In search of non-existent sources

Since the advent of audio recording equipment, spoken accounts have been documented. Oral history utilises this possibility to allow first-hand accounts to contribute to our understanding of history. But how come Swiss men were never asked why they had changed their minds about women's suffrage in 1971? Andreas Berz (AB) talks to Lorenz Rolli (LR) – both researchers at the NL's SwissInfoDesk – to try and find answers to this question.

Top view of an SN recorder with a red and a grey tape spool.
Nagra cassette recorder (photo: Hiendaudio, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

LR: In 1959, some two thirds of men participating in the referendum on women's suffrage voted “no”. In 1971, the distribution of votes was exactly the other way round, with two thirds of men voting in favour. Because the two votes were only 12 years apart, the contrasting results cannot be attributed solely to a generational shift. Instead, a significant number of men must have changed their views between 1959 and 1971. What made men who had voted “no” in 1959 vote the other way in 1971? Are there any published or unpublished sources on this shift in opinion?

AB: "Barely any research seems to have been done (yet) on this fascinating topic. Despite extensive research, I haven't found a single publication."

LR: Various reasons have been cited for this shift in opinion, for example Swiss historian Elisabeth Joris thinks it's down to the revolt of 1968, while Swiss politician Yvonne Schärli believes it's driven by the social changes of the 1960s. How do the available studies describe this change in terms of the relations between the sexes? 

AB: "The 1960s marked the dawn of a new era and changed perceptions of gender roles. The model of the wife as subordinate to her husband as head of the family gave way to the model of partnership. Historically speaking, this change was so profound and momentous that some experts describe it as a cultural revolution. The result of February 1971 therefore constitutes an important partial victory and at the same time was a prelude to various changes (e.g. an article on gender equality was added to the Federal Constitution in 1981 and a new matrimonial law was introduced in 1986). The referendum vote on the latter is interesting as the majority of men voted 'no' but were overruled by the significant majority of women voters who supported the proposed changes."

LR: It would be interesting to understand how men perceived this new era. Were men's experiences in connection with the question of women's suffrage never the subject of oral history projects?

AB: "In Switzerland, the society maintains an oral history network which provides a good overview of completed, ongoing and planned projects in various fields of research that use semi-structured interviews with witnesses. While those in charge at are aware of interviews with men from the 59/71 generation as I like to call them, they are not specifically on the subject of why men had changed their minds about women's suffrage." 

LR: Why has no one looked into the fact that many Swiss men changed their minds on such a key social issue? 

AB: "If only I knew! The sources in the NL don't reveal anything either, so I can't answer that question. It makes no sense to speculate. Let's hope that historians can continue to explore this topic in depth so that in future your question can be answered. 

The fact that there are no such recordings says something about the time – the late introduction of voting rights for women in Switzerland is shameful on two levels. On the one hand, since the founding of modern Switzerland in 1848, governments, parliaments and courts at federal and cantonal level missed many opportunities to play an active part in this matter themselves. This reveals a spectacular leadership failure on the part of the male governing elites. 

On the other, the dominant man likes to perceive himself as having an opinion and publicly defending it. However, changing his mind is interpreted as weakness. Even though the men of the 59/71 generation had good reasons for changing their views, they didn't shout about it from the rooftops. It was probably more opportune to pretend you had always supported 'yes' and that therefore you had always been 'modern' in your views. Because in those progressive and optimistic times, a declaration of this sort would make any man seem 'with it'."  

Bibliography and sources

Last modification 19.10.2022

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