Women Leaders and Transformation in Developing Countries
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Ruth Dreifuss (1940-)

President of Switzerland (1999)

Switzerland Flag of Switzerland

"I won't be satisfied if I'm the last woman [president] for decades. I'm just opening the door for other women."

Ruth Dreifuss, December 9, 1998 upon election by the Swiss Parliament to President of the Confederation

Ruth Dreifuss

Photograph courtesy of the Swiss Embassy in Washington D.C., <http://www.swissemb.org/info/html/presidency99_dreifuss.html>


Within the first years of her life, Dreifuss' family was forced to flee toward France, to Geneva, from her birthplace in the eastern region of Switzerland, as the Nazi forces approached the eastern border. In Geneva, Dreifuss received her education, eventually obtaining her commercial diploma in 1958. She worked as an assistant in a hotel, and then as a journalist before receiving schooling in Mathematics and Economics from Geneva University in 1970, where she worked on the faculty till 1972. Dreifuss is "competent" in five languages, and consistently has proven her worth as an able leader shaped by the humble travels of a thoughtful person. After her brief stint with the faculty of Geneva University, Dreifuss began her term with the trade union. She became a keen supporter of Switzerland's, and specifically women's, relationship with the International Labor Organization (ILO). At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, sitting on various federal committees she capably promoted these areas in her dealings with social insurance and labor laws.

Dreifuss joined the Social Democrats in 1965, but began her political career in 1972 in the Swiss Development Cooperation Service within the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Her first election victory came in 1981, when she was elected to the general secretariat of the Federation of Swiss Trade Unionists.

The Life of Ruth Dreifuss
1940 Born in St. Gall. Family subsequently moves to Berne in 1942 and finally settles in Geneva in 1945, where Ruth receives her education.
1958 Receives Commercial Diploma.
1958-1959 Hotel Secretary in Ticino.
1961-1964 Journalist for the Swiss Union of Cooperatives' weekly "Coopération" in Basle.
1965 Joins the Social Democrats party.
1965-1968 Assistant at the "Center Psycho-Social Universitaire" in Geneva.
1970 Receives degree in Economics from Geneva University.
1970-1972 Assistant at the Faculty of Economic Social Sciences at Geneva University.
1972-1981 Member of the Swiss Development Cooperation Service at the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
1981 Elected General Secretary to the Federation of Swiss Trade Unionists dealing with social insurance, labor laws, promotion of women's rights, and relations with the International Labor Organization (ILO).
Sits on several federal committees.
1989-1992 Member of the Social Democrats' Municipal Council of Berne
1993 Swiss Federal Assembly elects Ruth Dreifuss as Federal Councilor.
Takes control of the Federal Department of Home Affairs.
1997 Elected Vice President of the Confederation.
1998 Elected President of the Confederation for 1999.


On December 9, 1998, in a winter saturated with significant events and anniversaries, the nation of Switzerland announced the 1998 election of the Presidency for the year 1999. 1998 Vice President Ruth Dreifuss' election as President came in the final month of' Switzerland's 150th anniversary as an independent nation, but an independent nation which has truly included women for less than three decades. The election results ignited a roaring crowd of Swiss supporters eagerly gathered, and exulted the international leaders gathering in Geneva on the eve of the 50th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Swiss president is considered "first among equals," in the four party political system. The president oversees the Cabinet, but he or she has no inherent power to set policy, that power is reserved for the Cabinet as a whole, which is led, not controlled, by the president.

Dreifuss' climb to the Swiss presidency was uncommon and remarkable. Her ideals and political goals shape a leader of character and strength. Concentrated on the politics of gender equality, education, maternity, abortion rights, sports, and the environment, Dreifuss has transformed the lens of Swiss politics. One week prior to her election, Dreifuss witnessed the passing of a state-paid maternity benefit, an ambitious program she piloted. The program moves Dreifuss closer to a political promise to Swiss women, that she would remain in politics until Maternity leave is a universally protected under the law in Switzerland. Such aspirations have garnered Dreifuss a rare level of support from women, who represent the entire spectrum of political ideologies. As anti-Semitism festers, Dreifuss is also the first Jewish President in the history of Switzerland. Though she is not a religious woman, in August she welcomed the $1.25 billion Holocaust reparation, and quietly frowned upon the festering anti-Semitism on all levels of Swiss society.

Switzerland, while independent for a century and a half, has only truly included women since 1971. As late as 1959 the government continued to actively exclude women from the political process. Since suffrage, women have quickly expanded their political participation. Women now hold 46 positions on the National Council and seven in the Council of States, althought Dreifuss is the only woman in the seven-member Federal Council. The first woman to advance into the Federal Council, the inner circle of Swiss government, was Elisabeth Kopp, a Radical Democrat. She joined the Swiss cabinet in 1984, but constant impairments by the male-dominated government and the inherent responsibilities of her difficult locale forced her to resign in spite of the prospects of a presidency in 1989. Dreifuss is only the second woman to advance into the Swiss Cabinet. Consistently refusing to waver under the pressure, she perseveres into the nations chief office by protocol, despite these significant gender barriers.

