From women’s strikes to referendums, the road to equality, the Swiss way
By Agathe Seppey, Le Temps
The late adoption of women’s suffrage. A strike in 1991 that surprised everyone. Dozens of referendums*. Failures, then results. In Switzerland, the battles for equality have been long and drawn out. Along this tumultuous road, what ended up making a difference? What ended up changing the laws? Are there any Switzerland-specific takeaways? As we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, Le Temps reached out to Brigitte Studer for her expertise. From joining the ranks of the Women’s Liberation Movement at the age of 17, to co-founding the Centre for Gender Studies at the University of Bern, the professor emeritus of history is internationally recognised for her expertise on women’s issues.
Le Temps: In 1971, after 90 referendums, women gained the right to vote in Switzerland. This was one of the first major milestones in women’s rights in the country. How did feminist movements get started and gain visibility prior to that date?
Brigitte Studer: Modern feminism began with the French Revolution and Olympe de Gouges, who, in 1791, introduced a plan for a democracy that included women. In Switzerland the following century, when the Federal Constitution came into effect in 1848, women were deliberately denied political rights. Throughout the 19th century, however, women voiced their concerns. These women were fairly bourgeois and aristocratic. Among them was Julie von May, a woman from Bern who founded the Association pour la défense des droits de la femme (Association for the Defense of Women’s Rights). There were also workers, members of the First International, anarchists and Marxists campaigning for equal pay. In 1968 in Geneva, Marie Goegg-Pouchoulin created the first feminist organization in Switzerland – l’Association internationale des femmes (International Association of Women)– and the Journal des femmes, which later became Solidarités. So, there were a few fairly isolated and elite personalities and movements, but they were present and coming from both the top and bottom.
Did Swiss female activists take a different approach than their counterparts in other European countries?
Just prior to achieving women’s suffrage, a uniquely Swiss situation did emerge. Two generations of women came together simultaneously to fight for women’s rights: suffragist feminists and those from the new feminist movement “of ‘68.” The latter – led by the Women’s Liberation Movement – was very diverse and possessed a certain political radicalism as its common matrix. It used a new method of protest that involved street occupations, sit-ins and provocative actions.
After 1968, the women’s movement and political institutions started connecting. We also observed a certain porosity begin to take shape between feminist activists and more traditional women’s associations. There was competition and collaboration. The radical feminism of the late ‘60s quickly became institutionally involved with popular initiatives, which is also specific to the country.
Was the mobilization of Switzerland’s female activists inspired by the country’s neighbors? Did it spread abroad?
In both movements, the exchange of ideas and the interactions were transnational. The momentum of the international suffragist movement inspired the creation of the Swiss association in 1909. Before the First World War, foreign suffragists even thought that Swiss democracy would be easy to reform since universal male suffrage was already in place! Of course, this vision of Switzerland quickly changed. When the government finally approved the vote in 1971, it did so partly to improve the country’s international image. The feminist movement of ‘68 was inspired enormously by the American, German, French and Italian movements, and often through personal contacts. For example, thanks to a woman from Zurich, the first feminist group was created in Austria.
What caused the national women’s strike to “take off” in 1991 and mobilize 500,000 Swiss women, when going on strike is so un-Swiss?
The fact that going on strike is “not very Swiss” is a national myth. It’s historically inaccurate, but that’s another topic. In 1991, it had been ten years since the constitutional article for equal rights had been introduced, yet no laws had been enacted to implement it. Women were feeling dejected and angry. The strike started with workers in the watch industry, a mainstay of the Swiss economy with high added value, but also with high symbolic value when it comes to Swiss identity. The unions supported the workers’ demands and a movement began at a time when feminism had also spread in society. Something that had been simmering came to a full boil, surprising the organizers, the press and everybody else. In the end, the effects of the strike were indirect and mainly institutional. I think without it, the Equality Act wouldn’t exist, or at least not until later on.
Overall, what were the most effective tools during these struggles?
It’s always difficult to designate a certain political action as the holy grail. Before achieving women’s suffrage, suffragists used a wide repertoire of actions to attract political attention while respecting societal norms, institutional rules and the codes of femininity. But the bubble burst in 1969 when the first national demonstration took place for women’s right to vote. That day, women took to the streets and became a political force. They showed that they were capable of exerting pressure. Some even began to see them as a threat. In Switzerland, the combination of local and national activism with direct democracy can be very effective.
How has criticism of feminism changed over time in Switzerland?
Opposition to equality has usually come from right-wing groups or parties, particularly from conservative Christian circles. In 1919, on the sidelines of the first referendum linked to women’s suffrage, countermovements began to appear. At the helm of these movements were right-wing women who demanded that the traditional social order be preserved. In fact, at every key moment in the history of women’s rights, small groups typically consisting of middle-class, affluent, university-educated, married women advocated for things that they themselves did not experience. They refused to integrate women into politics when they themselves were campaigning, lecturing and writing articles, supported by conservative male politicians who, for much of history, constituted the majority of voters.
What is the opposition focusing on nowadays?
Overall, I would say that anti-feminist voices have become louder today. Current conflicts center on the control of women’s bodies. There have been successful attempts, for example in the United States, to turn back the clock on the issue of abortion. A confluence between various types of hatred and rejection have opened a new battlefield.
Traditional anti-feminism is back, and “LGBTQIA+ phobias”, as well as racism, are gaining momentum, supported by extreme right-wing or evangelical religious movements – in the United States especially, with regard to the latter. There are also small but present online movements that combine political anti-feminism and hatred of women, like the openly misogynistic incel, or “involuntary celibate,” phenomenon. But as a historian, what worries me is the fact that traditional political organizations, like the Swiss People’s Party, are serving as relays for “anti-wokism.” I think that in these times of inflation and war, it’s not really the Swiss population’s major concern. But in politics, ethics are even less of a concern when it comes to finding ways to win votes. They make it a campaign issue to awaken old demons.
Some warn of an opposite effect: The omnipresence of gender issues in politics and in the media might create a sense of frustration that could bolster the extreme right. Is this risk real or imagined?
I think that staying quiet and becoming invisible is never a solution because it takes away the political strength of feminism if we stop talking about it. #MeToo was a trigger for speaking up, which is fundamental in all social movements, because it allows for the expression of important feelings and experiences. They become visible, public and a part of the conversation. To pretend that feminism doesn’t exist out of fear that it favors the extreme right would be the worst thing we could do. Inequalities between men and women still exist. LGBTQ and racial discriminations still exist. Obviously, it can create countermovements, but to be silent is to accept the status quo or even risk going backwards.
* In Switzerland, the population is regularly called upon to vote on issues such as constitutional amendments or legislative changes. The voting (called votation) can be organized at the federal (national), cantonal (26 cantons make up the Confederation) or municipal levels. Government officials are required to implement the result of the vote.