Zurich — Are Swiss men about to be deposed as legal head of family? It could happen June 14. This weekend the Swiss people vote in a nationwide referendum on an addition to the Constitution -- similar to the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution -- guaranteeing that "men and women hve equal rights. The law ensures their equality, above all in the family, education, and work. Men and women have the right to equal pay for equal work."
No foregone conclusion, the referendum is hotly contested, with opponents conjuring up pictures of endangered family life and courts flooded with discrimination suits.
In addition, the Swiss Constitution divides the sexes neatly into the man as "provider" and the woman as "housekeeper and mother." An efficient division of labor, say the referendum critics, that has paid off in the past should not be tampered with. They imply that a "yes" to equal rights would inevitably mean that the woman would no longer enjoy the right of being her natural self.
Says conservative parliamentarian Peter Hefti, possibly the strongest voice against the referendum, "The wife, if that is what she wants, should be at home with the children. The family plays such an important part in our society that we must be grateful to women who remain in it."
Lili Nabholz, president of the federal women's commission that prepared the referendum, replies: "It is exactly this separation of roles which I find an enemy of the family. It means that the total burden and joy of the children's upbrining is left to the mother. I find that equally bad as the lack of female integration professionally. Why should our picture of women be built completely on the 20 percent of our female population which is married and has children under 16 years. What about the rest?"
For Nabholz, who is far from sure that the referendum will succeed, Sunday's vote is the culmunation of a decade of work.
Swiss women were only granted the right to vote in 1971, some 69 years after Australia, for example, and 51 years after the United States. The suffragist battle was probably the hardest of any industrialized Western country because it required both the approval of parliament and the male population. Laura Wyss, one of Switzerland's most prominent journalists, describes the years before 1971 as "humiliating" filled with "resignation."
Today, women still cannot vote on the regional level in two rural cantons, and they are barred on the communal level in 29 mountain communities.
Attitudes in such areas were recently summed up by an anti-equal rights activist, "Women belong in the home like the log for firewood."
According to the civil code, the Swiss man, as official "head of the family," alone has the right to decide where the family lives and if his wife can work. Unless a special contract is drawn up, he has control over his wife's finances. In many schools, girls have compulsory household training while boys tot up more time in mathematics. Schoolbooks show women as shop assistants, mothers, and secretaries; boys are shown as managers, teachers, and engineers.
This separation of sex roles has led to a situation where women receive at least 10 percent less pay for equal work; some up to 30 percent less. Women company directors who have made it without family connections are very rare. Only 3 percent of public-service officials in the top ranks are women, and four- fifths of these women are single and over 40 years of age. On retirement, married women are given pensions according to their husbands earnings, even though they may have earned more. A married woman has no right to a tax return; she is an appendix to that of her husband.
Corporations claim that they look for more women, but find an unwillingness to take on responsibility. It is not hard to find out why. Swiss children come home for lunch, even though in the cities their fathers have long given up the habit. The lunch break for one child may be an hour or so different from that of his brother -- forcing many mothers to remain at home between 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. lunch hours. This lunchtime practice is designed, in part, to keep the family together. However, as supporters of the referendum point out, the family does not seem all that stable in Switzerland.The country has one of the highest divorce rates in the world -- over 30 percent.
Opponents of the referendum claim that if women have equal rights, they must have equal responsibility as well. Women must also do compulsory military service. However, the Swiss government, which supports the amendment, points out that "the question of equal rights cannot be made dependent on women serving in the military. The services which women render to society during the military service of men is equal to the male military service."
For many women, compulsory military service would be welcome. As Nabholz points out, at present the military is closed-shop to women. Many Swiss men who do well in the Army also are successful in civilian careers.
Women have come a long way since they received the right to vote a decade ago. They now fill 10 percent of the two houses of parliament, which is higher than in most industrialized societies. Nevertheless, they have a long way ahead and the vote on Sunday will show j ust how rocky the future path will be.