A ZEW Study Examines the Effects of Female Enfranchisement in Switzerland
Political equality and independent decision-making in one’s personal life are closely linked. Women who were socialised in environments with existing female suffrage are more likely to be in gainful employment, are less likely to marry, do so later, and achieve a higher education than women who only experienced political emancipation later in life. The former group tends to pursue lifestyles which afford them greater economic independence. A study from ZEW Mannheim recently published in the Economic Journal and conducted in cooperation with the University of Basel examines this relationship in the context of Switzerland.
Political gender equality was a central political goal for many women worldwide in the 20th century. The struggle for suffrage began as early as the 18th century and persisted for quite some time, even in western nations. Through the course of the First World War, women in a number of countries such as Denmark (1915), Austria, Canada, Germany, the UK (1918), the Netherlands (1919), and the United States (1920) achieved enfranchisement for the first time. Many other countries, like France (1944), Italy (1945), and Belgium (1949), followed suit shortly after the Second World War. In Switzerland, however, it took until 1971 before all women gained the right to vote at the national level.
Swiss women finally granted enfranchisement in 1971
Switzerland’s relative tardiness renders it an ideal object for the study of possible effects enfranchisement may have on individual decision-making. Between 1919 and 1971, approximately 60 cantonal- and 2 national-level referenda on the topic were held, facilitating a gradual enfranchisement first in individual cantons and later at the national level. “This process of a staggered introduction allows us to examine whether women in the same age cohort make different decisions depending on their age at the time of enfranchisement,” explains Dr. Michaela Slotwinski, deputy head of the “Inequality and Public Policy” Unit at ZEW.
The study is based on data from Swiss national censuses conducted by Switzerland’s Federal Statistical Office in 1980, 1990, 2000, and 2010 and compares the family planning, educational, and employment histories of women who belong to the same age cohort, work in the same labour market, and belong to similar communities but live in different cantons. The women analysed live in 489 different municipalities across 17 cantons. Only women born between 1913 and 1984 were included. This means that women who only received the right to vote at a more advanced age were included, as well as those who have experienced female suffrage since their youth.
Women who grow up in a society with universal suffrage make more independent decisions regarding work, education, and family
The study demonstrates that Swiss women who were enfranchised later in life systematically demonstrate lower levels of autonomy than women who were eligible to vote at a younger age. “Our calculations show that women who first obtained the right to vote at an age of 35 or older were one to ten per cent less likely to be in paid work than women who were under 17 when suffrage was achieved,” elaborated Slotwinski. For those in between, the effect is weaker the older the woman is at the time of enfranchisement. Additionally, women who first received the right to vote after 35 are less likely to obtain a higher level of education. They are, on average, 15 per cent less likely to complete a higher level of formal education or earn a university degree.
Furthermore, the results demonstrate that women in this same group are also more likely to be housewives, to marry and to stay married. “Divorce occurs far less frequently in women exposed to suffrage later – women without their own income face far worse economic prospects than if they pursued gainful employment,” says Slotwinski. A supplementary analysis of the survey data suggests congruously that these women tend to marry at a younger age and to have more children.
Self-efficacy and economic independence
The authors of the study explain this effect as follows: Women who possess and realise a formal, equal right to political participation perceive a greater sense of self-efficacy. This sense permeates into other social realms – both in decisions entailing more independent economic thinking or a divergence from traditional gender roles as well as those associated with a risk of negative social stigma, like divorce. The emancipatory influence of suffrage on these decisions decreases the later a woman experienced political equality, as observed in the study.