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Indirect Influence? Women’s Representation in Switzerland Before and After Enfranchisement (1940-1980s)

Citizenship
Elections
Representation
Zoé Kergomard
University of Fribourg
Zoé Kergomard
University of Fribourg
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Abstract

Which impact does enfranchisement have over the representation of marginalized social groups and their interests? Just as for other historically disenfranchised constituencies, research on the political representation of women is often split between historical periods and, consequently, between disciplines. Following a linear understanding of democratization processes, enfranchisement is thereby often implicitly conceptualized as the end of a disenfranchised representation regime and then as the beginning of a new era marked by full universal suffrage. This understanding of enfranchisement makes it difficult to account for possible continuities in representation practices. This paper thus proposes to look at shifts, but also at continuities in the representation of Swiss women before and after their enfranchisement in 1971. In order to understand long-term evolutions of representation, the analysis will take both formal aspects of representation (institutions and voting rights) and its performative and symbolic dimensions in the perspective of the constructivist turn into account. The case of Switzerland is particularly interesting in this regard, and not only because the late date of female enfranchisement (1971 at the federal level) stands out in international comparison. In the nation-wide debate on female suffrage of the 1950-1960s, the defenders of the status quo legitimized female disenfranchisement by referring to a broader narrative of Swiss exceptionalism and in particular to an understanding of Swiss semi-direct and male-exclusive democracy as an unchangeable and incomparable system. In this idealized society of equal men, all supposed to be able to take an active part in politics (following the so-called militia system), representation was not a prominent concept. Yet it played a central role for Swiss politics in two regards, both linked to the prevalent political gender hierarchy. Firstly, representation provided the basis of the neo-corporatist system which was institutionalized after World War II. Interest groups played a central role in pre-parliamentary procedures as well as in direct-democratic votes, and drew their legitimacy from the representative claims they directed at their affiliated socio-economic groups. Although they were disenfranchised, women were also supposed to be represented in these processes via their diverse umbrella organizations. Secondly, representation was also invoked to legitimize women’s exclusion from voting rights: women were said to already have enough influence at home and consequently in politics, as their husbands or fathers were supposed to represent them in the ballot booth. This “indirect influence” of women, an old assumption to be found in other historical and geographical contexts, was also supposed to work both ways: political parties on the left and the centre of the political spectrum would call on directly to women to mobilize their husbands for upcoming elections. Contrary to the liberal understanding of representation based on individuals, this long-standing notion of the household or the couple as a representation unit shaped the ways in which established political actors, the media, and female activists themselves later approached female enfranchisement and participation in the post-suffrage political context.