Opinions - 05.02.2021 - 00:00 

50 years of women’s suffrage in Switzerland

Fifty years ago, Swiss women were given the vote. This was preceded by a decades-long, emotional referendum campaign. The emotionalisation of political issues and the stoking of fears of structural changes – such as the introduction of women’s suffrage – usually culminate in the message “The world will end if we change this”. However, history shows that this is rarely the case. So, why do we still have such a hard time with change? By Gudrun Sander.

5 February 2021. Empress Maria Theresa introduced compulsory education in her monarchy in 1774. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act abolished racial segregation in the USA. And finally, in 1971, Swiss women were granted the long-awaited right to vote. Numerous other examples could be listed here, all of which were preceded by decades of emotional debate. The posters used by the opponents – both male and female – of women’s suffrage in Switzerland bear witness to this.

Voting poster with the no-parole for the introduction of women's voting rights, designed by Otto Baumberger. The 1920 poster was used in the cantons of Basel-Stadt and Zurich.
Campaign poster with the slogan “Nein” (No) against the introduction of women's suffrage, designed by Otto Baumberger. The poster from 1920 was used in the cantons of Basel-Stadt and Zurich.

Women aren’t just women

The fear that women would become furies (see poster) if allowed to vote or that Switzerland would become communist; the fear that companies would go bankrupt if the female quota on executive or management boards is implemented, etc. – all this was and is unfounded because women are as heterogeneous as men. Women aren’t just women They can also belong to other groups at the same time, such as parents, executives, people of colour, the LGBTI+ community, certain religious groups or cultural circles, educational and income strata, etc. We refer to this as intersectionality. Women’s suffrage did not bring about the “end of the world”, nor will individual taxation or universal childcare structures.

Losing privileges hurts

So, why do we have such a hard time with such structural changes as giving the vote to women, or in future perhaps even foreigners? Essentially, it is always a question of power and privilege. On the one hand, the introduction of rights, quota regulations, etc. formally gives previously excluded groups access to decision-making. This gives them more power and influence. On the other hand, those who previously decided alone have to share power and give up privileges. This is unsettling, frightening and raises questions: What will happens if we cannot decide as we used to? What if others want to have a say and assert their interests? Sharing power invariably involves risks and requires the confidence that joint discourse involving a wide range of perspectives and a joint, fair negotiation process will ultimately lead to more sustainable decisions and solutions for the future. Emotionalised images do not help to inspire confidence, but facts do.

Change begins in the mind, but then needs structures to solidify it

Laws always lag behind reality. The real adventures begin in the mind. We have to be able to imagine that women are capable of being good policy-makers, successful executives and top researchers. And we have to be able to imagine that men can raise children wonderfully, want to take care of their parents and find fulfilment as nurses. But that alone is not enough.

It makes a difference whether I have a right to something or whether I am dependent on the goodwill of individuals to develop my potential: Do I have to ask my husband for permission to work (as was still the case in Swiss matrimonial law until the end of 1987!) or do I have the right to work? It also makes a difference how difficult it is made for me to live my life as I want to. This is regarded as “institutional doing gender” and refers to structures and institutions such as childcare subsidies, the school system or income taxation, which are still based on old role models and make it very difficult to implement partnership-based life models, for example.

Courage to change faster

Therefore, further structural changes are urgently needed to reflect the reality that is already being lived. To cite just a few facts, more than three quarters of mothers in Switzerland are employed, more than a quarter of the household income of couples with children is contributed by women in all social strata, and more women than men now have a university degree. These facts – and not emotionalised images – should determine how we build our systems, institutions and structures, i.e. schools, childcare, tax system, pension funds and social security, etc. The current pandemic shows us just how quickly we are able to implement changes. Just as compulsory education and the vote for women soon became “normal”, fathers looking after their children, women in top management and partnership-based life models will also become “normal” once the structures have been changed. Let us have the courage to do so more quickly. This is the only way we will be able to master the challenges of the future together.

Gudrun Sander is associate professor of business administration with a special focus on diversity management and director of the Competence Centre for Diversity and Inclusion CCDI at the Research Institute for International Management FIM-HSG.

Image: Adobe Stock / sezerozger

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