The Gender of Independence
(Photo shows WFI gathering in October 2014 in Perth)
Jane Archer reflects on WFI's history, and the role of gender in the independence debate more widely.
I hadn’t realised how tired I had become of politics and other key areas of public life (still) being dominated by white, middle class men - and any woman who argued feminist politics mocked, undermined, insulted or threatened. In some ways feminist debate had in turn become frightened, and possibly lazy. In the UK today, few feminists discuss Marxist Feminism with a view to focussing on class and poverty, or Radical Feminism with its focus on the systems, structures and institutions of patriarchy. Feminist discussion in the public arena is based on liberal feminism, which often reflects the values of middle class white women who ignore other social divisions such as race and class. Yet in the campaign for Scottish independence, a women’s movement emerged that, in my view, drew from class and patriarchal models to examine the meaning of independence. Women for Independence is a women-only movement for Scotland’s independence and at its very heart is independence for women.
That’s why, two weeks after Scotland voted against independence last year (55%: No 45%: Yes), I joined 1,000 women from across Scotland at the first Women for Independence conference. In the morning there were rousing speeches from key women in the movement. “This is the most politicised generation in Scotland for a long time, arguably now one of the most politicised nations in the world, and you can’t put that back in a bottle,” one woman said. Another founder of Women for Independence paraphrased Gloria Steinman, saying that any woman who chooses to behave like a full human being will ‘need her sisterhood’. The emphasis was on reaching out to other women, including women who had voted No, recognising that we hadn’t taken them with us on this occasion.
No matter how powerful the main speakers were, the afternoon contributions affected me the most. Women from the audience were invited to tell their personal stories. It was clear they came from all kinds of backgrounds: rural, urban, professional, unemployed, carers, students etc. Many got up on stage while others stood at their seat with a microphone. A seventeen year old spoke how it felt to vote for the first time (16-17 year olds voted in the referendum) and how she had become politically active; a woman, who had struggled to find someone to look after her disabled son while she was at the conference, spoke about the plight of carers and how she feared the future. A Scandinavian woman said she found it hard to believe that there was not equal pay in Scotland. This reminded me of a moment when I taught at a Further Education College and a newly appointed colleague was placed at the top of the pay-scale when I, after years of experience, was placed on the second lowest level. The manager informed me that my male colleague was the main earner in his household (as I was in mine). To this day, equal pay legislation is only arbitrarily enforced and managers continue to make judgements on what women ‘deserve’ to be paid based on long outdated gender stereotypes.
In all the stories, there was a sense of bringing country and gender together. As Jawaharlal Nehru said, ‘you can tell the condition of a nation by looking at the status of its women’. The point about equal pay is still relevant across private and public industries and services. It links to how women continue to carry out the bulk of part-time, temporary and ill-paid work. How we still carry out the lion’s share of domestic labour. Domestic abuse (men against women) continues to be highly prevalent in Scotland, as is child abuse, both physical and sexual. Women in Scotland are still the primary carers of children and primary carers of adults with disabilities and mental health problems. Although poverty seems like a genderless concept, it has a stronger hold on women for all of these reasons. Women coming together offered an opportunity to examine how Scottish Independence could lift the status of women and ask how we could create, develop and influence the ways in which policies emerge and are implemented.
Joining Women for Independence was an opportunity to change the mechanics and process of politics. No token ‘make poverty history’ marches; but a movement which viewed independence as a means for women to be closer to centralised power and to pressurise the government in power (not all believed we were voting SNP for life) to come up with economic plans that would fundamentally change the systems and structures of inequality and exploitation. Many of us knew that a Conservative government would consolidate an attack on the poorest and most vulnerable, and that given women account for two thirds of low paid workers in Scotland, this would be an attack on them (and their children). Many women believed that in our independent country, women could be more influential, that voting would matter more (as Scotland would get a government it voted for rather than the UK scenario where England’s vote dictates the UK ruling party), and if the government didn’t come up with the goods, we could vote them out. But fundamentally, Women for Independence was about building women’s agency in their homes and communities, and in local and public life. And it was believed that for a significant number of women the way forward was to create a separate space (from men) to build confidence, to assess priorities and formalise political and social thinking.
