How do we persuade women to support independence?


An opinion poll published this week showed that women are still less likely to vote for Scottish independence than men, just as they were at the 2014 referendum. Women for Indy National Co-ordinator Kathleen Caskie and National Committee member Marsha Scott consider what we can do to address this. 

How do we get women to support independence?

Why are women less likely to support independence than men, and how to we change their minds?

The first thing to say is, stop telling us at Women for Independence this is our job.  We can’t deliver a majority of women supporting independence by a wave of our magic wand (or, more likely in our case, our magic broomstick).   Since we were formed in 2012 we have spent every day, every week and every month talking to women about independence and why we think it’s the best option for women.  We will continue to do this.  But you can’t put the entire responsibility for this on us.  We’re a small, membership organisation, and many of our members are already spending all their free time working on community anti-poverty initiatives or standing as candidates for the local council.   We don’t have a huge excess of resources – money or people – that we can just throw at this to fix it.

The implication of this handing off to WfI is that the rest of the Yes community can get on with the important work:  talking to men and their interests.  It is just like when someone from Scotland goes to a meeting in London, is the only Scot at the table surrounded by 20 people from the London area and maybe someone from Wales or Northern Ireland, and we are asked to speak for the nation,  And do a nation’s worth of work.

It is up to all of us in the independence movement to fix this.  It’s on you.  Don’t look to Women for Indy to solve this problem (or, if you must, at least give us a substantial donation to make it easier.)

Women are not a homogenous group, and it has always been both ironic and sexist for people to talk about the ‘women’s vote’ as if it was a single block.  Women hold a variety of political views, as diverse as men’s.  Perhaps even more diverse, given that most people are women.

The good news is that we don’t have to convince all women to change their minds;  just a small percentage change from ‘No’ to ‘Yes’ among women will deliver independence. 

Women for Independence don’t claim to have all the answers, but we do have some suggestions for the independence movement.


Suggestion 1;  You Cannae Shove Your Granny Off a Bus

One point made this week was that, given women live longer than men, perhaps the sex gap in support for independence is not because of sex at all, but because older people generally are less likely to support independence, and are more likely to be women.  

We need to talk about older women, the great invisible force in our society.  The UK Labour Party set up a Commission on Older Women which published its final report in 2015.

This report identifies just how badly our culture treats older women and how we become invisible as we age.  Until just recently, police figures on women experiencing domestic abuse ended at 50 years old –older women were in a double bind of sexism and ageism. We all know that women TV presenters are forced offscreen  as they grow older, while men are allowed to age gracefully in public.  (Male broadcasters outnumber female broadcasters 4:1 in the over 50 age range.)  

We get it.  Older women are no longer young and beautiful and fertile.  They can no longer carry your seed.  You don’t want to look at them on television or hear about their icky health issues.  And now it turns out they’re No voters too.  Truly there are plenty of men in the Yes campaign who wish that they COULD throw their Granny off a bus . . but you cannae.

However, unless you are referring to your own parent’s mother, no  independence supporter should use the word ‘Granny’, particularly as a generic term for older women.   

Because, while some older women are Grans, some aren’t.  Some – Grans and non-Grans alike – are the doughty fighters taking on the UK Government in the WASPI campaign.  Some were among the women who fought the military-industrial complex at Greenham Common and have provided the backbone for the constant anti-nuclear presence at Faslane.   You were borne and raised by older women.  Older women wiped your arse for you before you were able to do it for yourself.  If you’re tweeting ‘How do we persuade the Grans to vote Yes’, then stop.

We are not the grans, the birds, the girls, the mums or even the ladies.  A 28 year old mother standing as a council candidate is not ‘the wee lassie’ or even (shudder) ‘a dolly bird’ (seriously, I have heard this in the last five years).  When, for example, Women for Indy tweets a photo of our fantastic supporters doing amazing things, please don’t call us ‘girls’.  We’re grown-ass women.

Of course, if we choose to attach one of these labels to ourselves, that’s up to us.  Our choice.  You don’t get to put these labels on us.

If you're going to discuss how women vote, do so in respectful terms. 

Suggestion 2;  Stop Waving Things

Our conversations with women who voted No in 2014 suggest that many are looking for hard-issue  reasons to explain a decision which was, at least in part, made emotionally or without a great deal of personal research.  This isn't unusual.  Political decisions are often emotionally-based, made on the basis of how we’ve been made to feel rather than on any thorough and expert consideration of how specific policies will impact upon us. Let us be perfectly clear that this applies at least as much to men as women.

Women who voted No in 2014, on the whole, are not keen on marches, rallies and flag-waving for independence.  While we in the Yes movement know how energising and civilised these events were, and how much we enjoyed them in 2014, from the outside they can seem sinister.  Let’s face up to this.  Nobody ever changed their mind because you waved your flag harder at them.

There is a time for mass street presences.  The time is seldom.  If they are being done as a show of strength then the emotions you are generating in those who don’t yet share your view is one of intimidation.  Which, after all, is the whole point of a show of strength.

One of the mistakes we made in 2014 was to talk to ourselves too much.  We held packed Yes meetings with inspiring speakers, mostly attended by people who were going to vote Yes.

