Swiss suffragettes were still fighting for the right to vote in 1971

Switzerland's unique system of direct democracy requires a national referendum for constitutional change so the rights of Swiss women were at the mercy of those who could vote in such a referendum - men

Emma Gatten
Friday 25 September 2015 21:06 BST
Swiss women protest in 1971 prior to the all-male vote which at last granted them suffrage
Swiss women protest in 1971 prior to the all-male vote which at last granted them suffrage (Corbis)

The start of the 1970s was a febrile time politically. Protests against the Vietnam War were in full swing; student revolts that had begun in France in 1968 had spread throughout the world as clamour for social change and political rights became louder and more insistent. In Britain, the Secretary of State for Education, Margaret Thatcher, caused outrage over her decision to ban free school milk. And yet in Switzerland, at the heart of Europe, not only were there no national women politicians, there were no women voters either.

Four decades on, and despite her 97 years, Marthe Gosteli is still a commanding presence and a reminder of a largely unheralded revolution: the fight to get Swiss women the vote. She has lived for decades amongst the archive boxes and political posters that form the Marthe Gosteli Foundation, which is housed on her family's farming estate on a hill in Worblaufen, an idyllic French-Swiss suburb just outside of Bern.

Dressed for comfort, Gosteli must be the only suffragette to have ever worn a tracksuit. She needs no prompting to discuss what she considers to be "one of the biggest freedom movements in the last century". "Unbloody too," she notes, jabbing the table on each syllable for emphasis. "I worked for many years and it has taken me a long time to realise the importance of this movement."

It was after Gosteli's father died young, leaving her mother and sisters in charge of the estate, that she began to realise the inequities faced by working women in Switzerland. "My father and mother were simple people, but they were politically advanced," she says. "I was educated to fight for something." That fight would last nearly half a century.

It was not until 1971, 65 years after Finland became the first European country to grant women the vote, that Switzerland became the last, not only in Europe but in much of the world.

The reason? Switzerland's unique system of direct democracy. It requires a national referendum for constitutional change. So the rights of Swiss women were at the mercy of those who could vote in such a referendum – that is, men. While around Europe a new generation of women was being born into universal suffrage, in Switzerland the fight was just getting started."We had direct democracy, but it didn't work," says Gosteli, "changing the situation was not possible without the vote of the women and the women didn't have the vote."

When Iris von Roten urged women to throw off domestic shackles, the outcry forced her to flee the country​

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Well in to the 1960s, even the term suffragette "was a negative. Even in my family it was 'Oh, she's a suffragette…' People thought that if somebody worked for equal rights, they were crazy," says Gosteli. "Oh, they laughed at me. At times I wanted to give up," she admits. "But when you fight for something, you must be ready to fight, fight, fight."

And the Swiss suffragettes really did fight. Universal suffrage may have come late to Switzerland, but the country's suffragettes were pioneers. In 1868, Marie Goegg-Pouchoulin, a middle-class daughter of a clockmaker from Geneva, created the Association Internationale des Femmes, the first international > women's organisation. (Goegg-Pouchoulin was so convinced that suffrage was imminent, she dissolved the organisation a few years later, after successfully lobbying for women to be allowed access to Swiss universities).

In 1909, just six years after Emmeline Pankhurst started the militant Women's Social and Political Union, the Swiss Association for Women's Suffrage (ASF) was founded, bringing together suffragettes across the country. Switzerland was also home to the first and oldest extant feminist magazine in Europe, founded in 1912 by another Geneva suffragette, Émilie Gourd, which runs today as a website under the name l'Emilie. The wind seemed to be blowing in one direction. Yet the early suffragettes would have to wait a long time.

In 1928, just a few months after  women in Britain won full voting rights, Swiss campaigners marched a giant model snail through the city of Bern to express their frustration with the slow progress of change. A petition in 1929 garnered 250,000 votes for women's suffrage. An impressive number in a country with a population of fewer than four million. But it simply "disappeared into the desk of the federal councillor," says Dr Fabienne Amlinger, a historian at Bern University.

When the government announced plans to bring in national service for women in 1958, the suffrage movement saw its chance and demanded a national referendum on voting rights the following year. The result, however, was a resounding no. Sixty seven per cent of the men who voted rejected the notion. "The situation," says Gosteli, with understatement, "wasn't ripe".

How to explain this? Perhaps the biggest difference was the Second World War. While France, Germany and Britain had run their wars on the backs of a female workforce – making it difficult to then ignore demands when they came to be made – Switzerland's neutrality meant that women hadn't strayed far from the kitchen and domestic life in general. When Iris Von Roten wrote her 1958 treatise, "Frauen im Laufgitter" ("Women in the Playpen") which urged women to throw off the shackles of domesticity, the backlash was so fierce she fled the country.

One glimmer of hope came from Vaud, Switzerland's third largest canton. It had held a vote concurrently with the national one to decide whether to give women the right to vote at county level. It passed. "It was like oil spreading out," says Simone Chapuis-Bischof, who was an activist in Vaud at the time and would later become the head of the Swiss Association for the Rights of Women.

Over the next decade, the women's movement began to build momementum. "[After the 1959 vote] the disappointment was very great," says Rosmarie Schümperli a teacher and former activist. "It was a case of never like that. Never again". For her, the vote had been an eye-opener. Eighteen at the time, she got a call shortly after from her boyfriend's mother. "She asked me if I would help. They had made little ribbons that were green and said 'votes for women'. We had to put them on the coats of the male teachers and other men we knew."

The ribbon-pinning followed a strike at the local school. This was a new tactic in the fight. While women like Pankhurst launched hunger strikes and chained themselves to railings, direct action had never been part of the Swiss suffrage movement. "The early suffragettes mostly came from bourgeois families, and they were not that radical," says Dr Amlinger. "It was not in their repertoire."

