Independent Women

I have been slagging the editors of this site for months that it is more ‘ Blokey Caledonia’ than Bella, and I’m afraid they’ve called my bluff.

Listening to Joan McAlpine and Elaine C Smith speaking at the Positively Independent gathering was a revelation. I say this not for the engaging analysis they offered but the very fact that two women were on stage  in charge and setting the agenda. In fact, to be honest, I came because of this billing. There’s something faintly shocking about the realisation that hearing people speak in their own tongue and on their own terms should be such an empowering experience. Surely we’re a million miles beyond ‘all  that’ – surely we live now in what’s routinely called a ‘post-feminist’ world?

For me what this really means mostly is acres of sexual liberation (‘a new thong for Scotland?’) but very little systemic change ie the nitty-gritty issues of childcare, work practices and the gender stereotypes we remain mired in.

My experience of this post-feminist world is that women have been welcomed into the boardroom to ape the corporate nonsense of pin-striped egos and exploitation (the awful desperate ladies of The Apprentice are a poster advert for this version of ‘equality’). I feel a long and possibly dull ramble about the state of feminism coming on so I will try instead to stick to the task of summarising the discussion in Glasgow, which raised (broadly) four main issues:

1. Why do fewer women support independence? The conventional answer is that nationalism is historically (inextricably) masculine, and Scottish nationalism even more so. Think of the exclusively male painting of the boozy Milne’s bar collective of poets from Sorley Mclean to Macdiarmid, or testosterone tub-thumping Jim Sillars with his 90 minute laddish metaphors or Salmond himself, who is, by all accounts a bit of a bruiser.

But, as McAlpine pointed out, this assumption was not born out by Irish republican history where women were the driving force of (often violent) struggle. A key here could be that the situation in Scotland is not so clearly one of occupation and oppression. Our difficulties are collusion, self-colonisation and cultural marginalisaton, they are not so clearly about injustice. I’m not saying there aren’t economic injustices in the Union settlement, there clearly are, they just aren’t as transparent. So the idea that a feeling of injustice is needed to inspire women to be central to a nationalist movement needs some work. This is certainly part of the issue. Less Bannockburn more bannocks.

2. Why do fewer women take part in public political discourse? I don’t think this is true, I just think the terms in which politics is understood, shared and understood is different, and different in a way that the parliamentary political world and lobby-media doesn’t comprehend.

But there’s another practical reality. For all the new men, good men and shared housekeeping (ahem) the burden of practical daily household tasks still rests, mostly, with women.  Joan’s own tweet from yesterday says it all: “Positively Independent conference today. Wish I could’ve stayed all day but clashed with daughters ballet display.”

Fetching and carting, dishes and laundry still done by us. Tell me I’m wrong?

3. What role models are there in the public eye that Scottish women could aspire to? If you don’t see yourself in the world your unlikely to want to take part in it. If I try this parlour game I struggle to get into double figures.

Here’s the criteria: name independently minded women who are taken seriously in the political realm and have a high profile, who are Scottish or working in Scotland, and if not actually nationalists are atleast open to exporing the grounds of constitutional change?

Here’s my stab at it:

Margo Macdonald, Elaine C Smith, Joan McAlpine, Lesley Riddoch, Nicola Sturgeon, Fran Higson, Kay Adams, Bridget McConnell, Roseanna Cunningham, Sarah Smith, Helena Kennedy, Susan Deacon, Wendy Alexander, Joyce McMilllan, Kirsty Wark, Jean Urquhart, Kirsty Young, Isobel Lindsay, Liz Lochead, Anne Mackenzie, Annie Lennox, Evelyn Glennie, Elish Angiolini  (and no, Michelle Mone and Lorraines’ Kelly and Davidson don’t count).

You could add Vicky Featherstone head of the National Theatre, Eva Schonveld head of the Transition Town network, Betsy Reed head of Fair Trade Scotland, Claire Carpenter of the Melting Pot, or even JK Rowling – all great women doing great things – but interestingly there’s not a Scot amongst them.

