Until well into the 19th century, maternity and family were considered natural risks that needed no protection from the welfare state. This changed after the First World War once maternity insurance and family allowances were put on the political agenda. The electorate enshrined both instruments in the federal constitution in 1945. However, implementation was a drawn-out affair. While the cantons were the first to act in the case of family allowances, maternity insurance was not implemented until 2004.
Marriage and family were considered bywords of private life in the 19th century. In particular, the rights of the husband – the guardian of wife and children – were to be protected from governmental intervention. Exceptions included orphaned children, or children whose parents were supposedly unable to look after them. Public guardianship systems gradually expanded in scope after the 16th century, though they were only formalized as child and adult protection rights in 2013. In parallel, and over generations, the birth, nurture and upbringing of children formed the basis for societal continuity.
A number of important questions regarding social welfare thus arose in this early period. Are birth and family really private matters or should society as a whole contribute to the costs associated with maternity and starting a family and help protect against its financial risks? Which forms of family and gender relations should be relevant when a government adopts social welfare measures? In contrast to the risk of old age and illness – whose social character was acknowledged already in the 19th century – societal responsibility for what appeared to be natural risks associated with birth and family remained contested until well into the 20th century. The burdens associated with these risks, which included unpaid work or reduced income, have largely been borne by women to this day. At the same time, the family-oriented measures in providing social assistance and guardianship have since the 19th century been guided by a middle-class model of the family – one intended to apply to the lower classes as well.
Protecting Female Workers and Efforts to Introduce Maternity Insurance
As was the case with child labor, maternity was one of the first areas in which the modern welfare state became active. Initial efforts focused on protecting the health of pregnant women and young mothers. The Swiss Factory Act of 1877 provided an 8-week ‘rest period’ for mothers, six of which had to follow birth. The Federal Council could also designate certain branches of manufacturing in which pregnant women were not permitted to work. Furthermore, a number of protective regulations were passed, including prohibiting work on Sundays and at night. This affected all women, thereby making them a special category in the labor market. Regulations governing the loss of earnings were not part of the law, so it remained somewhat ambiguous from the point of view of those afforded protections. Indeed, the affected women and families often had to make their own arrangements in how they would provide for their newborn child. The Health and Accident Insurance Act (KUVG) of 1911 offered relief to some extent. According to this act, women in childbed who were insured received the same benefits, lasting for six months, as in the case of illness. Depending on the insurance coverage, benefits could include nursing care or a monetary sickness allowance. However, only a small fraction of women had any form of health insurance at all at that time, so broad segments of the female population were unable to benefit from the relief provided by this Act.
The protection of female workers was also the subject of social policy debates outside of Switzerland during the second half of the 19th century. The legal protection of pregnant women was introduced in Germany in 1878, with provisions initially limited to a manageable number of women, and with only a three-week prohibition on working. The Health Insurance Act of 1883 also granted a maternity allowance for those women in childbed who were insured. This was extended to all women, after the First World War, whose relatives were covered by a health insurance fund. In France, after 1909, job security was guaranteed for women who could not come to work in the weeks before and after giving birth. Grants-in-aid were introduced after 1913, in addition, for employed women.
To ensure that financial protection in Switzerland was not guaranteed to only a few women, women workers and segments of the middle-class women’s movement began to call for maternity insurance. In 1904, they submitted a first petition to the Federal Council, though without success. As part of the so-called ‘socio-political awakening’ following the First World War, Switzerland signed the conventions of the Washington International Labor Organization Conference in 1919, which included a provision granting entitlement to financial support to pregnant women and new mothers for a period of up to 12 weeks. The ratification process, however, quickly came to a halt. Parliament ultimately rejected accession to the conference agreement in the autumn of 1921. The opponents were particularly concerned about the costs of the proposed insurance. Politicians from middle-class parties – all of them men – also justified their opposition by arguing that birth was a natural process, requiring no special social protection. Following the Federal Assembly veto, the Federal Council considered revising the KUVG, but this likewise failed in 1923 due to reservations primarily about introducing a (partial) obligation f to have health insurance.
