… Women in Switzerland didn’t get the vote until 1971. The men of Switzerland, over and over, exercised their democratic right to deny voting rights to their mothers, daughters, and sisters. They had time to change their minds. Switzerland is one of the oldest democracies in the world. Swiss adult males began gathering in town squares for public balloting in 1291. To this day, to amend the national constitution, the entire nation must vote. Democracy in Switzerland is direct—and bottom up. Constitutional rights aren’t changed by legislators; change requires national referendums. Since the 1880s Swiss women, in growing numbers, had asked the voters—meaning men—to give them the vote. And the men kept saying no, which, in a direct democracy, is their right. Democracy and progress aren’t always friends.
… The Swiss move very slowly. That’s their way. For centuries, husbands had legal authority over their wives’ savings. “In the 1970s, I had a bank account in my son’s name. I tried to go and buy something, and they told me I needed the signature of my man,” a woman told London’s Independent. She was furious. But that was the law. It wasn’t changed until a national referendum in 1985, and the vote that time was a squeaker: a 4 percent plurality.
As we’ve seen recently in Gaza, in Israel, in Turkey, voters will do what voters will do, and it isn’t always pretty. Democracy has no inherent direction, forward or back. It just mirrors its people. And in democracies (including here in America) people will go as they please, at a pace that is often puzzling. When nations introduce voting rights, Schulz reports, men usually get the vote first. Women have to wait, on average, for 47 years to catch up.
In Switzerland, men started voting in 1291. They created a modern constitution in 1848. By one measure, women had to wait 143 years to get the vote. By another, the men didn’t change their minds for, well, almost seven centuries. That’s democracy for you.