My list quickly falls apart. Susan Deacon and Wendy Alexander are obviously hostile to independence.  Lorraine Davidson and Kirsty Wark are at best media-neutral and at worst closely linked to the Labour establishment. Anne Mackenzie and Kirsty Young are perhaps more neutral, but Kirsty is forever washed up on a tide of blandess on her Desert Island.

Margo, Elaine, Joan, Roseanne and Nicola are clearly nationalists, so that’s five, adding Jean Urquhart making six with maybe Lesley Riddoch, Liz Lochead and Joyce McMillan as perhaps critical – but not utterly oppositional to the ideas of independence. Film-maker Fran Higson has gone off radar while Annie Lennox has high profile but nobody really knows what she thinks (do they?).

Helena Kennedy lives in London and Sarah Smith in Washington (I think), so they’re out. Isobel Lindsay – despite her amazing career probably doesn’t have the high profile she richly deserves.  Equally, Elish Angiolini as Lord Advocate, whilst arguably the most influential woman in Scotland probably wouldn’t be recognised on the street by anyone but fellow legals.

Kay Adams was just my wee joke.

I’m sure there are 100 influential businesswomen I don’t know about, sorry.  Are there progressive Scottish businesswomen with positive views about constitutional change? I’ve never heard one speak.

I’m an Irish woman living in the highlands, I have lived here for 25 years and frequently work in the central belt – but if there’s people I’ve missed tell me about them.

So I make it six woman who meet the criteria and other three who are borderline. None of them are under forty.

4. Why is the image of Scottish nationalism so male? As Joan and Elaine both said ‘Scotland’ as seen through the eyes of the seemingly wall-to-wall football media coverage –  is a man’s game. From the Poridge Oats man to Mel Gibbons short-arse statue in Stirling, Scottish nationalism has a skirl of the pipes about it that’s undoubtedly ‘engendered’. The pipes and drums may get the heart pounding but maybe there’s a need for a more nuanced nationalism.

For me this is not about special campaigns or special dispensation, all women shortlists or anything else, it’s just about grounding the debate about independence in the practicalities of everyday life. A case in point may be this weeks Minimum Pricing of Alcohol Bill. Women who have suffered the consequences of drunk and abusive men should be backing these changes whatever their party political leanings.

On Peat Worrier Indy is quoted saying:

“To my mind we have not yet refined the independence message adequately. I remember a female member talking at a Conference about why she joined the SNP back in the 1970s as a direct consequence of her involvement in the women’s movement. It is about making the connection between personal freedom and independence – which women have fought long and hard for – and the freedom and independence of the communities that make up Scotland. That’s what I think we need to work on”.

This seems to get to the heart of the matter. Constitutional change not as dry abstract ‘high politics’, but as a gateway to a better fairer society. Articulate that and women, like me, will want to be part of better.

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  1. Andrew McPake says:

    This was an eye opening article Caitlin. The socialist movement suffers from the same affliction; its testosterone driven image being one among many reasons for that.

    Would you agree that the SNP should bring in some kind of positive discrimination mechanism for women? Labour, the Greens and the SSP were all able to improve their female representation by doing this.

  2. Zed says:

    Shirley Manson lead singer with Garbage is pro-Independence

  3. Hi Caitlin

    Thanks for writing about this and I’m glad you enjoyed our part of the event yesterday. In fairness to my daughter’s father Pat Kane, he went to the ballet display the night before and I was scheduled for the matinee so we could both speak at the conference.

    I think the cultural dimension could be discussed at some length. We are allowed cultural expression through martial military matters and this gets huge investment and official attention eg the Edinburgh Tattoo. But there is so much more to our culture that is less male dominated that is not recorded. Scottish traveller women inspired much of the folk revival for example and Bob Dylan drew from their work. Unfortunately we have very few media platforms on which to explore our culture and popularise it – notice that Men Should Weep, a great play about 1930s Glasgow by a Scottish woman, is getting lots of attention because it as been staged at the National Theatre in London. There’s been lots of good stuff here too but where/when can a wider public get to hear it? Even popular culture that might appeal to women is hidden by the cringe. Think how enormous Irish Dancing is in your country. Highland Dancing is popular here to but how often do you see it reflected back at us?

