When we talk about democracy, in most cases we do not think about the fact that eleven decades ago — in the year 1911 — in most countries in the so-called advanced world, women could not vote. However, South Australia and New Zealand pioneered the way for women suffrage. In 1861, property-owning women were allowed to vote in South Australia. And in 1893, New Zealand allowed women to vote. Today, New Zealand has one of the most admired female prime ministers on the globe. A German magazine called Jacinda Ardern the best politician in the world — indeed, she is Die Beste!
Perhaps the most significant push towards female suffrage came in 1917 and 1918 in the wake of revolutions — failed and otherwise — in Europe. During the 1920s, many countries followed the pathway towards female suffrage. Backward Switzerland only followed in 1971. Eventually, what the National Geographic called the Non! Nein! No! was overcome. After a successful referendum, on 7th February 1971, women’s suffrage in Switzerland was formalised on 16th March 1971, making it a full democracy.
Today, Switzerland is “celebrating” its rather late achievement, which is really an achievement for Swiss women. In the wake of the 50th anniversary, a recent study by the Swiss pollster GfS-Bern found the following ten aspects that changed during the last fifty years of female voting in Switzerland:
- Overall, women’s vote supports more progressive causes compared to men.
- The assumption that women are agreeable “yeah-sayer” remains nonsense.
- In many cases, female voting didn’t significantly change Swiss politics.
- Women are more successful when it comes to being voting into office.
- Men are still more likely to vote than women.
- Increasingly, young women are more able to influence Swiss policies.
- Switzerland’s “year of women voting” in 2019 will have long-term benefits.
- Political public relations is increasingly targeting female voters.
- Women vote differently when it comes to family issues and social equality.
- In many policy areas, there are no noticeable gender differences.
When Swiss women eventually overcame male stupidity gaining the right to vote in 1971, Switzerland’s bourgeois class, conservatives and outright reactionaries were terrified of women. They thought women would trigger a massive leftward movement in politics. Unfortunately, this wasn’t to be. In the early 1970s, Switzerland’s social-democratic SP party placed great hopes in Swiss women, including women’s suffrage. It had placed female suffrage in its party programme very early.
Forty-four years later, women voted for progressive and environmental parties like their male counterparts. Yet, there are differences which are somewhat difficult to pin down on a classic progressive-to-conservative axis. Instead, one might argue women tend to vote more post-materialist — Swiss women’s political socialisation leads into the direction of pro-environmental policies. At the same time, Swiss women offer a distinct criticism of a blind techno-belief, i.e. the misconception that there are technical solutions for everything. It is a critique in the male belief that American technology philosopher Lewis Mumford once called The Myth of the Machine. At the same time, issues such as peace and material security have moved into the background.
The first vote in which women played a decisive role in positioning their vote against men took place in 1985. The issue was marriage. Fifty-six per cent of Swiss women wanted cohabiting partners to be treated equally to those married. Since then, female support for progressive causes has occurred continually. Overall, women have achieved a pro-women outcome eleven times since being able to vote.
In the meantime, another victory for women can be added. In the vote on the new hunting act, which took place last year, women supported a pro-animal cause. The gender difference was a whopping 10%. Fifty-three per cent of men accepted the proposal to increase animal hunting. But only 43% of the women voted ‘yes’. What many Swiss newspapers labelled as a ‘misconceived proposal’ to kill even more animals failed. Unfortunately on the very same day, men narrowly prevailed on the issue to buy a fighter jet. Switzerland is well-armed to defend itself against an enemy that does not exist.
In recent years, however, voter turnout has been very similar. However, there are slightly more women entitled to vote than men. This is because older women were less politically involved than their husbands while older men see voting as their civic duty. That was the case until last year. By November 2020, opinion research found that women had gained political weight. Female voter turnout had reached 49% as men stagnated at 45%.
Interestingly, young women between 18 and 39 years of age were the main reason for this difference. Today, 56% of young women walk to the ballot box compared to just 32% of men. This compensated for the traditionally weaker participation of women over 65 years of age. In short, Generation Z makes the most significant difference.
Young women participate exceptionally well in elections. The fact that young women are more politically active than older women will have a long-term impact on Swiss politics. If female participation constitutes to rise, young women could very well be the deciding factor in the coming years in Swiss politics.
In Switzerland’s 2019 national elections, women gained a massive twenty seats in the Swiss 200-seat parliament called große Kammer. It marked a substantial increase. Female participation in the große Kammer jumped enormously from 32% to 42%. It came as part of a run-up to the so-called Women’s Strike, large scale rallies demanding equality that occurred throughout Switzerland in June 2019. Today, the proportion of women in Switzerland’s parliament exceeded 40% for the first time.
After the elections, there was talk of a progressive landslide. Yet, a women’s landslide is perhaps a better term. The campaign Helvetia is Calling issued by an alliance of women. The campaign was a stunning success enhancing women’s right in Switzerland. This success is now shifting towards Switzerland’s all-important cantons – its individual states.
In more conservative regional canton parliaments, women have traditionally been even more underrepresented during the past fifty years. Since the national election in 2019, there have been various women’s elections. This was most noticeable in Switzerland’s capital, Bern. In Bern, 55 women now hold seats on the city council while men take up 25 seats. In Bern, older men were removed from electoral political party lists on a large scale and were replaced by women.
This confirms the impression many votes have. Young women have become more politicised than they had been only a few years ago. Today, women are committed to ensuring that they are at least as well represented in legislative and executive bodies than men. On family and gender issues, the gender difference in voting remains significant. Basically, women are more progressive. Especially since the year 2005, it has become clear that women stand for a modern family policy – more than men. However, this does not mean that Switzerland always gets a modern family policy.
Interestingly, a resolution which allows the termination of pregnancy until the 12th week found a majority in both sexes. Overall, however, significantly fewer women than men agreed to the proposal. Women were also stricter when it came to introducing maternity leave with 52% of women supporting it, while 61% of men did so. The difference can be explained by the voting pattern of older and more conservative women.
The reverse happened on the issue of paternity leave for young fathers – Papi-Time as the Swiss calls it. More women supported this compared to men. Even older women backed the idea that young fathers should have access to paternity leave. Yet, older men were critical of this plan and only narrowly supported the idea of paternal leave.
In many other policy areas, gender differences are hardly detectable. Yet, Austerity, for example, is less acceptable to women than to men. Women also reject the so-called debt brake. In other words, women — more strongly than man — support state borrowing. Furthermore, women powerfully support Switzerland’s public service. Finally, Swiss women also rejected the privatisation of Switzerland’s electricity system.
Swiss women also opted convincingly for postal services to be viewed as a public good, not a money-making entity. On rejecting privatisation, women were the deciding factor. Beyond that, women are also stronger in their support for protecting the disadvantaged. Far fewer women than men support a repressive asylum policy. Yet, in many other cases, gender differences were less significant over the years. This, for example, applies to foreign policy where the voting behaviour of Swiss people hardly differs at all.
Overall, women’s long road towards full suffrage that culminated in braking male barriers fifty years ago has resulted in tremendous social advancement in many policy areas. Perhaps because Swiss insularity, backwardness, and strong male chauvinism, it did take women a long time to become full citizens with full voting rights. One day, a Swiss woman may even replace Switzerland’s current conservative male chancellor. Even in Switzerland, this may be possible as we have seen in the USA with Kamala Harris and the world’s best prime minister, Jacinda Ardern.
Photo: (souce: The Barricade)
This article was originally published at Countercurrents on 2 February 2021.
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