The 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage in Switzerland on 7 February hardly presents a cause for international celebration, as most other countries were decades ahead of the Swiss. But Switzerland was the first country where women were granted the vote in a referendum and where the ruling majority – men – freely curtailed their power after a lengthy democratic process.

Ultimately, the adoption of female suffrage is historically the most significant achievement of direct democracy over the past 100 years, as it doubled the electoral base at a stroke

Potential yet to be tapped

Where do we stand today? Of course (and fortunately) the fears of the opponents of women’s suffrage have come true:  Swiss women no longer regard the kitchen and home as their only domains, and their political say is now a matter of course across society. Female representation in the lower house of parliament currently stands at an impressive 42 percent.

It was all about freedom: campaigning for women's suffrage at Stadelhoferplatz in Zurich,

It was all about freedom: campaigning for women’s suffrage at Stadelhoferplatz in Zurich (ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Bildarchiv / Wolfgang Lindroos)

In the workplace too, women have expanded their influence – though much less. Even though 78.4 percent now pursue a professional activity, women’s full-time equivalent employment rate of 58.5 percent is far below the 85.1 percent of men. Gender diversity, according to the Schilling Report, remains a generational project: with women making up 10 percent of management boards and 23 percent of boards of directors of the 100 largest companies, Switzerland still has a lot of catching up to do, even by European standards.

Many obstacles still lie ahead

How should we continue? The figures have prompted calls for quotas to speed up the process of gender equality. From a liberal perspective, however, this is the wrong way to go, because new inequalities would be created.

Much more productive for gender equality in the labor market would be to lift the various legal barriers to secondary earners – predominantly women – taking on more work. Joint income tax assessment, for example, perpetuates old role models, because the income of secondary earners is taxed at a significantly higher marginal rate, and an increased workload can lead to lower net income. Individual taxation would significantly improve the incentive to work.

There are also outdated provisions in the pension system. The so-called “coordination deduction” of 25,095 Swiss francs in the second pillar (of the three pillar Swiss system) causes savings contributions to decrease overproportionally for those on low salaries. Equally, it is difficult to understand why widows are entitled to a pension, even after their children have reached the age of majority, while widowed men are only entitled to one as long as they have school-age offspring.

Other measures must be aimed at improving the compatibility of family and career, such as childcare facilities, day schools and more flexible working hours.

Freedom is the key

Discussion about gender equality risks focusing too much on materialistic matters. The early activists for women’s suffrage were fighting for much more: their freedom and the right to democratic co-determination. Above all, they wanted to be able to determine life for themselves, with the same opportunities for self development as for men. The focus was on diversity of opportunity. Even though, the fundamental motives of the early feminists probably differed only slightly from those who today take to the streets in many countries demanding freedom, feminists were for a long time rewarded for their efforts only with social ostracism.

When gender equality is considered in terms of freedom, the necessary measures become crystal clear: women and men deserve the same rights and obligations, not more, but not one iota less.

Trailblazers of modern Switzerland

In Swiss history, many women fought for their freedom long before the introduction of the right to vote, and they did so in the most diverse areas of society. In 2014, Avenir Suisse portrayed numerous women in the book “Wegbereiterinnen der modernen Schweiz” (“ Trailblazers of modern Switzerland”), depicting pioneers who broke ground for future generations with their determination and single-mindedness.