Political attention focused on old age and survivors’ insurance (AHV) in the following years. Renewed attempts were made at the end of the 1930s, including efforts to introduce insurance for women in childbed that would be exclusively financed by working women. It was not until the effects of the labor shortage due to the Second World War and in the wake of the family protection initiative launched by Catholic conservatives that representatives of the Socialist Party, middle-class parties, and the women’s movement were able to create a constitutional basis for maternity insurance in 1945.
Family Policy for Protecting the Family
In the 19th century, public authorities intervened in families, mainly related to laws governing the poor, as when impoverished parents were forced into poorhouses and their children placed in care or foster homes. The Civil Code (ZGB) of 1912 created uniform rules at the national level, now oriented to the welfare of the child, permitting public officials to intervene in families. In cases of "negligence" - a key concept in child protection in the Civil Code - municipal or cantonal public guardians were empowered to supplant parents as guardians and place children into care facilities outside the home. Various cantons and cities established specialized authorities in the following decades, in addition to existing guardianship authorities such as public agencies for the welfare of youths.
In the inter-war period, debates intensified about whether state and society should accept responsibility for the upbringing of children. The protection of the family could mean quite different things, depending on one’s political perspective, and there were overlapping moral, socio-economic, demographic and eugenic approaches. While middle-class social reformers advocated a renewal of the moral order of the family, those on the left hoped for the betterment of working-class families. Women’s organizations called for the introduction of suffrage for women, and for wage equality between the sexes, while the followers of Catholic social doctrine dreamt of a comprehensive valorization of the family as the organic fundament of the commonweal. There were two approaches in expanding social insurance. Maternity insurance stood for a particularistic approach that put the individual woman at the center. This stood in contrast to socio-political models emphasizing the collective needs of the community of the family which sought to expand the protection of the family, for example, through family allowances, for example. The traditional male-breadwinner family model was given a boost in the inter-war period. The practice of external placement for children, and their associated measures, such as placing adults in ‘administrative care’, reached a high point, at least temporarily. Lower-class families were particularly affected, as were those from discriminated ethnic groups like the Yeniche.
The degree of pooling of the various interests involved in family policy took place at a meeting in 1931 organized by the Swiss Association for Social Policy, as well as from 1933 onwards in connection with the family protection commission organized on behalf of the Swiss Philanthropic Society (SPS). After 1940, Federal Councilor Philipp Etter made a name for himself by initiating a number of meetings devoted to population and family protection. In 1941, the Catholic-Conservative Party (forerunner of today’s CVP) launched the popular initiative ‘For the Family’ which declared the family as the ‘foundation of state and society’ and pledged comprehensive protection for the family. Thanks to the support of Catholic trade unions, representatives of agriculture, and the family protection commission, a popular initiative with 170,000 signatures was submitted in 1942. The initiators presented their proposal initially as a political alternative to the old age and survivors’ insurance (AHV) project, primarily backed by liberals and social democrats. They withdrew their initiative in 1944 after the Federal Council presented a counter-proposal which addressed some of their key issues.
Controversy regarding individual and social wages constituted an important aspect of the debate on the economic protection of the family. The question was whether wages should reflect work performance or whether it should also encompass social commitments associated with providing for a family. The concept of a family wage was centered on the salary of the father as well as the number of children and met with the approval of Catholic conservatives in particular. In the 1930s, the same Catholic conservatives ran a number of strong campaigns against secondary wage earners, largely as opposition to the gainful employment of married women. Defenders of the individual wage included the unions and employers, as well as women’s organizations that campaigned against unequal remuneration for men and women. However, they too were ready to address family financial obligations by means of special allowances.
