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I was shocked to learn yesterday that Switzerland didn't grant votes to women until 1971. Other European foot-draggers like France granted this right at the end of the second world war, making Switzerland over 25 years later than its cultural counterparts.

On doing a little research, it seems that the commonly accepted explanation is a peculiarity of Switzerland's statute book. Changes to the constitution can only be ratified via a referendum of existing voters. These were of course men: so it took until 1971 to persuade a majority of male Swiss voters to grant women the vote.

I feel uneasy about this explanation for two reasons. Firstly, although the referendum requirement is unusual, voting rights for women must obviously have been passed via all-male governments in all the other states which implemented it decades before the Swiss. Second, one would assume that voting rights for women were an uncontentious issue elsewhere in Western Europe well before the 1970's. If so, that still seems an unusually long time for the Swiss to copy the commonly accepted societal norms of their cultural peers.

So: were there any deeper reasons as to why it took so long for Switzerland to implement women's suffrage?

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    Digging into it, it appears that even in 1971 Switzerland did not completely grant voting rights to women. The Canton of Appenzell Innerhoden did so in 1991 after being forced by Swiss Federal court, becoming the last Canton to do so. – NSNoob Apr 25 '16 at 10:39
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    Switzerland granted votes to women at the Federal Level in 1971, even in Appenzell Innerhoden. It was in local matters where Appenzell Innerhoden kept the restriction longer (it also took all important local decisions in Landsgemeinde - a public open meeting where voting was not secret and voters had to carry a sword) – Henry Apr 25 '16 at 12:24
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    A summary history is provided at Switzerland's Long Way to Women's Right to Vote. The comments at the end provide some simple analysis. – Peter Diehr Apr 25 '16 at 13:10
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    @Henry hence the word "Completely". A complete grant of voting rights would include all Federal and canton level matters. – NSNoob Apr 25 '16 at 13:42
  • My impression is that the psychology of the Swiss democracy is unusual in that it's a multilingual federal system in which the cantons are protective of their own prerogatives, and they're also an isolated mountain country that is suspicious of immigrants and foreign entanglements. Even today, I believe it's quite hard to immigrate and become a citizen. So maybe there is just a general distrust of newcomers to the electorate. – Ben Crowell Jul 8 '17 at 16:38
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In Switzerland, it had to pass a popular referendum. (Switzerland also joined the UN and legalized abortion only in 2002 — both decisions that were passed through referendum.) Similarly in Liechtenstein, 1984, where the 4th referendum in 16 years only narrowly passed despite support from newspapers and both major political parties.

Passing a popular referendum is a much higher bar than say passing a law (e.g. UK, 1918) or a constitutional amendment (e.g. US, 1920). (Edit: I don't mean in general. I mean just for the issue of women's suffrage. Just my opinion.)

And in France for example, the Committee for National Liberation simply gave women the right to vote in 1944. Were it by referendum, it would probably have taken years more before French women had the right to vote (though perhaps not as late as 1971).


One might then ask, "Why are (male) legislators more inclined than the general male population to give women the vote?"

Thinking selfishly and ignoring the moral element, if you are a man on the street, giving women the right to vote simply means your voting power is halved. This is purely a bad thing.

But if you are a legislator, it is unclear whether women voting is necessarily a bad thing. Indeed with women voting, this might be a good thing for some legislators, who can now get a bigger proportion of votes.


Edit in response to Mark C. Wallace:

I'm looking for an answer on why 1971 succeeded - why didn't it happen in 1965 or 1995. What happened that made the 1971 attempt successful?

I think it was less "something special or dramatic happened circa 1971" than "gradual evolution of social attitudes" (not unlike what we see in various countries today with gay marriage).

Here's the timeline suggesting just such a gradual evolution:

  1. 1959 national referendum: Rejected 66.9% to 33.1%.
  2. Introduction of Women's Suffrage at the Cantonal Level. 1959: Vaud and Neuchâtel. 1960: Geneva. 1966: Basel-Stadt. 1968: Basel-Landschaft. 1969: Ticino. 1970: Valais, Lucerne, Zurich. 1971: Aargau, Fribourg, Schaffhausen and Zug.
  3. Feb 1971: National referendum passes 65.7% - 34.3%.
  4. The Appenzells only gave women the right to vote (cantonal) in 1989 and 1990.