Often, Dreifuss takes a silent seat in religious issues, choosing instead to address her energies towards gender issues. She is a strong supporter of the European Union and the United Nations, both of which will play essential roles in the success of her presidency. Dreifuss explained, following her election, that Swiss women were now permanently hitched into Swiss politics, and that "We [women] have all the tools to change [Swiss] society, and we will change society."

Dreifuss consistently refuses to be a figurehead for Switzerland's male-dominated government to manipulate. She has warned counterparts, "I don't want to be treated - bouquets of flowers and all - as though I were only a piece of jewelry for the confederation." She envisions a future Switzerland where women, who consist of fifty percent of the Swiss population, reside in fifty percent of the nations parliamentary seats and national offices. Dreifuss, a voice of character in a world starving for leadership, has an optimistic vision for the future. Incredibly, she grasps the magnitude of her Presidency for Swiss women, and almost unfazed she prepares to transform Switzerland and the World into a better place.


  1. British Broadcasting Company (BBC) news reports:
    1. Wednesday, December 9, 1998 11:31 GMT news report
    2. Thursday, December 10, 1998 5:31 (UK) BBC World Service, WBUR - National Public Radio, 90-9 AM.
  2. Davis, Douglas. "As Swiss face anti-Semitism a Jew takes office of president," Jewish Telegraph Agency Inc.-Virtual Jerusalem.com Global News & Analysis; December 8,1998 (JTA).
  3. "Election of the President and the National Council of the States and the Federal Council, Federal Supreme Court, Federal Insurance Court" results released by the nation of Switzerland*
  4. "Federal Councilor Ruth Dreifuss" at the Swiss Embassy to the United Kingdom <http://www.swissembassy.org.uk/politics/dreifuss.htm> 7/15/99
  5. "Swiss Chamber Elects Woman President." The Irish Times, Thursday December 10, 1998 (Reuters - World News Wire)

* This citation is recognized as being incomplete and will be completed if/when possible.

Map of Switzerland
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Click on inset for clickable world map.

Statistical Highlights
Total Population (thousands) - 1997 7,097
Crude Birth Rate (per 1000 pop) - 1997 11.4
Crude Death Rate (per 1000 pop) - 1997 8.9
National Income (Mill. Swiss Francs [CHF]) - 1996 provisional 303,346
National Income per Capita (CHF) - 1996 provisional 42,692
G.D.P. Growth Rate - 1997 1.7%
Population whose primary language is German 63.7%
Population whose primary language is French 19.2%
Population whose primary language is Italian 7.6%

Gender Equity Information
Women per 100 Men 104
Full Suffrage for All Adult Women Obtained in (year) 1971
Percentage of legislature consisting of women 17%
Percentage of cabinet consisting of women 14%
Literacy Rate (F/M) 99% / 99%
Life Expectancy at Birth (F/M, in years) 81.7 / 74.6

Development Information Score
(of 1.000)
(HDI of 174)
(GDI of 163)
HDI 0.930 16
GDI 0.887 18

Hear the Swiss National Anthem, from National Anthems of the World
Flag graphic byAntónio Martins, courtesy of FOTW: Flags Of The World website <http://fotw.digibel.be/flags/> 7/15/99
   (Click on flag for full size version)
Map courtesy of theUniversity of Texas' Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection <http://www.lib.utexas.edu/Libs/PCL/Map_collection/Map_collection.html> 7/15/99
Statistical Information provided by the Swiss Federal Statistical Office page <http://www.admin.ch/bfs/eindex.htm> 7/15/99
. Specific URLs consulted include: <http://www.admin.ch/bfs/stat_ch/ber00/ekan_ch.htm> for general overview, <http://www.admin.ch/bfs/stat_ch/ber01/eufr01.htm> for more detailed population information, and<http://www.admin.ch/bfs/stat_ch/ber16/eufr16.htm> for language information.
Gender Equity Information provided by Neft, Naomi and Levine, Ann D. Where Women Stand: An International Report on the Status of Women in 140 Countries 1997-1998. NewYork: Random House, 1997.
Development infromation provided by the United Nations Human Development Report 1998 <http://www.undp.org/hdro/98.htm> 7/15/99
   HDI = Human Development Index; GDI = Gender-related Development Index; Click on an index name in the table to view the full chart for that index

Information compiled by and Michael Cohen '01

Biographical profile ©1999 Lucas Baker-Siroty '99. Compilation of country information by Michael Cohen '01. Site as a whole is ©1999 Dessima Williams and CIMTech at Brandeis University. All rights reserved. Further copywright and contact information available at the site index.