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In one rural Swiss canton, men vote while women watch

The last Sunday in April is a day when men are men, the women stay home, and tradition reasserts itself here despite fundamental changes in the life style of Swiss farmers and villagers. The Landsgemeinde is perhaps one of the few remaining examples in the world of direct democracy on a large scale: once a year some 2,000 men from Appenzell Canton assemble in the town square and vote on local issues, as they have done for more than 500 years.

The women watch.

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The turnout this year for the Landsgemeinde was about the same as usual, with an estimated 40 percent of eligible voters. The town - with its brightly painted houses sitting amid rolling green hills and cows dotting the countryside - looks like a place where little has changed for decades. It has a reputation to match: this is the last corner of Switzerland where women do not have the right to vote in local elections.

But only outsiders seem to worry about the lack of equality.

Appenzell residents say appearances are misleading and the town is not a bedrock of conservative antifeminism. They believe they are not so much keeping women down as upholding a valued tradition.

``Women don't want the vote here,'' says Urs D"orig a banker in his mid-twenties. Mr. Doerig's friends, crowded around two tables at the Saane Caf'e, concur with him and recall that the last opinion poll taken showed 60 percent of women against getting the vote. The waitress in the cafe, perhaps in her late 50s, is more adament than the young men. ``Women belong in the kitchen!''

Men and women in the town seem to agree that the lack of a vote does not mean women are powerless. One group of village women was watching the proceedings from second-story windows. Laughing, they said they tell their husbands how to vote. And from their perch overthe square, the women could see just how the men voted.

The question of women voting became more important as Switzerland moved from being a farm-based to industrial society, the women say, because in traditional households the women often controlled the purse strings and had a voice in farm affairs. Every 10 years or so the issue of Appenzell women voting comes up again. Since women now have voting rights in elections at other than the local level, the issue has been defused.

The lot of women in the region, and throughout Switzerland, is in fact changing. Women were only given the vote in federal elections in 1971. Ten years later a national referendum passed a constitutional amendment to guarantee the eq ual treatment under law of women. Other changes will take place more slowly, such as equal pay for equal work. Each change must be voted in - and because these are federal elections, the women from the Appenzell kitchens will cast their ballots.

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Yvana Enzler, a Bern-based diplomatic service employee, is from Appenzell. She says the vote is often that of a couple, and resistance to change has a pragmatic, rather than moral foundation. ``If women were given the vote, the Landsgemeinde could not be held in the town square - there wouldn't be room for everyone. And people think that would be a shame, they believe it's important to keep alive the tradition of direct democracy.''

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