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  • Writer's pictureSorina I. Crisan, PhD

Women in Swiss Politics: Margareta Kiener Nellen reflects on her career journey & explains how the Swiss government works

What is it like to craft a career in law and politics in Switzerland? In this inspiring interview, Margareta Kiener Nellen, a prominent attorney and retired politician, shares insights from her distinguished career and life journey, as well as a detailed explanation of how the Swiss government works. Born in 1953 near Bern, Kiener Nellen grew up in a politically engaged household, sparking her early awareness of social injustices. In this conversation, she describes the three pivotal moments that helped define and guide her work in politics.

First, noticing her parents' conservative views related to the 1959 referendum on women's suffrage in Switzerland, fueled her growing sense of gender equality. Second, witnessing the wage disparity faced by Italian migrant workers in Switzerland strengthened her resolve to fight for social justice. And third, being asked to join her high school classmates at the airport to mourn the arrival of U.S. military casualties flown back from South Vietnam, during her exchange year in the state of Wisconsin, deepened her commitment to peace.

These formative experiences laid the foundation for her lifelong dedication to advocating for equal rights and challenging societal norms in Switzerland and abroad. She succeeded in tirelessly working towards her goals because, as Kiener Nellen powerfully states, early in her law career she learned that she needed to "overcome" her "fears and shyness to do something for the first time." Beyond her impressive legal career, her strong determination led her to hold positions such as Mayor of Bolligen and Chair of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the world's largest regional security organization comprising 57 states from Europe, Central Asia, and North America. Today, drawing from a rich background in law and politics, she continues to be a vocal advocate for gender equality, social justice, and peace.

Margareta Kiener Nellen, interview with Sorina Matthey de l'Endroit, Ph.D., Persuasive Discourse

Q1. Thank you for taking part in the Persuasive Discourse interview series. As we start our conversation, may I please ask you to briefly introduce yourself and share with us the moment you first became aware of politics and its role in people’s lives?

Answer: I was born in Switzerland in 1953, in the vicinity of the city of Bern, where I presently reside. I am the third of three children. My father, a descendant of farmers, was a right-wing politician, while my mother embodied the stereotype of a housewife and gardener.

When I was a child, I experienced two incidents that deeply politicized me.

The first incident occurred in 1959, when I was around six years old, during a national vote on women's suffrage in Switzerland. The goal of the referendum was to determine whether women would gain the right to vote and participate in national elections, a right that had been absent until that year, in contrast to most other European countries. This underscores the fact that Switzerland, during the 1950s, and thus during my childhood, lagged behind in terms of progressive social policies. It was at that time that I discovered both my parents were actively involved in campaigning against the introduction of female suffrage in Switzerland. And as a young girl, I didn't like this idea because I wanted girls, boys, women, and men to have the same rights. In hindsight, that was my first strong disagreement with the government and the politics from the right.

Then the second incident took place in a village north of Bern, where I grew up, and where I also live now, and where I later became a mayor. When I was a child, I found out that the foreign workers on the farms, who at that time were mostly Italian men who came to Switzerland in the 1950s and 1960s, earned much less than the Swiss men who were doing the same type of farm chores. I found out this fact by talking to Italian foreign workers, whom today we would call migrant workers. It made me very angry to notice the unequal treatment of people coming from other countries, as opposed to Swiss people or people who were already integrated in Switzerland. There was a clear difference in salary, a wage gap between foreigners and Swiss people. Of course, later on, I also found out about the big salary gap between women and men in Switzerland. And probably most of you know that this is still an important political issue that we need to overcome now not only in Switzerland but also in most parts of Western Europe, and in other parts of the world.

Q2. There’s a big difference between observing injustices in our society, particularly as a child, and then actually doing something about it and crafting a career that can allow us to make a positive impact in those areas as an adult. I’m curious to know: how did your path from childhood to adulthood guide you to be able to make a positive impact in Swiss society and on the political scene?

Answer: The injustices which I observed as a child in Switzerland, made me question just about everything in this society and in the political system in Bern, where I grew up.

