In the first article in our new series - Why Feminism Still Matters - Kathleen Caskie explains why, despite accusations of sexism - feminist and women's organisations like us are essential if we're to achieve (gender) equality in Scotland today.
Sam: They have bathrobes at the gym?
C.J.: In the women's locker room.
Sam: But not the men's.
Sam: Now, that's outrageous. There's a thousand men working here and fifty women...
C.J.: Yeah, and it's the bathrobes that's outrageous.
The West Wing Season 2 Episode 13 - “Bartlet’s Third State of the Union”
The backlash has started. Folk who loved Women for Independence during the referendum campaign, thinking they could suck from us some legitimacy with sceptical female voters, have noticed that we continue to organise, continue to campaign and continue to exist outwith the control of any political party or faction. And suddenly we’re not feeling the love any more.
Our Twitter account is a regular feast of unasked-for contributors getting in touch to tell us that we are sexist, because if we were ‘for equality’ we would allow men to join us, to come to our meetings, to be involved in our internal democracy. People contact us to tell how they feel ‘excluded’. In short people think that Women for Independence should not have the audacity to exist at all in its current form.
Of course, it’s not just Women for Independence as an organisation that these people object to; it’s the idea of feminism itself.
WFI National Committee member Carolyn Leckie writes a regular column in The National. Two weeks ago, commenting on a rape storyline in the London-based television soap opera “Eastenders” Carolyn commented;
“Actually, the storyline around the rape of his partner, Linda, has been mostly well done. Mick believed Linda, and stood by her throughout her ordeal. Alas, machismo took over in the end – as it often does when men violate other men’s ‘property’.
Sometimes, soaps really can portray real life with chilling accuracy. “
This fairly innocuous, self-evident comment managed to irritate and, in a letter published today from a correspondent in West Lothian, again in The National, this thought was shared.
“If The National allows a feminist to generalise and have a go at men in every single column then perhaps they should allow a man to do the same.”
Anyone who reads Carolyn’s column will be scratching their head at that one. She has written on a broad range of subjects. Her column this week looks at the track record of Gordon Brown, on the plans to demolish the steps at the Royal Concert Hall and on Madonna’s recovery from her fall at the Brits. In her column which included the discussion of the Eastenders story line, she also wrote about the NHS and on the political situation in Greece.
But the backlash is not about Carolyn’s thoughts on any of these matters. It’s because she commented on Danny Dyer’s character’s machismo in Eastenders. Is it a new revelation that some men regard “their” women as property? Do people genuinely not realise that up until the twentieth century women effectively were property? They were unable to own their own property, they were passed from their father to their husbands on marriage, and denied an education, autonomy, dignity and equality. Or do they genuinely believe that somehow all these attitudes were wiped out by legislation that stated men and women were to be treated equally (legislation, incidentally, which was passed in my lifetime, not hundreds of years ago. Lawyers like Carol Fox continue to fight for women to receive equal pay, now, here, in the twenty-first century.)
It would be easy to ignore the sneering if it was coming from our Unionist political opponents. But much of it comes from people who are supposed to be on our side, who are supposed to be part of the movement fighting for a progressive, modern, independent Scotland.
Why are some men (not all men, of course, as we’re always expected to make clear) so terrified at losing one ounce of their current privilege? They can’t quite believe that an organisation can exist without using the skills, talents and abilities of men. Like them. It angers them that there is a place where their voice cannot be heard. But there are women too who are angry that Women for Independence exists.
Well OK. We were never going to be everybody’s cup of tea. We didn’t set out to be the 52% of the 45%. It’s a shame for men who want to join us and can’t.
But we can’t be all things to all people. We don’t want to be. We have a distinctive voice in political debate. One of the reasons Women for Independence was set up in the first place was because at mixed gender political meetings, the voices of men dominated. During the referendum campaign it was commonplace for Women for Indy to be asked to put up speakers at public meetings as, without us, there would have been no women on the platform at all. Women told us that they often didn’t speak out at meetings because they were so frequently interrupted, talked over or just ignored. This isn’t just our opinion; it’s backed up by all the evidence. (See this article by Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook and Adam Grant in the New York Times for a discussion of this).
Of course, we’re not just about giving women a voice, we’re also about equality. We think it’s a great idea. It’s what we’re working for.
Currently just 35% of MSPs are women and just 22% of MPs. Less than one quarter of Scotland’s local councillors are women. Only 26% of Scotland’s judges are women, and only 28% of chief executives of NHS Boards. Twenty-six per cent is also the proportion of female principles of Scottish universities.
So, how do we bridge this inequality gap?
We don’t claim to have all the answers. We believe that a start can be made by helping women to organise and educate themselves in a space where they won’t be talked over and interrupted. We also believe that we need to talk about the issues that particularly impact upon women, including crimes such as rape and domestic abuse which impact disproportionately on women. To talk about rape, we need to also talk about the myths, the assumptions, and the culture and the history of rape, as Carolyn Leckie did by calling attention to the response of Danny Dyer’s Eastenders character and explaining the roots of that common response.
To identify that response and the roots of it, and have a man claim that this is ‘anti-male’ and call for a specifically misogynist column in a newspaper to balance Carolyn’s views is obviously ludicrous, but sadly not atypical. Some people are not just uncomfortable at attempts to analyse and understand gender injustice, they are angry that the subject has even been raised. They are like the Unionists who fume about independence supporters who continue to promote our cause after the referendum. “You’ve had your say; now go back in your box”.
When we talk about the specific issues facing female offenders, as we did in our campaign against the proposed new jail in Inverclyde, why do some people feel the need to contact us to tell us we are hypocrites because we haven’t also talked about male offenders, demanding that we also take up their cause? When we talk about the problems facing single mothers, why are we are contacted by people demanding that we also take up the case of fathers?
In short, whenever we talk about women we get told that we also need to consider the needs of men, despite the fact that men dominate public and political space in Scotland, both in number and in voice.
We’re tired of listening to these criticisms. We’re bored with being expected to have the time and energy to defend ourselves in detail over nonsensical points. It’s time you stopped telling us that the real problem is that there are no bathrobes in the male locker rooms.
Why do you support women-only organisations? And why do you feel we still need feminism in twenty-first century Scotland? We welcome all women to write for us, and would love a wide array of contributers for this series. To contribute, contact email@example.com.