the confusion of poor Zebrafish, based on these unsubstatiated claims, is justified. But the German constitution naturally uses the German form for Swiss, "Schweizer", which is, strictly speaking, a male Swiss. To refer to a Swiss woman, one must say, Schweizerin. When one means both men and women, one explicitly mentions both feminine and masculine forms, ladies first: Schweizerinnen und Schweizer. But either way, voting is not mentioned; there is no connection between military service and suffrage, despite the claims in the answer and comments below it.

Point 2 of that answer claims that wars and Big Stuff got in the way, pointing for support to another Wikipedia article, the cited section of which is almost entirely without source citations.

Point 3 is essentially the argument that: women didn't get the vote sooner because they couldn't vote to give it to themselves; they had to wait for the men to do it. That's true, I guess, but that's been true everywhere one excluded class has had to wait for the power-wielding class to share power.

In summary, I stand by my assessment that Switzerland is/was just too conservative to suddenly (heh heh) allow the womenfolk into an important place like the voting booth.

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  • While Switzerland may be a “chauvinistic conservative” country by European standards, that doesn't explain why countries like Iraq (1948) or Syria (1949) let women vote before Switzerland did.
    – dan04
    Commented Apr 25 at 23:41
  • No, you're right; it doesn't. Commented Apr 30 at 20:47

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