I completed all my education in Switzerland, except for one year when I was an exchange student in the United States from the age of 17 to 18 years old, thus during my senior year of high school. I studied in the U.S. from 1970 to 1971, at the height of the Vietnam War. While in the U.S., I noticed another horrible reality of life - the war. As a senior high school student in the state of Wisconsin, I was one of the young people who were called to go to the airport as high school students when the bodies of the dead G.I.s arrived by plane. We were called to mourn, almost to cry, at the airport upon the arrival of the coffins in which the dead bodies of the G.I.s were placed. Then, the same evening, I would watch television and hear the American President Nixon appeal to the American people, using words like, “we must win that war.” It was shocking to notice this conflict and the schizophrenia about producing so many dead people, both on the Vietnamese side and on the American side, in this absolutely stupid war—as I consider every war to be stupid and horrible. I believed that there must be other means to negotiate and discuss when there are political conflicts between people or between governments or states. So, that was yet another experience that made me more aware of the role of politics in ending or escalating conflicts.

Once back in Switzerland, I finished my high school studies, and to cut the story short, the day after finishing high school, I decided to take the plane to New Zealand. This was the country I had chosen to emigrate to in order find another place on Earth where I could live and study. But after only one year there, I decided to come back to Geneva and enroll at the University of Geneva’s Faculty of Translation and Interpreting School (FTI, formerly ETI), because while abroad I discovered that I was much more of a European than I had previously thought, and I needed to live in an environment where I was surrounded by a variety of cultures and languages. As a result, I chose to become a translator.

Later, I decided to study law, at University of St. Gallen, and quite late, at the age of 30, I became an attorney at law. And that's the profession in which I can defend women, girls, or any people who suffer from injustices in terms of: salary, domestic violence, sexual violence, and discriminations of any kind. Now, I am very happy to share that my oldest son has chosen to join me in my law office. I'm very glad that I can have a two-generation law office in Bern and work together with my son and other young attorneys.

To conclude, that's a little about my journey from childhood to adulthood and how it led me to the profession that I still have now as an attorney at law in Bern.

Q3. Why did you choose to get involved in politics?

Answer: From what I've been saying earlier, you may guess that as a child, I strongly disapproved of discrimination and conservatism in Swiss society. When I returned to the municipality of Bern and after I had opened a law office there, I became a candidate for the Socialist Party. Later on, I entered municipal politics and became a mayor. But even before that, I was elected to the cantonal parliament in Bern, which is the second biggest canton of Switzerland.

Long ago, I had found out that in order to change anything in a society and in a country, you need, and especially women of any age need to get involved in a public mandate, be it at the municipal, cantonal, or national level.

Q4. Speaking of the three levels of government, can you please explain how the Swiss political system works to someone who is not be familiar with it?

Answer: Switzerland is a federal state, and there are three levels at which you can get involved politically. At the first, grassroots level, there are about 3,000 municipalities. Then, at the second level, one finds the 26 cantons (including larger ones like Zurich, Bern, Vaud, and Geneva, as well as smaller ones which are mainly located in the central and eastern parts of the country). And lastly, at the third, national level, we find a bicameral parliament, which consists of the National Council (where I served for 16 years from 2003 to 2006 and again in 2019), and the Senate, as the second chamber.

The Senate, also called the Council of States, is composed of 46 senators who represent the 23 full cantons and the three half cantons (with two senators elected from each canton every four years). Swiss citizens also elect 200 members to the National Council, which is also called the Chamber of the People. For the Senate, the election is by majority system, meaning it is focusing more on the person than on the party. While, for the National Council, political parties propose candidates on ballots, with the number of candidates matching every canton’s population size.

For example, in the Canton of Bern, where I was elected in 2003, we had 28 seats due to its large population. My party, the Socialist Party, proposed 28 candidates, and the other parties did the same. Then the parties compete, and those with the most votes win the most seats. In 2003, my party gained eight seats—four for women and four for men—plus one Senate seat.

Every four years, in each of the 23 cantons, the representation to the National Parliament is decided by the people, electing members to both the National Council and the Senate.

At all three levels—municipal, cantonal, and national—there is a parliament and an executive, which we can call a government. At the municipal level, there is a community council elected by the people every four years. Larger municipalities may have a parliament, while smaller ones might have a public assembly where citizens gather twice a year to discuss important issues such as budgeting, school structures, daycare facilities, and more.

