Women for Yes
Kicking-off our series to celebrate International Women’s Day, Isobel Lindsay writes on power, gender and democracy.
“If we weren’t so feart, this could be exciting”
This was the comment from a Clydebank women who came along to one of Women for Independence’s small informal listening meetings. Our job in the next 200 days is to ensure that women in Scotland feel more of the excitement and less of the fear.
The current polling evidence is painful for independence-supporting feminists. It suggests that if only men had the vote, it would be very likely that we would have a Yes vote in September. Historically suffragist campaigners on the left felt the same angst as the main political beneficiaries of the women’s vote were the Conservatives. One of the topics of debate in political science in the 1950s and 60s was how to explain the higher Tory support among women. Apart from the greater number of female elderly, the main explanations centred around women’s more limited involvement in the formal labour force, much of it at that time being factory-based. The view was that women didn’t experience the class solidarity that came from the workplace and the politicisation through trade unions. One thing that got less attention was risk-averseness – the ‘feart’ factor. In the past two decades it is the Tories who have had more of a female problem as they have moved increasingly to the radical right.
Leave aside biological programming (we’ll let Joanne Lamont deal with that), the cultural process still creates powerful gender stereotypes. While we have experienced big advances for women, the dominant authority figures are still male in politics, in business, in education. Female children are still often valued for their sweetness and compliance than for their strength of personality and adventurous behaviour. The footballers’ wives phenomenon of women being defined through their appearance and their relationships with men is still pervasive in many social contexts. Women are still less likely to apply for promoted jobs or ask for pay increases even if well-qualified. ‘Knowing your place’ has not disappeared from gendered culture and with it comes lack of confidence and apprehension in the face of radical change. But this doesn’t mean that we won’t get many more women to vote Yes.
Some other comments from the listening sessions tell us a bit more.:
“We’ve been told for so many years that we’re second best. It’s like living with an abuser – we’re told we’re not that bright, that we’re an unhealthy nation. It seeps in.”
“If we could get more belief in ourselves, we could really achieve things.”
“We’re told independence would be better but we need to know what ‘better’ would look like. If things were just to be the same, what’s the point?”
Independence means significant change and change is challenging. Most social change happens to people without a specific personal choice. Factories close, mortgages increase, children have to move to get jobs, elderly parents can’t get residential care. Stuff happens. But this referendum is giving people real power to make big things happen. – a once in a lifetime chance. If you are confident, you’ll grasp the opportunity whether Yes or No. If you’re not, you’ll put off the choice or you’ll shelter behind the status-quo. I think that is what has happened to many women together with the demographic factor.
How does the Yes campaign counter this? With a big positive and two negatives.
The first negative is a reminder to women of how the British state has failed them. We have the second lowest pay economies among the advanced economies and 66% of the lowest paid are women. There are 870,000 people in poverty in Scotland and a high proportion will be women. We are the third worst European country in which to raise children because of the very high level of childcare costs and high household debt. We are the second worst for fuel poverty. We have the worst infant mortality rate in Western Europe. Britain’s elderly are the fourth poorest in the European Union. The gap between men and women’s pay is the eighth largest in Europe. But our military expenditure as a proportion of GDP is the highest in Europe. This is not a state and an economy that is working for women in Scotland.
The second negative is to remind women that a No vote does not mean no change. There is great pressure to reduce the Scottish Parliament’s financial settlement which is entirely within Westminster’s control. We have no power over the minimum wage, no power over all but a small proportion of taxation, no power over welfare benefits and pensions, over employment policy, over nuclear weapons and participation in foreign wars. All of these can be changed at any time in ways hostile to the interests of the great majority of Scots and we are powerless. Many of those who voted No in 1979 discovered that to our cost in the Thatcher years that followed.
But the important thing is the big positive message, giving women a vision of what ‘better’ looks like. The white paper does some of this. Universal free child care, paid for initially by the large savings in military expenditure and then self-financing through the taxes paid by having more women in the labour force. It makes the commitment to a major contribution to nuclear disarmament by the removal of nuclear weapons from Scottish territory. It shows how pensions policy could be better in Scotland and the worst of the Westminster welfare changes reversed. It suggests new opportunities for a more co-operative industrial relations system and new opportunities for industrial development.
But what the message does need is an overall identity which places Scotland firmly in an egalitarian social democratic context underpinned by environmental responsibility. It is this Commonweal vision for Scotland that will strike a chord with women in Scotland and make it worthwhile to take a risk.
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