Swiss women have only very recently been able to employ the principle of equality as a politically significant instrument in their struggles, even though this principle was first enshrined in the Swiss Constitution in 1798. At that time, Napoleon's invasion led to the Helvetic Confederation's acquiring a new constitution modeled on the French Revolutionary Constitution. The principle of equality thus became a main feature of the Constitution and an integral part of Swiss legal tradition. The early appreciation of the principle was associated mainly with equal political rights rather than with equality in all relevant legal aspects of society. 1 Furthermore, it was not held to apply to women.
The present Swiss Constitution came into force in 1874 but did not introduce political rights for women until 1971.
Progressive political forces have since the late nineteenth century been engaged in a continuous battle to enfranchise women. The "Bund Schweizer Frauenvereine" ( Federation of Swiss Women's Associations, founded in 1900) and the "Schweizer Verband für das Frauenwahlrecht" ( Swiss Association for Women's Suffrage, founded in 1909) were the first to work towards this goal. Various attempts to enfranchise women, one as early as 1918, failed. In 1959 the Federal Assembly proposed a revision of the Constitution which would guarantee political rights for women. The popular referendum of men on February 1, 1959, rejected this proposed change by a 655,000 to 324,000 majority. Women had suffered an outright defeat. However, there was some hope. In the same referendum, one canton -- Waadt -- had voted in favor of political rights for women at the canton level. The cantons Neuenburg and Geneva followed this example in fall 1959 and spring 1960, respectively. 2
Two events helped the women activists to gain momentum and inspiration.
1. In 1965 the U.N. and its specialized agencies sponsored a support program for women. By referring to the special U.N.E.S.C.O. women's program, women successfully demanded that the Swiss commission in U.N.E.S.C.O. should set up a working group to study the position of women in Switzerland. This project eventually received the approval of the Federal Council.
2. In the late 1960s, Switzerland signed the European Convention on Human Rights, but with a reservation concerning the enfranchisement which made manifest a very long-lived injustice. Pressure brought upon the Federal Council forced the latter once more to pay attention to the question of the women's vote. After increased political activity and large women's demonstration in Bern in 1969, women finally obtained the vote in 1971.