Why women have become politicised in great numbers

This article originally appeared in The Herald

Although, overall, women were slightly less likely to vote Yes than men in the independence referendum, the upswing in voter turnout and in support for the Yes campaign was due in no small part to grassroots women’s organisations campaigning for independence.

They did so on the basis of two expectations. The first was that the need to design a new constitutional framework for an independent nation offered the opportunity to embed gender equality into the values that underpinned it. Several working groups involving different parts of civic society were also enthusiastic about this: the international evidence shows that countries that do this are more likely to develop policies that lead to gender equality, and are more likely to protect services designed to support gender equality.

The second was on the basis of specific policy promises aimed at fostering and supporting gender equality, such as the much publicised intention to scrap Trident and use the savings to pay for childcare, the latter a policy that was scrutinised for its impact on gender equality at a conference in Glasgow last week.

Scrapping Trident tapped into historic support for "Bairns, Not Bombs", and meant that many on the Left and anti-nuclear groups, such as the Scottish Socialist Party and the Greens, supported such policies because they were anti-nuclear and pro-women’s rights.

In 1995 a similar phenomenon happened in the Quebec independence referendum. The women’s movement there helped to turn a historically fairly constant low level of support for independence into a 49 per cent vote in favour of Yes, even closer than in the Scottish referendum. They did so for similar reasons: a desire to see gender equality embedded into the constitution of a new way that would support Quebecois values and aspirations, and the promise of specific policy pledges around women’s equality such as universal childcare. Even though the vote was No, the women’s movement in Quebec used the political momentum of the referendum to campaign successfully for universal childcare policies that were significantly different to the rest of Canada.

In Scotland, a broad grassroots movement of women who supported independence coalesced into the organisation Women for Independence, including well-known Scottish feminists such as Lesley Riddoch, Jeanne Freeman and Carolyn Leckie, but also appealing to a swathe of women with no historical links to the women’s movement or pro-independence parties. Nicola Sturgeon worked directly with such organisations, and her style of politics appealed to men and women who were disengaged by the combative nature of the public debate.

The final straw for politically engaged and feminist women was probably the misguided "Better Ask Paul" campaign from the Better Together team. Based on conversations the director had shared with "normal" women whilst campaigning, the advert depicted a woman who could not make up her mind how to vote, and so deferred to her husband’s view that the Yes vote would be too risky. This was the death knell for any hope the Better Together campaign might appeal to the women’s movement. Its release coincided with an upsurge in the polls in support for a Yes vote.

Women historically tend to be more likely than men to make a rational assessment of the choices rather than vote along party lines. It is for this reason that in many elections women are key "swing voters", more likely to change parties on the basis of policies. So it is perhaps not surprising that this upswing did not quite turn into enough votes to secure independence for Scotland: the risks of independence, particularly around currency, public services and the economy meant that cautious hearts prevailed and Scotland voted No.

But women’s voices did not go away. Alex Salmond’s failure to deliver independence opened up the opportunity for Nicola Sturgeon, always more of a feminist, to serve as First Minister with the first 50/50 gender split cabinet in the UK’s history. Organisations such as Women for Independence continue to grow in membership. Many of the first-time SNP MPs voted into Westminster in the historic 2015 general election are pro women’s equality, including the country’s youngest MP Mhairi Black. Childcare has remained on the political agenda. The leaders or co-convenors of four of the five parties in the Scottish Parliament are women. Women have clearly become politicised in great numbers and gender equality matters more than ever in Scottish politics and policy.

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University of Stirling
20th October 2015
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