Zurich — Few women in the Western world fought so long for the right to vote as the Swiss. They won only in 1971. On Tuesday, 13 years later, the traditionally conservative Alpine country showed how far it has come. The first woman was elected to the top level of the federal government.
Her election means that Switzerland has chosen its first female head of state , as the office of president revolves yearly among the members of the ruling Federal Council, up to now a seven-man body.
Elisabeth Kopp, a slightly built lawyer, commented after she was voted in by a joint session of the federal upper and lower houses: ''This is less a personal success than a recognition of what women have achieved. I thank women for their solidarity in a difficult time.''
Indeed, it was no easy campaign for the first woman. Mrs. Kopp's trials in the weeks leading up to the Tuesday vote illustrate the enormous difficulties facing women striving for the highest offices.
As with Geraldine Ferraro, the US Democratic Party's vice-presidential nominee, the activities of spouse and family took on an importance unparalleled in the election of their male counterparts.
Kopp's qualifications were never questioned. After years as a member of the federal lower house, she had proved herself to be a forceful and charismatic politician. She earned particular credit for her determined support of environmental protection legislation, often against the views of her party, the conservative Radical Democrats.
For a decade she had shown efficiency in running the administration of a prosperous lakeside community near Zurich. She served in the volunteer women's section of the Army. She had stayed at home in the years when her daughter, who is now 21 years old, was growing up. Kopp qualified for office on all scores.
However, her husband, a very successful international lawyer, had a controversial past that threatened her campaign. Some 15 years ago he was involved in an office scandal - spanking willing secretaries with a bamboo stick after they made mistakes - that led to his being barred from appearing in court for several months.
Candidate Kopp was quickly embroiled in a mudslinging campaign over that incident. She rushed to her husband's defense, calling the event those many years ago an office conspiracy. Offended lawyers from his former office rushed to their own defense. The juicy details were splashed across the papers.
Suddenly, it looked as though not Mrs. Kopp but Mr. Kopp stood for election. The question was asked: Can such a man be so close to the seat of power?
Mrs. Kopp pleaded for her own qualifications to be considered. On the weekend it looked as if she would not make it. But she had the determined support of women's organizations.
Social Democrats, who had seen their candidate - the first woman nominated to the government, Lilian Uchtenhagen - lose as chauvinist accusations of emotionalism won the day, spoke out for the Kopp candidacy.
Kopp herself played on the need at last to have women represented in the government. The people had said in a poll before the Uchtenhagen defeat that they wanted a woman. This opinion was not changed by the campaign against Mr. Kopp. In a survey published on the weekend, 52 percent spoke out for Elisabeth Kopp.
On the night before the vote, women parliamentarians pleaded for the Kopp candidacy. A communique read: ''What is happening is unworthy of our country.'' There are 23 women in the 246-member federal parliament, which elects the members of the Federal Council.
Mrs. Kopp received 124 of the 241 votes cast.
The election comes at a turning point in the history of equal rights in Switzerland.
The federal parliament has just passed a new family law that in effect topples the man as head of the family with the right to decide on finances, choose where the family lives, and even stop his wife from working outside the home.
From now on marriage is to be seen as a partnership with women enjoying equal decisionmaking power with men.