At the cantonal level, parliaments discuss important legislation on hospitals, education, professional schools, universities, and specialized colleges. At the national level, the Parliament discusses a wide range of laws covering civil law (like marriage and inheritance), criminal law (like theft or serious crimes), and regulations related to the European Union due to Switzerland's bilateral agreements and participation in Schengen and Dublin agreements.

To clarify, the Schengen Agreement allows travel between many European countries without needing to show a passport at the border. The Dublin Regulation is a collective agreement that establishes a common European policy on migration. It determines how individuals who enter Europe from countries such as Afghanistan, Syria, or Ukraine, often fleeing conflict, are to be accepted and treated. Under the Dublin rules, countries like Switzerland, which adhere to these regulations, enable these individuals to request asylum. This process guarantees them protection in Switzerland, as it does in other European states.

What sets Switzerland apart is its direct democracy. Since 1874, our federal constitution has allowed popular initiatives. Therefore, collecting 100,000 signatures from citizens can trigger a national vote on an issue, like the current initiative from my party to lower health insurance costs, which will be voted on this June 9th, 2024. Citizens can also gather 50,000 signatures for a referendum, forcing a national vote on a law already passed by parliament. For example, we will have a referendum on September 22nd of this year regarding old age pensions/retirement benefits. In Switzerland, there can be national votes on initiatives or referendums about every three months.

Q5. Looking at your work at the international level: what were your main initiatives and recommendations as chair of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Human Rights Committee, particularly regarding Eastern Ukraine?

Answer: I was able to become the chair of this committee for 2018 and 2019. I had been an active member before. It is always a prerogative to have been an active member of a body, organization, or committee to be elected as chair.

As soon as I was elected chair of the Human Rights Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of OSCE in Berlin in July 2018, I decided we needed to conduct a human rights mission to Eastern Ukraine. At that time, the war was ongoing on the front line in Eastern Ukraine. The three of us from the leading body of the Human Rights Committee conducted three human rights missions during that period, not only to Kiev, where we held many briefings and interviews with various bodies and organizations, but also to the front line. We visited Mariupol in the south, and in the north, we went to Kramatorsk, Slavyansk, Siversk, and Donetsk.

We always aimed to visit the front line, and we published several internal reports within the OSCE, along with a comprehensive public report. We presented this report at a press conference in July 2019 at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly conference in Luxembourg. Our main conclusions included an immediate and lasting ceasefire, as by then the casualties had reached about 10,000 dead civilians and about 30,000 wounded civilians on both sides, whether defended by the Ukrainian army on the western side or by the autonomous bodies of the Lugansk People's Republic in the north and Donetsk People's Republic in the south.

We also recommended opening more bridges and transition points across the front line to alleviate the brutal division of the population who needed to move back and forth. Additionally, we strongly recommended that the government in Kiev pay old-age pensions to their citizens living on the eastern side of the front line and facilitate these payments.

These were some of the main conclusions. We also emphasized the need to fulfill the Minsk agreements, pursue peace, and end the war, as I would advocate for an immediate ceasefire to end any war and armed conflict.

Q6. In hindsight, what has been the role of ‘persuasion’ in your career and professional development?

Answer: Looking back, I was quite persuaded on my own about what I needed to do early on in my life to be successful professionally. For example, I knew that I needed to gain a lot of education to be respected and accepted in the Swiss society of my generation. In addition, I am lucky to have benefited greatly from the people around me who convinced me with their positive persuasion to move forward.

For instance, women teachers have had an instrumental positive impact on my life. I believe this started during my third and fourth grades, when I was lucky to have a very strong woman teacher who I felt gave a lot of strength to all the girls in the classroom. Then, later, while studying at interpreter school in Geneva, I benefitted from being taught by very strong women professors who encouraged all of us to study hard and to move forward.

Then, on the professional level, when I was an intern in a law office in Geneva for two years, the senior attorneys, my bosses, sent me to plead a case at the highest Swiss court in Lausanne called, the Swiss Federal Court. I remember being afraid to plead in my first year as an intern, but I did it because they not only persuaded me to do it, but they also mandated it. As a result, in 1982, I went to Lausanne and pleaded a case on labor law which involved the unjust and illegal dismissal of pilots from an airline, SATA, and we won the case. That experience taught me that I had to overcome my fears and shyness to do something for the first time. The people around me who persuaded me to go and plead before the court as a young lawyer really strengthened my own resolve. And, over the length of my career, I was able to achieve many things and obtain justice for people in Switzerland, particularly for women who had been treated unequally or discriminated against.