"They didn't do those things in Switzerland. They were nice, friendly, like a woman should be," laughs Schumperli, adding, with some irony, "They only talked when they were asked. " Besides, changing the minds of individual men, rather than a government, required different tactics. "We didn't fight in the same way," says Chapuis-Bischof. The technique in Switzerland was personal – they talked to people one-on-one.

The success in Vaud was largely down to the work of Antoinette Quinche, who in 1952 had organised a petition of more than 1,000 women arguing that their legal right to vote was, in fact, protected by the constitution which gave equal rights to all citizens.

"She had asked all the women, please go to your village or town and ask for the right to vote from your village or town authorities," says Chapuis-Bischof. "And more than 100,000 women did," including her mother.

In 1928 Swiss suffragettes used a model of a snail to protest at the slow pace of political emancipation

After 1959, the women's associations sent out envoys into the villages of other cantons to explain to men and women the importance of voting rights. "They would never send two men or two women from the same party. They would have one from the right and one from the left," says Chapuis-Bischof. Balance, so the thinking went, would be key – and so would education. "The information was not there [before 1959]," says Gosteli. But now that had changed. "[Some of the women] were brilliant internationally, but others didn't know a thing," she adds.

Twelve years later, Swiss men were back at the ballot box. "We were not sure it was going to pass," says Chapuis-Bischof. But, this time, finally, it did – with 66 per cent of men in favour. Many of the local women's associations closed their doors after 1971. "I was exhausted," recalls Gosteli. "And I thanked heaven on earth that it had got through." Still, she found the energy for one last face-off on the radio with an old adversary – a female anti-women's rights campaigner.

At a party to celebrate their success in the vote, Chapuis-Bischof dressed up as a turn-of-the-century suffragette."We were very glad to have a victory. And it was a victory," she says. "But you know the feminist had a bad image, and I think still now they have a bad image. When you said feminist in that time. Well, it wasn't feminist, it was a suffragette. And a suffragette was an awful old lady, with flat shoes. Well, it was a bad image. "

A second wave of protest had been bubbling in the background, too. These women who were more concerned with equal pay and reproductive rights. Nineteen seventy one put all these issues on the table at the same time.

Even after that time, the historical disenfranchisement continued to reverberate through women's lives. "Girls had to do knitting in school," says Chapuis-Bischof, while the boys learnt maths. "Men were not interested in changing the programme for girls."

And husbands still had legal authority over their wives. They could decide where they lived and whether their wife was allowed to vote, and had control over her savings and all bank accounts in the woman's name. It wasn't until 1985 that a national referendum would change that. It passed with a majority of just 4 per cent.

"It was very difficult to change every little thing," says Chapuis-Bischof. "In the 1970s, I had a bank account in my son's name. I tried to go and buy something and they told me I needed the signature of my man. I was very, very angry. I made a scandal in the bank."

It was at this time that protesters took to the streets, as they had been doing in other parts of Europe. "It was just a matter of ambient circumstances. Women became emancipated on all levels," says Anne-Christine Kasser-Sauvin, who ran a women's bookshop in the 1970s and was a young woman in 1971. "For us, it was a matter of getting independent. Getting the vote had not been our main aim. But probably we couldn't have had these [other] rights without the vote."

Girls had to do knitting in schools while boys did maths. Men weren’t interested in changing the programme

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It is difficult to quantify the impact that getting the vote so late had. Women were quick to enter politics as soon as they could, and the debates raging in the 70s reflected those going on in the rest of the Western world. But certain legal inequalities stuck around well after their time. Maternity leave – almost unbelievably – wasn't introduced until 2005. "Women didn't have the same social status, so they were denied the vote, but not having the vote kept back their social status," says Amlinger. Decades of male-only politics had kept some of the most important issues affecting women off the political agenda. "Not having the right to vote or elect affected almost every part of the life, because women couldn't participate in decision making, so certain themes never even came into politics, like maternity leave or abortion," says Dr Amlinger.

In one canton, the fight for suffrage wasn't over even in 1971. The canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden continued to reject local voting rights for women in 1973, 1982 and again in 1990. Women in Appenzell were left in the absurd position of being able to vote on national issues, but not over local planning restrictions. A bastion of rural conservatism, Appenzell saw itself as a vanguard against the liberal arrogance of Zurich, Geneva and Bern (the town had the strongest vote in Switzerland's surprise 2009 ban of minarets). To this day, voting takes places by a show of hands in the town square, with many men carrying swords instead of voting cards. The federal government had to impose the change in 1991 and then only after four local women filed a legal complaint.

"Swiss women still won't rise up to the challenge of public life. They don't want to carry the responsibility. And part of that is because they got the vote so late," says Nathalie Brochard, the editor of l'Emilie. "Women have had less time to train, study, work, and to occupy public life, especially in the political field."

These days Switzerland ranks 11th on the Global Gender Gap Index, based on economic, political and health inequalities (the UK ranks 26th). Feminism in the country is alive and well, its debates raging around the familiar topics of wage inequality, reproductive rights, transgender issues. Political participation is low, but not much more so than elsewhere in Europe.

And Switzerland's suffragettes repeat the familiar refrain that today's women have forgotten the struggle that came before them. ASF – now renamed the Swiss Association for Women's Rights – often runs campaigns encouraging women to vote, and urging them to remember the suffragette's struggle.

"They were very courageous during those 50 years. They went on the streets to protest. They went to Bern, they went to Zurich. They made efforts in the rain," says Martine Gagnebin, its current president. ".If you knew how much they fought, you really should feel obliged to vote."

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