The Case for a National Women's Officer



The SNP will shortly elect its Women's and Equalities Convener.  Amy McNeese-Mechan, a trade unionist and SNP member as well as a member of Women for Independence, blogs on how we should respond to inequalties. 

My union has a new Equalities Officer, and that’s always a good thing. He’s a lovely bloke, dedicated and hard-working. What’s not to like?

Well, here’s the thing. While I’d never question another person’s ability to empathise with situations they’ve never experienced, a niggling doubt remains.  If you’re a white, able-bodied, native-born healthy hetero male with a decent job, that doesn’t stop you from campaigning for LGBT, BAME, the disabled, or jobless migrants.  It shouldn’t do.  The fact that you spend your time working to improve others’ lives deserves kudos. But, and there’s still that wee ‘but’ in the back of the mind that asks: have you ever had people whisper and move away on the bus because you were wearing a veil? Have you ever skipped going to a party because you were afraid to walk from the bus stop to the venue at night? Has someone ever expressed attraction to you in a way that made you fear for your physical safety? It is admirable to read about and care about the lives of others, but can you understand the invisible barriers faced by someone whose ‘difference’ is hidden – or all too visible - until they are pointed out to you?

This leads me to another question: what are we still doing wrong, that in the 21st century, our boardrooms and institutions don’t look more like the deck of the starship Enterprise, the vision of the future many of the JFK generation looked hopefully forward to? Where did our ‘boldly go’ go? Where are our minorities, our disabled people, in positions of responsibility and leadership?

Meanwhile, the current contest for the deputy leadership of the SNP serves to demonstrate two things, one positive and the other, well, not so much.  While the choices run the spectrum from experience and gravitas to energetic 'newcomers', and show a civility of discourse and breadth of quality many parties anywhere in the world would die for, there is not one female candidate. People rightly point to the fact that every one of the main Scottish parties, Greens excepted, are led by women. No one however I think would claim that this means the gender gap is a thing of the past.  When you compare figures ranging from pay to positions in boardrooms, devalued or unpaid labour, to the scandalous levels of domestic violence that still plague our societies, no one can say we've 'arrived'. 

Why then the tendency to 'take the foot off the pedal' when driving forward needed change? At least that's the way it seems to me when otherwise progressive organisations combine the role of Women's Officer with Equalities Officer. It is a generic grab-bag that really doesn't satisfy anybody. 

The argument has been made elsewhere (see Jamie Szymkowiak's piece on the subject) that though there are many intersectionalities between minority ethnic, religious, LGBT, and disabled groups (including those with invisible disabilities, mental health, or learning disabilities), there are as as many differences as commonalities. Throwing all this together with women - who make up half the population of the world and may actually inhabit roles of power and privilege (Hillary Clinton and Theresa May leap to mind)  does a disservice.  The most committed representative would struggle with this remit.  Often the reality is that one group - the most vocal, news-current, perhaps the identity the elected representatives themselves inhabit - will be privileged over others. And that can lead to conflict, or feelings of exclusion, which is the opposite of what the role was aiming to achieve. 

If we look back over the history of struggles to improve people's lives, it's when separate strong movements - think of the women's suffrage and the trade union movements - come together to learn from and support each other, not to subsume each other, that great strides are made.  Right now, Black Lives Matter activists are supporting Palestinians in Gaza, and native protesters against the Dakota Pipeline in the U.S.  Here are people demonstrating through concrete action that they see the intersections and commonalities of their struggles. 

Again, if we think of the worst offences against humanity of the last century, we can see those in power pitting one group of disadvantaged people - jobless workers and migrants, for example - against each other. 

My union and my party put huge resources and commitment into supporting people, regardless of where or what colour you were born, how you choose to express your sexuality, your spiritual beliefs.  It is not an issue of commitment.  I don't believe it is an issue of resources - we are blessed with a wealth of committed activists willing to take on the yoke to fight for others. I suspect however that it may be a desire to 'streamline', or perhaps to make structures more 'modern' or efficient, to simply lump "anyonewhoisntwealthywhitemaleheterosexualablebodiedfinanciallysecurementallypositiveprotestantaryan' and tell them to stand under one umbrella.

There's no brolly big enough. Because really, that's the majority of us. 

Depending on size of membership and demand, there may be a desire to organise into committees to represent disabled, BAME, or LGBT members and elect officers to represent each. Alternatively, for purposes of unity and strength in numbers, committees may want to select one Equalities Officer to represent all their interests. But to combine all of these complex issues together with one half of humanity? That just feels like another form of marginalisation. 

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