Q7. Based on your experiences and achievements, what do you see as the most important issues still facing women and the lower and middle classes in Switzerland today?

Answer: As I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation, I was born in 1953 near the capital of Bern, where I live now and from where I am giving this interview. I am now 71 years young. I feel as if I am 17 because I have the luck to be in good health. Through long, long fighting and struggling, we have achieved daycare facilities throughout Switzerland, enabling both mothers and fathers, but specifically mothers, to pursue the professions they have chosen.

In the workplace, we have mandated that large companies conduct legal checks on salary transparency between men and women they employ. However, this does not yet apply to companies with fewer than 100 employees. As a result, we still have a salary gap in Switzerland, which can be up to 20% depending on the company. We will continue to struggle until we achieve absolutely equal salaries between men and women.

Additionally, we have secured the right to abortion during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy if the woman chooses. We fought for this right for a long time and finally won a national vote on this issue around 1998. This can serve as a model for other countries. I consider it very important that women have freedom of choice over their reproductive rights.

Domestic violence is still high, and there is an ongoing campaign to reduce femicides in Switzerland. It is very important to strive for this and for more social rights because the social costs for health and old-age care are too high for the lower and middle classes in Switzerland. The rich are very much privileged by the tax system and by high salaries.

In the long term, the struggle for social justice must focus on ensuring a good life for the middle and lower classes so that they can all lead a good life in Switzerland.

Q8. What are the primary motivations and goals driving your current activism and political work?

Answer: What motivates me today? As a woman, a feminist, and a pacifist, I devote my time to fighting for a better world and engaging in efforts to fulfill the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations, which practically all nations have subscribed to. These goals are very, very good—socially just, ecologically sound, and equitable. I strongly encourage you to look at the SDGs and apply them in practice.

I am deeply committed to the equality of women everywhere in the world and to respecting our personal bodies—women's bodies, men's bodies—and eliminating all forms of sexual violence and domestic violence against any human being.

I also engage as a peace advocate. I work for peace, for a feminist peace, a holistic peace that shelters every baby, girl, boy, and adult from weapons, conflicts, and war. These are my commitments.

I was fortunate to have been elected on the lists of the Socialist Party between 1990 and 2019 in Switzerland, across all three levels of government. This allowed me to file numerous pieces of new legislation, motions, suggestions, and recommendations for what I hope is a more just, social, and non-discriminatory society here in Switzerland and in all other countries.

Q9. To conclude, would you like to share any remarks or suggestions with junior-level professionals interested in following a similar line of work to yours?

Answer: From my experience as a feminist, pacifist, socialist, and politician in Switzerland, the main advice I want to share with young professionals is: Do as much studying, take as many courses, and pursue as much education as you can while you are young. Personally, I did a lot of this up to the age of thirty-three when I finally gained admission to the bar as a barrister in Geneva.

Keep going straight for your ideas and maintain your determination. Talk about your ideas with women who have already succeeded in their careers. Maybe take on mentors to advise and encourage you. Stick to your professional, political, and social goals. This is because I believe that life, politics, and professions are mostly a matter of principles. Make sure to stick to your principles and set your priorities at any stage of your life.

Try to keep a healthy life alongside your career, whether through sports, culture, nature, or any other activities that you can enjoy with your close friends and family. This will help you maintain a good balance between what your body and soul need and what your brain wants to move you ahead and give you a strong position in your career and life.

Thank you for reading this interview. Please remember to subscribe to our newsletter, to receive updates about upcoming interviews, articles, and podcast episodes.


Margareta Kiener Nellen. Interview by Dr. Sorina Crisan Matthey de l’Endroit. Persuasive Discourse.

Attorney, Translator & Former Politician

Partner at Kiener & Nellen | Switzerland

Illustrations: The article photos were provided by Margareta Kiener Nellen. The mai article photo shows the interviewee at the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) Assembly in Geneva, in March 2024.


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