Friday, December 14, 2012

Women's Suffrage - More Recent Than You Think

Being a history teacher, my head is filled with all kinds of useless knowledge.  A couple days ago, my fellow teachers and I were having a talk after school, when the subject of suffrage came up.  I mentioned that Switzerland was one of the last countries to grant women the vote and said that I thought it was 1976.  Samantha said it was 1971 and looked it up.  She was right and I was wrong.

Even though I already had this fuzzy fact in my head (picturing suffragettes as older ladies with large hats and ankle length dresses in our country), I knew Switzerland was late to the game.  After reading a little bit last night, I was even more surprised to uncover a few additional facts.

Two Swiss Anti-Suffrage Posters from the late 1950s
(left translation, "The mother works in politics! NO women's suffrage & voting)
(right translation, "Do you want those women? No women voting")

Although Switzerland held several national votes to grant women's suffrage, each was denied until 1971, but Switzerland is a confederation so each canton could grant suffrage and the first women voted at the local level in 1959.  At the time of the 1971 vote, the majority of cantons still denied votes to women.  Since that time, all but one had approved votes for women until 1990.  Appenzell Innerrhoden was the lone holdout, rejecting it in 1973, 1982, and 1990.  Following the 1990 vote, the Swiss Federal Supreme Court forced the canton to allow it, thereby making Switzerland the last country in Europe to allow full suffrage at all levels for women (the last to allow it nationally was tiny Lichtenstein in 1984).

So how could this small Swiss canton continue to reject votes for women despite overwhelming external pressure to adopt universal suffrage?  My guess is that it was the massive internal pressure to keep things the way they were.

Most of the worst case scenarios presented by the anti-sufferage movement had typically centered around the notion that if women were to get involved in politics, they would abandon domestic life or somehow reverse the social order and fall under the rule of domineering Amazonians.

Poor chap, he had it so good until his wife was able to cast a ballot!

Can't blame them, politics takes so much time, I'd abandon my children too!

Just like women, let them vote and then they want to put out fires!

Getting back to Appenzell Innerrhoden, the curious thing I discovered was that many Swiss cantons practice a rather unique forms of direct democracy – particularly so in Appenzell Innerrhoden, where they still hold something called Landsgemeinde, an open-air election assembly.  Each year on the last Sunday in April, all eligible voters gather in the village square for a cantonal assembly.

Landsgemeinde in Appenzell Innerrhoden

The Sunday morning begins with a church service followed by a parade at noontime to the village square.

Landsgemeinde Parade

Elected officials and members of the court wear their black robes and take their places on the platform in front of the assembly.  To gain admittance to the assembly, in the roped off center of the square, citizens must present their voters card (until 1991, when women first voted a family sword or bayonet was used as identification and men are still allowed to use this in place of a voting card).  After electing cantonal officials, anyone in the assembly is allowed to discuss any bill or make proposals and votes are conducted with a raising of the hand.

I think more than anything else, this public display of your voting was what kept women's suffrage from passing earlier.  With only men voting and looking around to see who would grant women the right to join them was probably too much pressure for some of these traditional men.

There may have also been a bit of the natural tendency for some of them to think about women who they didn't believe were thoughtful enough to vote.  I was surprised to learn, while listening to a radio show, that the early female British archaeologist and explorer, Gertrude Bell, was an anti-suffragist.  She believed that while she may have been intelligent enough to vote, the majority of her gender were not yet ready.  I must admit, sometimes I feel that way today, but about both genders.

Well, thanks for reading.  If you ask me, I believe that women in Switzerland would have gotten the vote far earlier if they had campaigned more like this:


recumbent conspiracy theorist said...

Well done Nate! Interesting as always. I had no idea about the Swiss and womans voting rights.

That last poster is great.

Anonymous said...

The Swiss also recently banned the building of Mosque Minarets, so I guess they are a bit on the conservative side of things. Which reminds me of a famous saying by Orson Welles: "In Switzerland, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

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