Such family allowances had been introduced in France and Belgium in the early 1930s. In Switzerland, federal civil servants had been able to draw family allowances since 1927. By 1937, 110 companies in the private sector had launched similar allowance systems, covering 18,000 employees in total. Many companies, in French-speaking Switzerland in particular, followed the example set by France and joined a family equalization fund which shared the financial burden within the respective industrial branch. In 1939/1940, the equalization fund system was adopted for the Income Substitution Insurance for Militia Soldiers (LVEO) which likewise granted special privilege to fathers in military service and completely excluded working (and contributing) women from benefits. The expansion of family allowances during the war years was rapid, with many economic sectors introducing family allowances and setting up equalization funds. In 1943/1944, the Cantons of Vaud and Geneva even introduced an obligatory scheme for all workers.
At the federal level, family allowances became a pressing issue in conjunction with the initiative launched by Catholic conservatives. The advocates for family protection, however, were unable to reach a consensus regarding the criteria to be applied to the disbursement of family allowances. It was also open whether public or private entities should pay benefits, and whether every family or only those with many children should receive these benefits. A further setback came from the decision taken by the Federal Council to use LVEO surpluses for old age provision, which would give priority to implementing the AHV. In an attempt to accommodate the ‘For the Family’ initiative and, at the same time, not putting the AHV at risk, the counter-proposal made by the Federal Council and Parliament suggested introducing legislative oversight with respect to the family compensation funds, in addition to a general commitment to protecting the family and introducing maternity insurance. Once the initiative was withdrawn, voters and cantons came out clearly in favor of the new family protection article in the federal constitution (Article 34quinquies) on November 25, 1945.
Delayed Implementation: Maternity Benefits and Family Allowances
While maternity insurance and family allowances both gained their constitutional basis in the same 1945 vote, their logics differed. Maternity insurance generally made it easier to combine work with motherhood, while family allowances aimed to both strengthen the male breadwinner model, along with reducing the pressure on married women to work. In one respect, however, they shared the same fate: they both had an unusually long way to go before being implemented at the national level.
Internationally, various countries had already found solutions. Germany passed a Maternity Protection Act by 1927, and under its provisions, women were protected against dismissal for a fixed period, and were allowed to take time off from work. They received a maternity allowance, and breaks for nursing were also introduced. The young German Federal Republic passed a new maternity protection act in 1952 which guaranteed compensation for the loss of earnings around the time of the birth. In a 1946 law, France granted women a 14-week maternity leave, and provided compensation for half of the earnings thereby lost. Scandinavian countries introduced parental leave relatively early on, with Sweden granting mothers a six-month maternity leave already in 1963. In 1974, this possibility was extended to fathers. By contrast, the United States even today still only grants the right to take an unpaid maternity leave, though some states do provide financial support.
The main obstacle in Switzerland after 1945 – as during the interwar years – proved to be the linking of maternity insurance to health insurance. In 1946, the Federal Council appointed an expert commission for maternity insurance that included Margarita Schwarz-Gagg – representing the Union of Swiss Women’s Associations. By 1948 already, the government had tied the proposal to the revision of the KUVG, resulting in stand-alone maternity insurance disappearing from the political agenda for decades. The revision of the KUVG in 1964 merely expanded the protection for new mothers who were insured. Further reforms were delayed as a result of the dual rejection of the proposal to reorganize health insurance in 1974. At the end of the 1970s, women’s organizations, trade unions and left-wing parties therefore launched a popular initiative which put the existing constitutional provision into concrete terms and envisaged its implementation within five years. However, the electorate strongly rejected this proposal in 1984. The same fate awaited the comprehensive revision of health insurance in 1987, which would have provided a maternity insurance for both employed and unemployed women financed out of wage deductions. The 1991 women’s strike set the tone for a new campaign led by women’s organizations, supported at the federal level by Federal Councilor Ruth Dreifuss. A new proposal envisaged funding through a percentage of the value-added tax, but this too failed at the ballot box in 1999.
However, political priorities had definitely changed by then – thirty years after the introduction of women’s suffrage at the national level and twenty years after passage of the equal rights amendment to the constitution. The employment of women and hence the necessity to cover maternity were no longer called into question even by the middle-class parties. In addition, the problem of birth-related nursing costs was solved after health insurance became mandatory in 1994. The Canton of Geneva thus quickly set up a cantonal insurance scheme in 2001, and five years after the 1999 failure, a new initiative finally made a breakthrough. The maternity compensation scheme passed in 2004 was based largely on the income compensation scheme and was likewise funded through wage deductions. It guarantees 80 percent of the last income for a period of 14 weeks. In contrast to previous proposals, however, only women who were employed prior to childbirth were able to receive the benefits.
