On 5 March 1957, a step towards gender equality was made in Unterbäch. Against the will of the national government, the local council granted women a unique right to vote. Thus, the women of Unterbäch were the very first women in Switzerland to be allowed to vote – 14 years before the introduction of women’s suffrage. For this reason Unterbäch is also called the “Rütli of Swiss women”. This is in reference to the Rütli (Rütli-Meadow), the place where, according to legend, the alliance of the original Swiss cantons was made, the so-called Rütli-Oath.


At the end of the 1950s, male order reigns in Switzerland. The men rule the country and the women look after the hearth and home. And then, suddenly and without warning, something unbelievable happens.

It is 2 March 1957, a Saturday, shortly before six in the evening. Crime scene: Unterbäch, a village of 400 people in the Upper Valais. There is snow on the streets. A woman in a beige coat with a herringbone pattern is making her way. She has tied a scarf around her and her hair is knotted tightly back. A sign on the side of the road says “Bureau de vote féminin”. Men line the last steps to the ballot box. When they recognise a familiar face from the village, a deafening noise erupts – drums being beaten by strong male hands. The woman quickly climbs the stairs. As she slides her ballot paper into the slot of the ballot box, a flurry of flashbulbs from photo cameras captures this historic moment on celluloid. Stones from the male protesters hit the roof. The woman is Katharina Zenhäusern, wife of the mayor of Unterbäch. She had just become the first Swiss woman to make her political will known at the ballot box – illegally, against the will of the men and the authorities. (Source: blick.ch).


«Someone had to be first»

Katharina Zenhäusern was the first Swiss woman to vote at the ballot box. After her, 32 other women from Unterbäch went to the ballot box on 3 March 1957 in protest against the men. This was almost a decade and a half before women’s suffrage was to be introduced in Switzerland. Since then, Unterbäch has been known as the “Rütli of Swiss women”.


There is this lawyer and prefect, Peter von Roten, who sits in the Grand Council of the Canton of Valais for the Catholic Conservatives. This man has taken it into his head to introduce women’s suffrage in a subversive way and without amending the constitution, so to speak on his own authority. The Valais electoral law of 1938 provides the jurist with an opportunity to do so. Article 8 states that prisoners or paupers are excluded from exercising political rights – there is no mention of women. In Unterbäch, the situation is favourable in that the municipal council has already decided to register the 150 women of age in the village in the electoral register. And because a federal ballot on the extension of compulsory civil defence to women is scheduled for this weekend, Peter von Roten sees the big day for the historic act as having come – it is inconceivable to him that only men could decide on compulsory civil defence for women. He also convinces the village teacher and mayor Paul Zenhäusern of his plan, and he gets his council colleagues on board. And of course the village’s highest political representative also informs the Valais State Council about the plan, and it is hardly surprising that the message comes back from there that the Unterbächer plan is unlawful under constitutional law because it is unconstitutional. (Source: blick.ch).


The mountain villagers react with a seven-point memorandum in which they inform the “High Council of State of the Canton of Valais” that the people of Unterbach “have in no way asked for a consent which, in our opinion, they did not need and whose refusal is therefore legally irrelavant”. The government down in Sion is then somewhat surprised by the crystal-clear legal rebuff, which can hardly have come from the pen of a village school teacher with no legal knowledge. In fact, the letters were written by Peter von Roten.
But what no one knows is that behind the two men is a woman – Iris von Roten, herself a doctor of law, the wife of Peter von Roten. He came out of the closet many years later: “Iris was the driving force behind my commitment to women’s suffrage and is therefore the real author of the referendum in Unterbäch. Certainly, I would have been in favour even without her influence, but I would hardly have fought so vehemently.” (Source: blick.ch).


In 1957, Unterbäch sent out a political signal and was ahead of its time. The world press listened and wrote about it, even the “New York Times” reported on the illegal activities in the small Swiss mountain community. 33 out of 86 women from Unterbächer dared to go to the polling station, and the bill was rejected there and nationally. The women of the Valais had to wait until 1970 before they were granted political rights, and the Swiss women had to wait a year longer.
In Switzerland, it took another 13 years before Elisabeth Kopp (80), the first woman, was finally elected to the highest national government in 1984. What began in Unterbäch, the Rütli of Swiss women as a symbol of women’s political rights, was crowned by the election of the first woman to the Federal Council. The rebellious Unterbäch awarded honorary citizenship to Federal Councillor Kopp. (Source: blick.ch).



Women’s Quote Trail

On the 3.5 km long Women’s Quotations Trail you will find 16 panels with quotations from famous women from all over the world, such as Mother Theresa, Indira Ghandi, Simone de Beauvoir or, most recently, the Swiss Confederation. The Women’s Quotations Trail can be hiked in summer and snowshoed in winter.