Curiously Krulwich

Non! Nein! No! A Country That Wouldn’t Let Women Vote Till 1971

When Swiss women asked for the right to vote, Swiss men said no. And they kept saying no—in some areas till the 1990s. What's up with that?

I’m thinking of Hillary, all in white, in her “suffragette” suit at the Democratic National Convention.

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A hundred years earlier that’s how women seeking the vote dressed—all in white, with white hats too.

White, as we know, is the “color” that includes all colors. With a prism, you learn that white light combines every hue in the rainbow, so what the suffragette suit suggests is that politics should be all embracing too: Every adult, women included, should be able to vote, run for office, be president. That feels right. Democracy seems, inevitably, to invite everybody in.

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But that’s wrong. Democracy can go the other way. It can exclude. It does. And it has. In—of all places—Switzerland!

Women in Switzerland didn’t get the vote until 1971. The men of Switzerland, over and over, exercised their democratic right to deny voting rights to their mothers, daughters, and sisters. They had time to change their minds. Switzerland is one of the oldest democracies in the world. Swiss adult males began gathering in town squares for public balloting in 1291.

To this day, to amend the national constitution, the entire nation must vote. Democracy in Switzerland is direct—and bottom up. Constitutional rights aren’t changed by legislators; change requires national referendums. Since the 1880s Swiss women, in growing numbers, had asked the voters—meaning men—to give them the vote. And the men kept saying no, which, in a direct democracy, is their right. Democracy and progress aren’t always friends.

How Much Longer?

In 1928, the year British women got full voting rights, Swiss activists staged a parade in the city of Bern, rolling a giant model snail down the street, as if to say, How long do we have to wait?

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They didn’t get a national vote until 1959. Opponents (including a few female organizations) campaigned against the “yes” vote, arguing that the role of women was to stay at home and raise children. One poster from the campaign shows a forlorn pacifier, abandoned and being soiled by a housefly. It’s slogan reads, “Votes for Women: NO.”

… And the “nos” won—handily. The vote was 67 percent to 31 percent.

One of Switzerland’s French-speaking cantons (similar to states) did grant women the vote—but only on a local basis.

In the ‘60s Switzerland was invited to sign the European Convention on Human Rights, but the nation’s leaders asked for an exemption. They said they would not extend the vote to Swiss women. So in a decade where students were marching, turning the world upside down, Switzerland stayed, determinedly, on a different path until—after another, more insistent petition drive—the country had a second vote. The proposition was the same: Should we invite women to vote in national elections?

And on February 7, 1971, the vote flipped: 66 percent in favor, 34 percent against. An almost total reversal.

What Happened?

Why the change? Here’s a country, highly industrialized, highly educated, in the heart of Europe, and surrounded by states that had years before granted women the vote. Maybe the difference became embarrassing? It’s hard to say. It is odd, though, that one of the oldest direct democracies in Europe protected the status quo the longest. And Switzerland’s local governments didn’t all get into line. One canton, Appenzell Ausserrhoden, wouldn’t give its women local voting rights until 1989.

Its neighbor, Appenzell Innerrhoden, voted against women’s suffrage in 1973, 1982, and again in 1990. This nook of Switzerland is a very conservative place. Kathryn Schulz, in her book Being Wrong, writes:

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.

Finally, in 1990, the Swiss Supreme Court forced every canton to comply with a federal Equal Rights Amendment that was then on the books.

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The Swiss move very slowly. That’s their way. For centuries, husbands had legal authority over their wives’ savings. “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,” a woman told London’s Independent. She was furious. But that was the law. It wasn’t changed until a national referendum in 1985, and the vote that time was a squeaker: a 4 percent plurality.

As we’ve seen recently in Gaza, in Israel, in Turkey, voters will do what voters will do, and it isn’t always pretty. Democracy has no inherent direction, forward or back. It just mirrors its people. And in democracies (including here in America) people will go as they please, at a pace that is often puzzling. When nations introduce voting rights, Schulz reports, men usually get the vote first. Women have to wait, on average, for 47 years to catch up.

In Switzerland, men started voting in 1291. They created a modern constitution in 1848. By one measure, women had to wait 143 years to get the vote. By another, the men didn’t change their minds for, well, almost seven centuries.

That’s democracy for you.

Robert Krulwich is cohost of Radiolab, WNYC's Peabody Award–winning program about "big ideas" and now one of public radio’s most popular shows. It is carried on more than 500 radio stations, and its podcasts are downloaded over five million times each month. In Curiously Krulwich, Robert looks for "the little things that catch my eye—that when I lean in, get bigger, richer, and much more compelling." You can see more of his work at and follow him on Twitter @rkrulwich.

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