In international comparison, Swiss maternity leave is brief. In France, mothers are entitled to 16 weeks, in Germany paid parental leave – for both mothers and fathers – lasts up to a year, and in Sweden it can even reach 480 days, overall. Unlike in many other industrialized countries, Switzerland for many years did not grant fathers a legal right to paternity leave. Once maternity insurance was introduced in 2005, increasing demands were made for a similar model for fathers. In 2017, fathers' and mothers' organisations and trade unions submitted a popular initiative "For a reasonable paternity leave," proposing there should be a 20-day paid paternity leave. In September 2019, Parliament made a counter-proposal that there be 10 days' paternity leave. In conjunction with these suggestions, more extensive proposals were also made for a parental leave that could can be split between mothers and fathers.
The area of outplacement and welfare detention welfare measures also experienced changes in the post-war period. During in the 20th century, the authorities relied on three legal instruments in out-placement: poor law, the guardianship provisions in the Civil Code, and laws on administrative detention. Poor law-based detention declined sharply after the economic crisis of the 1930s, replaced after World War II by outplacement based on guardianship provisions. These were often triggered by ethical and moral reservations about unconventional lifestyles. Since the 1960s, the administrative detention of adolescents and adults was increasingly criticized from the perspective of civil and human rights law particularly there is no judicial recourse to the implementation of administrative law. In 1974, Switzerland signed the European Convention on Human Rights. Subsequently, the instrument of administrative detention was replaced, in the 1981 revision of the ZGB, by the doctrine of welfare-based deprivation of liberty, which was associated with expanded recourse rights. The guardianship law was also modernized. In 2013, as part of another ZGB revision, guardianship law was replaced by child and adult protection legislation. As a result, local guardianship authorities have been replaced by more centralized and professionalized child and adult protection services and authorities.
As with maternity insurance, there was long little progress in enacting federal regulations to create a family allowance. Different models have prevailed abroad. Low-income families in Germany today receive a ‘child benefit’, while higher-income families benefit from a tax-deductible allowance. France grants allowances only to families with at least two children. In Scandinavia, in addition to child allowances received after regular parental leave has expired, parents have the option to apply for an additional child-raising allowance to cover the infant and toddler years. Such material support enables parents to decide if they themselves want to take care of their children during the day, or whether they want to place their children in the hands of external caregivers.
In Switzerland, it was the cantons which became active in this domain, preventing the kind of blockage seen in the case of maternity insurance. In 1952, the Confederation only regulated the disbursement of family allowances to agricultural employees and mountain farmers. In this case, the focus was more on regional political objectives such as reducing rural depopulation rather than on social policy itself. It was the cantons that seized the initiative. During the first two decades after the war, all cantons introduced family allowances, followed later by birth and education allowances in some places. In 1996, the Canton of Ticino even paid subsistence allowances for families with children under 15. The family allowances were funded exclusively by employer contributions (other than in the Canton of Valais, where employees had to pay in a modest amount). Contributions and benefits varied across different cantons.
The equalization fund system also continued to develop. In 2004, there were around 115 public or private family equalization funds in Switzerland, some of which spanned multiple cantons. Plans were therefore drafted at federal level to harmonize cantonal allowances in the early 1990s. Concurrently, there was discussion on expanding supplementary benefits for families – so far without any tangible results. Standardization efforts finally succeeded with the popular initiative for fair children’s allowances launched by the trade union Travail.Suisse in 2003. The Family Allowances Act, which entered into force in 2006 as an indirect counterproposal to this initiative, standardized and raised the planned amounts. The cantons of Solothurn, Vaud, Geneva and Ticino went a step further: all of them introduced needs-based supplementary benefits for families.
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