March 10, 2021

Margrith Bigler-Eggenberger, first female federal judge in Switzerland

Elisabeth Joris

Committed to human rights, gender equality, justice and social protection

1972, just one year after the introduction of women’s suffrage in Switzerland, the Federal Parliament elected, by a narrow majority, the solicitor Margrith Bigler-Eggenberger, born in 1933 in the canton of St. Gallen, as the first substitute judge and two years later as the first titular judge at the Federal Supreme Court in Lausanne. Her achievements during her long service at the Federal Supreme Court bear witness to her commitment to human rights, gender equality, justice and social protection for the weaker members of society. This commitment has been shaped by her life experiences.

Portrait of Margrith Bigler-Eggenberger sitting at her office desk
Margrith Bigler-Eggenberger poses for a portrait photogpraph in her apartment in St. Gallen, Switzerland, on September 10, 2019. Margrith Bigler-Eggenberger was elected the first female full federal judge of Switzerland in 1974. Photo: KEYSTONE/Christian Beutler

Born in 1933 in a predominantly industrial community, Margrith Eggenberger was confronted at a very early age with the poverty that characterises many working-class families. Her parents were committed members of the Social Democratic Party. During the war, refugees went in and out of the family home. Years later, having become a lawyer in the meantime, she married the German-born historian Kurt Bigler (born in Bergheim), who had managed to escape from a concentration camp and cross the border into Switzerland as a teenager.

As a substitute judge, as her first case was the constitutional appeal lodged by Zurich prostitutes against the decision of the City of Zurich to evict them to an industrial zone. With the argument that trade and business freedom also applies to “prostitutes”, she also penetrated the fellow judges. Thus, the highest authority in Switzerland defined prostitution as a professional activity. As a titular judge, she was transferred to the civil law department against her will. Because her arguments justified judgments of groundbreaking weight in favour of women, she achieved long-term success there. For example, thanks to a decision that she strongly influenced, the calculated hourly wage for housework can legitimise claims for compensation. Margrith Bigler-Eggenberger also succeeded in getting the Federal Supreme Court to take into account the necessity of social security for non-working women in divorce matters, which was later clearly regulated by the new divorce law. One of the highlights of her career was Switzerland’s first equal pay lawsuit in 1977, four years before the introduction of the equality article in the constitution. A teacher from Neuchâtel filed a public law suit for wage discrimination, and the Federal Supreme Court ruled in her favour. Based on her experiences, Magrith Bigler-Eggenberger, in her standard work Justitias Waage – wagemutige Justitia? wishes to see, contrary to the norm, a “vigliant Justitia”, who does not close her eyes to the reality of de facto inequality despite formal equality.

Elisabeth Joris is a Swiss historian, professor in Zürich. She edited  several works about women's and gender history in Switzerland and she  was a co-editor of the feminist magazine Olympe. In 1986, she published Frauengeschichte(n) a pioneering source book about women's history in Switzerland alongside Heidi Witzig.
Article originally published in Denise Schmid (Hg.): Jeder Frau ihre Stimme. 50 Jahre Schweizer Frauengeschichte 1971-2021, Zurich 2020. Published here with kind permission of its author.