Undecided women attending these meetings saw the usual thing that happens at political meetings – top tables dominated by men (with sometimes a Women for Indy speaker added at the last minute when the organisers realised that they had an all-male panel), a ‘questions’ session that was taken over by men standing up and making speeches.  

In public spaces, male voices dominate.  Men talk more than women. They talk over women.  Women’s views are treated less seriously.  And we did that in the Yes movement in 2014.

If the language used is of ‘war’ and ‘sides’ and ‘battles’, the whole thing begins to feel very macho and exclusive.  Let Ruth Davidson talk about ‘fratricide’.  Our language should be gentler and more inclusive.

Never forget that a substantial minority of women are survivors of domestic abuse or sexual assault.  It can be intimidating to be among men who are shouting and standing up and being angry.  It can bring back memories of fear. 

And when we’re talking about Scottish independence, the very last emotion we want to generate among people is fear.

Many women, especially those who live alone, simply won’t open their doors at night because they live in fear, which does make canvassing these women door-to-door difficult.  If they do open their door and there are two large males in their thirties standing there loudly and enthusiastically asking their views, that can be frightening.  

Those canvassing this time need to remember that it is a privilege for a woman to open her door to you, and a privilege if she agrees to talk to you. 

We need to talk to women and hear what they are saying, not wave things at them (literally or metaphorically).

Suggestion 3;  Talk about What Independence is For

In the run up to the Scottish Parliament elections in 2016, Women for Independence held a listening exercise with women to find out what they really wanted from the Scottish Parliament.  The results – which you can read here – are enlightening.   

These discussions mostly, but not exclusively, were held by women already committed to independence, an important caveat. There were ‘red lines’ set by the women in these discussions; No to Nuclear Weapons and No to Fracking.  Perhaps if more No voters had been engaged in this process these would have been different.

When given a free space to talk about what matters to them, women seldom want to talk about the oil price or macroeconomic issues.  Keyboard warriors sending graphs at each other to prove or disprove what deficit an independent Scotland would run tend to be men.

Women know that the things that will make the single biggest differences to their lives in years to come do not come from politics.  A tax increase, or a tax cut, will have far less impact on their household than the illness of a family member or the birth of a new baby. 

Women’s lives are blended.  They do not have the luxury of putting paid employment in a box and separating it from their (unpaid) caring responsibilities, and women continue to be responsible for a disproportionate amount of the domestic and caring work that our society needs.   Many women would prefer employment structures which were based around the realities of women’s lives.  If a child is sick, someone has to take an emergency day off work.  And that someone is disproportionately female. 

Does it matter whether sovereignty lies in London or Edinburgh when you’re trying to juggle paid work, caring and domestic chores?   Women for Indy thinks so, but we need to be able to articulate that to women in ways that reflect women’s lives now, not in a rerun of 2014 Indy politics. When you can’t even get out to attend a meeting because there’s nobody to look after the kids, it’s easy to find politics less than enthralling.  

Women told us that they wanted real power in their communities.  They wanted services – childcare, care services, schools, health services – based in their communities and working together. 

The current Scottish Government is often criticised by Unionists for not doing enough, for not getting on with the day job.  But to be fair to the Scottish Government, they have started a process which, if it continues and is built upon, may be the most radical political change of our lifetimes.  But it’s not a big, beefy, sexy policy swaggering around in a kilt.  It’s the implementation of the ideas and approaches laid out in the Christie Commission.  

(To be fair, perhaps the reason that these huge philosophical changes aren’t discussed much in Holyrood is because there is generally consensus about the direction of travel among political parties.)

Preventative spend, community-based services, tackling loneliness and isolation, community empowerment, participatory budgeting, integration of health and social care, increasing pre-school education; these initiatives all offer an opportunity to make a profound change to the lives of women.  Women are more likely than men to have paid work in these areas.  They are more likely to use the services provided under these initiatives. 

The challenge for independence supporters is to make women understand why independence would improve these issues.   We can repeat the debate of 2014 and shout at each other about currencies and plan Bs until the cows come home, but remember that for many women these are distant, esoteric issues about which their opinion has never been solicited or listened to.  It’s no surprise that shouty debates about them do not engage them.

How much easier would it be to improve and develop care services, early intervention and preventative spending  if immigration and welfare benefits were fully controlled by Scotland?  If we can work this through for women and highlight to them how the course the UK is currently on gets in the way of doing this, then we might make progress.

Women for Independence have recently been working on developing issues around food as a theme for a second independence referendum.  Women are disproportionately responsible for buying and cooking the food we eat.  We need to make women understand that independence offers opportunities for cheaper, healthier food.  Food is about land, food is about families, food is about a human right to have food that you didn’t have to queue up at the Food Bank for. The decisions made and policies followed by the UK Government have undermined Scottish farmers, and the ability to produce seasonal, organic produce at reasonable prices and get it to their neighbours rather than have it exported abroad.

In short, what is it that the Union is stopping us from doing, and how would we do it differently under independence?   If we can show women that independence will make a difference to them or their families or communities, rather than just moving power from one city to another, then we may be more successful in bringing them on board. 

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