    Ditto public figures. It’s the broadcast media who make public figures to some extent. There are many younger women working hard in the independence movement, but we never get told who they are because there is no space for discourse outside the blogosphere. Jennifer Dempsey, Shona McAlpine and Aileen Campbell MSP all spring immediately to mind.

    Another problem may be that we have been forced into party political silos where there is little room for an honest discussion of ideas like we had at the weekend – this is a great pity, but perhaps Postively Indpendent could be a building block for the future.

  4. Mons Meg says:

    Going to see your daughter’s ballet display is not fetching and carting. Presumably Joan’s daughter’s dad was there too.

  5. burdzeyeview says:

    Great post Caitlin. One of the strengths pre 99 was women working across the parties to increase the number of women elected. All that co-operation has fallen by the wayside. Aside from tribal loyalties – and mine are much less tribal these days – there is a space for a Women’s Convention to raise the profile and promote the role of women in our political and cultural life. Oh, wait a minute, we have one. Run by Yvonne Strachan Head of the Equality Unit at the Scottish Govt. Effectively for her pals. Loadsa public funding, achieves diddly squat. Time for a revolution here I think to give us the space and a body in which women can at least discuss common ground and issues across the spectrum….

  6. Norrie MCDonald says:

    Good article Caitlin you could devote a whole blog to this topic and still not come up with the solution.But if you did I reckon Scotland would be Independent within two years, yup that quick.Think about it mothers,wifes, grannies and daughters all spreading the message what a powerful force . It needs more debate, yesterday only scratched the surface.Well done Bella for the kick start.

  7. lenathehyena says:

    That list of women looks like, er every famous woman I know of, where’s Susan Boyle – maybe she was on it.
    What a depressing list – hardly anyone on it worth a second glance – yes, I know that’s part of the problem – but be assured if that’s Scotland’s future count me out.

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Hi Lena – I think we could come up with a much stronger list of genuinely interesting and inspiring women who either don’t get the recognition they deserve – as Joan mentioned – or work for orgs / causes / projects that ‘fly below radar’ but are doing amazing things but dont have a ‘profile’. Maybe that’s a better place to start?

  8. Tocasaid says:

    Good article. You could add Gaelic poet and bana-Leodhasach Anna Frater to your list i’m sure. Fellow Leodhasach and actress, who appeared in ‘the Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil’ back in the 70s, Dolina MacLennan is another stalwart.

    The struggle for independence does need a face-lift. Like in many ways, Norway should be something to aim for. We need to use this example more. And as far as I know, and in reference to the above article, Norway’s parliament has a majority of female MPs.

  9. lenathehyena says:

    I felt a bit guilty about being so dismissive in my comments last night and if nothing else the article got me thinking and in my view this topic requires a longer perspective on the reasons why women become motivated/militant and participate in movements for change.

    Got some ideas which I will explore on my blog when I’ve got a bit more time.

    But hey, the rain and wind have gone, sun is out on a blue sky and the bluebirds are flitting around the cottage windows.

  10. Justin says:

    “You could add Vicky Featherstone head of the National Theatre, Eva Schonveld head of the Transition Town network, Betsy Reed head of Fair Trade Scotland, Claire Carpenter of the Melting Pot, or even JK Rowling – all great women doing great things – but interestingly there’s not a Scot amongst them.”

    . . . Ok Eva now you know: being born and brought up in Edinburgh and living here all your life does not make you Scottish! If that’s right, then what does? Serious question there . . .

    Good article though:
    it is the everyday that matters, not the spectacle
    – we need an independence that is not about competitive nationalism but about
    protecting and enabling a better, fairer, co-operating society

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      We stand corrected on Eva – thanks Justin – Eva Schonveld the powerhouse behind Scotlands Transition Town Movement (

      But Joans point from Sunday and Caitlins point here remains, there is a dearth of high profile women in Scottish public life that would be supportive of the independence movemernt in its broadest sense.

  11. Jfjoubert says:

    This text touches on such a great question. Just wanted to react quickly…but like many people, will be thinking about this for a while. So answers are few.
    The importance of it: It seems all great changes in society involve women. If women are not part of it…nevermind, it won’t work.
    So women are they key to success. If I’m not mistaken…we are talking about double digit increase in support for independence right?

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