Women Leaving the Playpen: The Emancipating Role of Female Suffrage
Being socialized at a young age in a society with female political empowerment, specifically women’s suffrage, increases a girl’s likelihood to participate in the labor force, divorce, and attain education as an adult.
Throughout the 20th century, women fought for and made progress towards political equality. Particularly in the 1920s and immediately after WWII, many nations granted women the right to vote. Research has shown the importance of female political empowerment. For instance, female participation in local governance has been shown to increase female mobility.
However, the holistic impact of these historical movements for female suffrage is difficult to measure due to the scarcity of differentiated, high-quality historical data. Switzerland is a unique historical case because of its decentralized political system, in which women were gradually granted the right to vote on a canton-by-canton (i.e. state-by-state) basis from 1959 to 1971, providing the opportunity for a nuanced statistical study of the impact of female suffrage.
In this study, researchers analyzed Swiss census data from over 5 decades with over 2 million women to assess the impact of female political empowerment on the life choices of women in each canton, such as their likelihood to participate in the labor force, divorce, or attain education. In particular, the study investigates how political emancipation (or lack thereof) socializes girls politically, revealing the impact on girls of growing up in a society in which women do or do not have the right to vote.
Being socialized at a young age in a society with female political empowerment (such as a society in which women have the right to vote) increases a girl’s likelihood to participate in the labor force, divorce, and attain education as an adult.
- The older a woman is when female suffrage occurred in her canton, the less likely she is to engage in paid labor as an adult.
- Women who experience female enfranchisement after age 17 are up to 6 percentage points less likely to engage in paid work as an adult than women who experience female enfranchisement before age 17.
- Women who are older when female suffrage is introduced in their canton are also up to 5 percentage points more likely to be a housewife and 5 percentage points more like to be working part-time than women who experience political emancipation when they are younger.
- Additionally, women who are older when they get enfranchised in their canton are more likely to get married and to stay married.
- Women who are older when female suffrage occurs in their canton are also more likely to have a low level of education as an adult.
- If a woman is 17 to 20 years old when female suffrage occurs in her canton, she is 2 percentage points more likely to end up with a low level of education than a woman who is less than 17 years old when female suffrage occurs in her canton.
- This effect is more pronounced for women who are over 20 years old when female suffrage occurs in their canon, they are up to 6 percentage points more likely to end up with a low level of education than women who are enfranchised when they are younger than 17 years old.
- Political emancipation had the most impact on female educational attainment in cantons where people were most conservative about political rights for women.
Researchers speculated that female emancipation had these impacts on a girl’s socialization and subsequent life choices because it impacted their sense of self-efficacy. In other words, there is preliminary evidence suggesting that being socialized earlier in a society with female emancipation leads to women and girls having a greater perception that they have control over their own lives.
Researchers conducted a historic analysis of the impact of granting women the right to vote in various Swiss cantons from 1959 to 1971. The data was primarily drawn from the Swiss census, conducted by the Swiss Federal Statistical Office (SFSO) in 1980, 1990, 2000, and 2010, encompassing more than 2 million Swiss women.
The impact of historical suffrage extensions for women are difficult to study for many reasons, including that many legislative changes to grant female suffrage occurred around the same time in the 1920s or just after WWII (leading to a number of confounding variables), and that there was very little individual level data from those earlier decades. However, due to the decentralized political system of Swiss cantons, which independently implemented female voting rights at various times throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, the historic data from women who lived through these historic transformations can provide a valuable way to study the impact of these historical institutional changes. The study examined the impact of a girl’s age when women were granted the right to vote in her canton on her likelihood to participate in the labor force, divorce, and attain education. There were various analyses conducted to check the validity of the study’s findings, including looking at whether non-citizen women of these birth cohorts (who did not gain the right to vote) were similarly affected, and whether men of these birth cohorts were similarly affected.
The researchers concluded that the study’s results were robust and specific to Swiss women gaining the right to vote. The conservativeness of each canton was measured based on their level of support for the female suffrage national referendum in 1959, before any canton introduced female suffrage. In order to investigate what mechanisms might underlie the effect that female emancipation had on women’s life choices, they analyzed data from the Swiss Household Panel (SHP) survey of 2012 and 2015. Preliminary evidence suggests that female emancipation affected women’s life choices in these ways due to it increasing their sense of efficacy in and control over their own lives. According to the researchers, this data, however, should be taken with caution since the SHP survey had a small sample and did not indicate the specific canton in which each respondent lived during childhood.