Women’s suffrage: better level of education, fewer weddings

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The introduction of the general right to vote for women in Switzerland contributed significantly to their emancipation. Researchers at the University of Basel have now retrospectively statistically evaluated and quantified the effects on employment, education and the family model.

The anonymous petition by women in Zurich demanding women’s suffrage in 1868 as part of the constitutional reform had no chance of success, as did many other initiatives to this end. It was not until 1959 that the canton of Vaud was the first to introduce women’s suffrage at communal and cantonal level. The women of Appenzell, a canton that comprises the two half-cantons of Ausserrhoden and Innerrhoden, had to wait the longest for full political participation. While they received the right to vote at the federal level in 1971, it was only from 1989 in Ausserrhoden and 1990 in Innerrhoden that they were entitled to vote at the cantonal level. Swiss women of the same age were thus given the right to vote at very different ages, depending on the canton of residence.

Professor Alois Stutzer from the University of Basel’s Faculty of Business and Economics and research fellow Dr. Michaela Slotwinski used this backdrop as a basis for their statistical analysis. They asked whether earlier suffrage resulted on average in women with more self-determined life plans, whether chosen by themselves or shaped by their parents. The research findings have been published in The Economic Journal.

Suffrage enhances self-efficacy

Receiving the right to vote triggered an emancipation for women. This can be seen today in retrospect, as the life choices made by women who were given the right to vote at different stages of their lives are now known. "Extensive research in psychology and political science adds weight to the theory that rights to political participation reinforce a woman’s sense of being in control of her own circumstances. This in turn is conducive to a more economically self-determined life and thus reduces dependence on a spouse," says Alois Stutzer, who is a professor of political economy.

Analysis of the data shows, for example, that women who experienced an environment with women’s suffrage before the age of 17 were significantly more likely to subsequently pursue gainful employment outside the home. The difference was 10 percentage points compared to women who did not have the opportunity for political participation until the age of 36 or even later.

The higher probability is due partly to the fact that women in an environment with women’s suffrage were more likely to have attained a higher level of education - i.e. to have completed more than compulsory schooling and perhaps training in home economics. Women who experienced women’s suffrage before the age of 17 are around 15 percentage points more likely to have done so than women who did not experience it until the age of 36 or later.

This analysis is based on data from federal population censuses in 1980, 1990 and 2000, and the 2010 structural survey. It shows that women’s suffrage is an important driver of economic development and female employment in Switzerland.

Men also start to see things differently

Better education and higher rates of employment are also reflected in more self-determined decisions in terms of marriage. Women who experienced suffrage at an earlier age were on average around 3 percentage points less likely to marry, and did so at a higher age than those who were older when they received the right to vote. In a similar vein, women who experienced suffrage early on are around 3 percentage points more likely to divorce.

The empowerment of women was also presumably reinforced by a change in thinking by their fathers, brothers and husbands. "We see in our analysis that, as men experienced women’s suffrage in their canton, they also developed a more open attitude towards women’s suffrage at the federal level," says Alois Stutzer.

Changes seen more in private life than in politics

The extent of political change is smaller than expected, however: "Surprisingly, we see no measurable impact of the introduction of voting rights on fiscal policy at the cantonal level," the economist continues. He adds that no systematic change was apparent either in overall spending or in family policy issues such as child allowance.

The researchers also examined the share of seats held by the Social Democratic Party of Switzerland (SP) in the cantons - i.e. the party that had been the earliest to campaign for women’s suffrage. In conclusion, it would appear based on the analysis that the SP did itself not benefit from women being given the right to vote. "The parties presumably had family concerns in mind beforehand, for example, and the men voted accordingly," says Stutzer. The changes brought about by women’s political rights in Switzerland thus seem to relate more to decisions in private life than in the political domain.

Lasting aftereffects

The various influences on Swiss women continue to have an impact to this day, and are evident, for example, in the perception of gender norms. In the "Families and Generations Survey" (’Erhebung zu Familien und Generationen’) conducted in 2013 and 2018, women were asked to provide information on their role models. The results of the survey indicated that women who received the right to vote after their 25th birthday represented more traditional norms than those who had grown up in an environment where women already had a political voice. The former, for example, are more likely to support the assertion that a university degree or a job is more important for men than for women. They are also more likely to agree with the claim that women should be primarily responsible for the household and for raising children.

"This illustrates how experiences in earlier years shape people’s norms in the long term," concludes Alois Stutzer, adding: "But if other rules apply, such as voting rights for women, then this indeed also has the power to change these norms."

The researchers studied cohorts of women over several censuses. When calculating the differences - such as in employment - between women who received the right to vote either early or late in life, they took into account not only the year of birth but also a long list of other factors that could influence gainful employment. For example, the influence of age, level of education or conditions on the local labor market were factored out of the statistics. The analysis thus identifies the specific effect of women’s suffrage under the assumption of parallel trends in cohorts across cantons - i.e. it excludes the possibility of cantonand cohort-specific effects that may correlate with the introduction of women’s suffrage, but are not related to it.

Original publication

Michaela Slotwinski and Alois Stutzer
Women leaving the playpen: The emancipating role of female suffrage
The Economic Journal (2022), doi: 10.1093/ej/ueac077