Women for Independence was not without its critics. Several key groups and individuals in the ‘Yes’ campaign mocked the organisation and didn’t see its relevance. Some said that other ‘issues’ should not muddy the independence water. After all, there were no more than a hundred women at the 2012, launch of the organisation in Stirling. Plus so many groups had emerged under all sorts of work, leisure, political and interest banners. But many of us didn’t view Women for Independence as adding on ‘another issue’ or competing with Scottish independence: not only because women are half, if not more, of the population, but also because addressing gender inequality and women’s power (or lack of it) is part of our fight for an independent country and central to having a better one.
Not only did women have to cope with resistance across groups in Scotland but, like everyone else who wanted independence, we had also to face up to increasing hostility from the government (Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition), the Labour party and the mainstream media. The barrage of negative coverage by UK and Scottish national press was astounding. Every newspaper, apart from the Scottish Sunday Herald, ‘came out’ as No and the focus was on annihilating the Scottish National Party, particularly Alex Salmond, with little reference to the surge for independence across the country. When I visited London in the run up to the referendum, there were huge Conservative Party bill-boards with pictures of Alex Salmond pick-pocketing a man, with the caption ‘Don’t let Salmond steal your Cash’(apparently to give to Ed Miliband, the Labour leader). This very same Miliband then joined ranks with the Conservative prime minister to offer a last minute ‘deal’ to keep the union (through newspapers and other media). Never had I thought, perhaps naively, that all forums for national news would take sides or, rather, take one side. I’ll never forget a journalist’s Twitter header with the logo ‘what do you not understand about No’ or his timeline filled with comparisons between the Scottish Independence movement and Nazism. Interestingly enough, after the referendum result, there was no comment on the displays of Union Jacks from groups of hard-line, right-wing unionists, some of whom also offer Nazi salutes. In Scotland, the Union Jack is for example often used as a symbol of right wing nationalism (the Scottish Defence League and BNP for example) and aversion to Scottish independence and the SNP.
The mainstream media refused to acknowledge, never mind accept, that although the referendum had been brought about by the SNP, the campaign had taken on a life of its own. It refused to report the thousands of people, with little or no connection to political parties, volunteering in the YES movement or the thousands of women who had joined a feminist independence organisation. And nowhere was it reported that women and men from some of the poorest areas wanted independence from Westminster (A post referendum Ipsos Mori poll showed a 65% Yes vote in the most deprived neighbourhoods in Scotland compared to a 20% Yes vote in the most affluent areas. Even when considering mild fluctuations in statistics, this is a huge margin). Never had it been so apparent that we didn’t have a ‘free press’ and that, indeed, our press was in bed with government and comfortably so.
While newspapers are back to business as usual, Women for Independence is growing and active. In particular, women have continued to request more information, starting with a greater understanding of economics (debt and deficit issues, Scottish and UK resources, imports and exports and Scottish/UK taxation systems). A Scottish economist, Margaret Cuthbert, volunteered to carry out a ‘tour’ of workshops on the economy. I attended one of them in Dundee where fifty or sixty women came out on a drizzly Sunday afternoon to hear her speak. The workshop was free and open to any woman who could come along. Other Women for Independence groups focus on land reform, prisons, Trident and TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership –a highly contentious and secretive bi-lateral agreement between the European Union and USA to reduce/remove regulatory barriers to trade for big business). There is now a network of over 50 groups across Scotland, some with a local focus (for example food banks and clothes banks for children going back to school) while others support national committee priorities.
Women for Independence, along with a combination of other factors, has changed many women’s attitude to independence. In early stages of the referendum, the polls suggested as little as 25% of women would vote ‘Yes’, and, reflecting common election demographics, many wouldn’t vote at all. In the months before the vote, projections of women to vote ‘Yes’ climbed 14 points. On September 18th 2015, according to Ashcroft polls, 44% of women voted Yes (YouGov suggested a lower vote of 42%). But it wasn’t enough and some commentators blamed women for the loss of the referendum (men’s vote had remained relatively stable at around 50%). But as Kathleen Caskie says in an article on the Women for Independence website, “the blame for does not lie with women but with political norms and structures which exclude them, and with a society that has never prioritised educating women about power, how it works and how they can access it.” Of course, this point is exactly what the Scottish independence movement was about: “where power lies” and “how it’s used”. We wanted the remaining, significant powers taken out of Westminster and placed, in their entirety, in Holyrood. As Kathleen Caskie says, “Scottish independence did not guarantee gender equality, it simply offered a better opportunity to get there.” That’s why the organisation continues to campaign after the referendum and why its full name is Women for Independence – Independence for Women.
This article was first published on 18 September 2015 by Commonwealth Writers.
Jane can be contacted on twitter @janearcherville