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What were the legal rights of women in Switzerland in 1900-1905? Did women have the right to own property such as jewelry? Did items of value belong to her father if she was under the age of 24? Did they belong to her husband if she was married?

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This is a little complicated as women’s rights depended on age and / or marital status and / or canton. It would also have depended on the individual husband , guardian or father.

Generally speaking, for the specified period 1900 – 1905, married women and women yet to achieve majority (until 1912 this was 20 or 21 years of age, depending on canton) were under the legal control of the husband or a male guardian.

Referring to the period from around the mid-19th century up to 1912, Leo Schelbert’s Historical Dictionary of Switzerland states:

The husband was explicitly declared the legal head of the family, and women’s property, inheritance, and economic gains were incorporated into family ownership under the control of a husband or male guardian. A wife could pursue gainful employment only with a husband’s consent or acquiescence, and in case of a disagreement concerning an issue, the male will was to prevail. Although a woman could represent the family before the law, a husband could rescind that right. In cantons such as Bern, a woman was totally deprived of her legal capacity for disposing of property...

Another section, referring to wives, says:

Economically they were mainly dependent on the income of the husband, who as provider was legally the head of the family, controlled finances and property, and was empowered to make decisions in all matters.

While ‘property’ above is not defined, the statements in case of a disagreement concerning an issue, the male will was to prevail and was empowered to make decisions in all matters suggest that what a woman could or could not do with her possessions depended on the husband. This would also have applied to a woman yet to reach the age of majority as she was part of a family of which her father was legally head. Undoubtedly, some husbands / fathers would have been more liberal minded than others (for example, some women attended university, joined commercial associations etc.) so it would be wrong to assume that no woman could dispose of any of her property.

For unmarried women of age and widows, the above did not apply for 1900-1905 as the institution whereby a male guardian was appointed when there was no husband had been abolished by federal law in 1884.


For the record: the Swiss civil code introduced in 1912 allowed married women to keep their earnings and control their savings, although this was opposed by the German cantons. The code states:

By force of statute the following are separate property: — (l) Objects which serve one of the spouses for personal use exclusively. (2) Property belonging to the wife with which Sch. 412, 10. B. G. B. 1362. Comp. Ger. C. Genl. Cora, of Goods, Sch. § 417. B. G. B. 1846, etc. the wife pursues an occupation or profession. (3) The wife's earnings from her independent labor.

Presumably jewelry would fall under 'for personal use exclusively' and would thus be hers to use / dispose of as she saw fit.

Women in Switzerland were not granted full equal rights in matrimonial law until 1988 (after a 1985 referendum), although there had been minor changes made to the laws of 19th and early 20th centuries.

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