Two events to mark International Women’s Day this week have given me pause to reflect on the impact the referendum on independence has had on Scotland’s women and their participation in civic, public and political life.
The first was an event co-hosted by the Centre on Constitutional Change and the Centre for Gender and Feminist Studies at the University of Stirling. A panel of women involved in Scottish political life and nearly 100 guest gathered to talk about the impact the referendum has had on women’s civic and political participation in Scotland.
Johanna Boyd, leader of Stirling council, Maggie Chapman, co-convenor of the Green party, Carolyn Leckie, Women for Independence, Amy McDermott, President of Stirling University Students’ Union, Emma Ritch, Engender and Juliet Swann shared their experiences. This was followed by a roundtable discussion and questions for the panel around the role of the media, mentoring, sexism and political structures.
Despite coming from very different personal and political backgrounds, there was surprising commonality across the women’s experiences. All had become involved in political life through personal contacts and conviction, all had experienced sexism and misogyny, all were upbeat about the role that the referendum played in waking women up to the role they could play in Scotland’s political life.
However they were also realistic about the challenges that face women entering political life – particularly the scrutiny and judgment about family, appearance, experience, skills and whether they have any right at all to enter public, male spaces. There was a shared sense of putting their bodies up for scrutiny and judgement in a way that does not apply to men, and a commitment to zero tolerance to sexism in political campaigns and culture.
The fact that a serving politician felt it was acceptable to refer to a female First Minister as a ‘wee lassie in a tin hat’ and a tabloid newspaper to depict her in a cartoon in a bikini within a few days of International Women’s Day demonstrates the current misogyny that face women in politics.
The second event was a meeting at the Sinn Fein Ard Fleis at the invitation of Mary Lou McDonald, the vice president of Sinn Fein. I shared the platform with Cat Boyd of Radical Independence to speak about women and the referendum. Although the campaign for Irish unity is very different from that for Scottish Independence, there are some shared lessons for women’s emancipation and for movements for political self-determination. Understanding the vested interest the media has in supporting establishment positions and elites, the need to reach across party political lines to achieve common goals, and the need to take positive action to allow women’s voices to be heard in political campaigns were common themes across the two events.
It was a fitting trip for International Women’s Day, as the first woman elected to the British parliament was Constance Marckievicz, a suffragette and socialist elected for Sinn Fein in December 1918 who later become one of the first women in the world to hold a cabinet position as Minister for Labour of the Irish Republic 1919-1922. It is worth remembering the huge sacrifices that the suffragettes made to ensure that women could vote and stand for office, and on the fact that only 28% of candidates in Scottish seats for the 2015 general election are women. The UK currently stands at a rather shameful 56th position worldwide for number of women MPs.
I don’t think we are currently honouring their sacrifice particularly well.