Women and power in a new Scottish politics


Never explain. Never retract. Never apologise. Just get the thing done and let them howl.

Nellie McClung, Canadian Suffragette

Political engagement in Scotland is fast becoming less of an armchair activity for the few and more of a mass flash mob of creative thought. In the last three months since the referendum, there has already been a sold out Women for Independence conference, sold out Green Party conference, sold out SNP conference, sold out Radical Independence Campaign conference and a sold out Hydro for Nicola Sturgeon’s tour, nevermind continued local meetings up and down the country and numerous successful crowdfunders for new media platforms.

And at the heart of the new political powerhouse that is the electorate in Scotland, is women. The first ever female first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, was elected by the Scottish parliament on 19 November. The first minister quickly made a pledge to gender equality in her first speech to Holyrood and then followed this gesture by appointing the first ever gender neutral cabinet. In the Green Party, while before the referendum membership was 59 per cent male and 41 per cent female, women now make up 51 per cent of new members.

But these are the figures of party politics, and if the Yes campaign is any measure of the democratic change seen in Scotland it is only one side of a much more diverse story, no more iconically demonstrated than a viral video of a lass armed with a buggy on Sauchiehall Street, questioning Ed Miliband on his nuclear policy and opinions on child poverty rates. Throughout the Common Weal National Tour in November and December, women were overwhelmingly leading and populating the Common Weal Locals, and indeed it is in the grassroots where the redressing of political power, in more ways than one, is to be found.

In the weeks after the referendum, Women for Independence saw a surge in membership from around 40 local groups to 60. Kathleen Caskie, full time coordinator for Women for Indy in the last weeks before the referendum, likens the democratic wave among Scottish women to the political metaphor of destabilising Westminster’s power. Empowering women and ensuring their involvement in the democratic process will change how politics is done in Scotland. In her 30 to 40 years of working in politics, she says she has “never seen anything like it”. According to Caskie, women across the country are recognising the need for change and saying: “We can do it.”

Women for Independence co-founder Natalie McGarry says that in the weeks after the referendum, organisers of the group thought that they would get a break. However, to the surprise of most people after the No vote, activism has become more popular than ever.

“Inspiration comes from being involved and helping to shape stuff, and women are tired of standing back and watching things being shaped in front of us without our say,” she explains. “We have been excluded from the democratic process for so long and no one wants to hand our politics back.”

To match this increasing interest in political engagement in the Women for Indy membership, the organisation has developed plans for training days around the country covering desired subjects such as public speaking, media training and economics. Beyond the soaring party member numbers for the Yes parties, women are independently finding innovative ways to get involved in their local campaigns by creating spaces specifically designed to give women access to education and debate. One example is the Babes in Arms and Little Politics groups which were founded to organise child-friendly meetings for mothers. Similar to Caskie, McGarry frames this action as a restructuring of power in Scottish politics.

“Women have come to the conclusion that no one is going to organise for them, they have to do it themselves,” she says. “Power is never going to come and is not going to be shared – it’s just not going to happen. At some point, you have to come the conclusion that power must be demanded.”

Louise McDermott, a care manager from Clydebank and mother of three recounts a similar experience in her politicisation after the referendum.

“I feel very strongly that I am paying for something – a service – and my politicians are not meeting those standards and expectations,” she says.

She likens it to her own experience of the National Audit Commission upholding standards in her job, adding: “There’s no one who does this – and I realised that’s our job.”

McDermott didn’t participate in campaigning before the referendum, but since the result she has been active in her local Yes Clydebank Alliance group. She is motivated “not by rage but by determination” to make a difference in her local community.

She counts youths in Scotland to be of particular inspiration, and her own 10-year-old daughter is already motivated to campaign and engage in the democratic process. Speaking as the national coordinator of youth movement Our Generation, previously known as Generation Yes during the referendum campaign, Rhiannon Spear says that because the referendum was the first political experience for youth, they are not used to “old style politics”. She claims that the norm of politics as old men in suits was challenged by the Yes campaign, and that one of OurGen’s main goals is “to keep that image out of politics”.

After attending the Women for Independence Conference in Perth in early October, feminist historian and Common Weal Board member Lesley Orr was left without a doubt that “this is a mass movement of women. There were all kinds of women from all sorts of backgrounds and places, from 16 to 96”. For Orr, the overwhelming message from these women is ‘I can make a difference’: a realisation of their collective, political power. She says that the referendum was “an opportunity to focus on some of the major issues that are true of the political system of Britain but which could also continue to be true in Scotland”.

“There’s no point in having an independent parliament if it only reproduces patriarchal Westminster and of what has often gone on in local councils in Scotland,” she adds.

Speaking from a historical perspective, Orr says that there has been a long legacy of women organising together in Scottish politics, and that this political moment is the result of a lot of hard work from feminist activists. From issues relating to access to education and employment rights in the 18th century, to the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s – which has seen lasting organisations like Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis dedicated to women’s rights – right up to the 50/50 campaign before the beginning of the Scottish parliament in the 1990s.

Yet this history is often overshadowed by what Orr calls “a dominant narrative of Scottish history that is very male and very masculine, dominated by men’s activity and men as heroes. Everybody talks about Red Clydeside as a very masculine story and people think and imagine Scotland in a very macho way.”

Co-founder of the Radical Independence Campaign Cat Boyd expresses similar frustrations at the lack of recognition of Scottish female movers and shakers in history.

“If you walk down Buchanan Street and ask people if they know who Jimmy Reid is, everyone will know,” she says. “If you ask the same people about the women striking in the Lees jeans factory in Glasgow in the same period, no one will know.” She said there is a “forgotten” history of women in politics and a “fetishisation” of the upper Clyde shipyards.

The real danger of this national, selective memory, however, is in what Boyd calls a “poverty of analysis on the left of explaining feminism”. While women in power, like Nicola Sturgeon, act as an orientation towards a more representative society, a collective feminist movement that challenges structural oppression is the only way to achieve a socialist society.

“Class was at the heart of the referendum and gender is at the heart of class; unless socialists have an analysis of gender, the same system will be replicated,” Boyd says.

The project of reframing the patriarchy as implicit in the structures of capitalism was discussed at length in Scottish Independence: a Feminist Response, co-written by Boyd and feminist academic Jenny Morrison.

Morrison says that her priority is “bringing social class back into feminism – This means starting at the grassroots and organising working class women to push for change.”

On moving forward, she adds: “Having women equally and centrally involved in all political activity is essential for democracy. The task now is to keep the momentum going as women can’t take any progress for granted. Although indy was a great campaign and involved lots of women in politics we should be careful of complacency or of overstating how far we have come – women have a long way to go in Scotland in fighting for equality.”

Information direct from Green Party.