I think asking why the Swiss referendum succeeded specifically in 1971 is a bit like asking why regarding gay marriage in the US, Obergefell v. Hodges "succeeded" specifically in 2015. Or why there was a crossover point in support for gay marriage in 2011:

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    Passing a popular referendum is a much higher bar than say passing a law (e.g. UK, 1918) or a constitutional amendment (e.g. US, 1920). Why would this be? The US doesn't have national-level referenda, but in any case it's extremely difficult to pass a constitutional amendment in the US. – Ben Crowell Jul 8 '17 at 16:39
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    Were it by referendum, it would probably have taken years more before French women had the right to vote That's debatable. I believe the national assembly (which roughly represent the population) voted four times to grant women the right to vote during the first half of the 20th century. It's the senate (less representative, dominated by rural areas) who blocked it. – Relaxed Jul 9 '17 at 6:45
  • @BenCrowell: It's true that US constitutional amendments are very difficult to pass. But I do believe a referendum to give US women the vote in 1920 wouldn't have passed (and indeed probably wouldn't have passed for several more decades). So in that sense, passing a popular referendum is a much higher bar than passing a constitutional amendment (at least for the narrow issue of women's suffrage, not necessarily for other issues). – Kenny LJ Jul 9 '17 at 11:20
  • @Ben Crowell. Put simply, you need to persuade fewer people of the merits of change. Electorates are inherently (small c) conservative and suspicious of change. However smaller groups can see the benefit of change, especially if, for example, the group in power believes it will be adding millions of voters likely to express its gratitude at the ballot box. The 'man in the street' has little to gain by extending the vote and voting for change to the status quo. The man in the senate of parliament has plenty to gain. – fred2 Jul 11 '17 at 14:24
  • @Ben Crowell As KennyLJ said ... constitutional amendments to the federal constitution are extremely hard. But perhaps unique circumstances in the case of women's suffrage enabled the change to happen 'faster' than might be expected. State constitutions are changed much more easily. Women were already voting at a state level, and the congressmen from those states found themselves in a situation where supporting the extension of women's suffrage would help them in state politics. By 1920, only a handful of states prevented women from voting in any election - so the precedent was well set. – fred2 Jul 11 '17 at 14:36
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Well the "Reason" to this was the Swiss vote system. To make a change in the Swiss constitution, a "vote initiative" has to be submitted. If the prospective vote initiative fulfills some conditions and other things, it gets to be an initiative. This initiative goes out and then the people which are allow can vote about it. They can accept or decline it. If they accept the changes will be made, if not, they won't be made.

Until 7 Feb. 1971, only Swiss men could vote about such an initiative. So simply the Swiss men were the reason why women couldn't vote in Switzerland until 1971.

Before the vote in 1971 it was likely that the vote could end in a NO, so the opponent's of this initiative tried to stop it. Very successfully as we know today. But in 1971 it was more likely that the initiative would be accepted, so the opponent's stepped back from fighting against it (so that they wouldn't lose potential voters).

Due to this, the initiative was accepted more easily, but please be aware this was for the "country" level. The catons Appenzell Ausserrhoden, Appenzell Innerrhoden, Glarus, Obwalden, Schwyz, St. Gallen, Thurgau, Uri still declined to grant woman the right to vote in their Cantons.

If you can read German/Italian/French there is a official overview about the fight for woman rights in Switzerland here: https://www.ch.ch/de/wahlen2015/zum-50-mal/warum-konnten-die-frauen-in-der-schweiz-erst-ab-1971-abstimm/

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    He's got a point though. This doesn't look to be more tortuous a path to change than the US constitutional amendment process, but the US did exactly that 90 years earlier. Of course in the US this was perhaps speeded up a bit by Alcohol politics. – T.E.D. Jul 7 '16 at 15:38
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    More 'old fashioned' than every other western democracy on the planet? If so, why? – Ask About Monica Jan 6 '17 at 23:25
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    Switzerland was a long time just a small country in Europe, with a huge part from the population as farmers. The bigger city's weren't as important as they are today and Switzerland was "just" important to travel through. This would be a reason why a lot people though a bit old fashioned. – Anetair Jan 12 '17 at 14:46
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    Both I and my professional historian girlfriend are not convinced that this answers the question. Granted, there are structural obstacles to constitutional reform. But the question asks why Switzerland granted the vote in 1971. Why not 1917, or 1997? What changed in 1970 ? – Mark C. Wallace Jul 8 '17 at 23:28
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    @Mark C. Wallace It was shortly after the may 1968 events in Paris, which had a dramatic cultural impact. – Bregalad Jul 9 '17 at 14:49

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