Women for Yes

Alex+Salmond+Makes+Keynote+Speech+SNP+Autumn+J3QZCJTQtVDlKicking-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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  1. Subtlesutton says:

    I would add to this that in my observation, many women will go to great lengths to avoid conflict – even to the extent of being deeply uncomfortable discussing how they feel about the vote in case it causes upset in a social gathering. Without debate and discussion the opportunity to take people on a journey to Yes through sharing the vision of a better future is limited. This is why I’m so angry with the mainstream media pedalling the No line as it a key source of information for undecided women who are not up for open debate. I’m finding more opportunity in 1:1 conversations for opening up minds to embrace the change but there’s lots of discomfort and fear of ‘falling out’ with the rUK.

  2. Shirley Nott says:

    Also, a lot of older women do not like our first minister. The combination of this and the points made by Subtlesutton, above, result in a quagmire of No…

    1. I suspect this so called dislike is down to constant demonisation rather than anything else. I have met AS a number of times, the last after an event at the Edinburgh Book Festival when he wandered up and started to talk to my husband and myself. Though when I say talk I really mean listen, for he wanted to know our views rather than impose his. So I think we need to be very careful about dislike of AS and ask people to explain why. Most are unable to, which suggests they are merely parroting what is fed them in the media. It’s the lack of critical thought that needs to be changed — not out first Minister.

      1. Taranaich says:

        “So I think we need to be very careful about dislike of AS and ask people to explain why. Most are unable to, which suggests they are merely parroting what is fed them in the media.”

        This is right. So many times when I ask someone why they dislike Salmond, it’s practically a regurgitation of soundbytes. One week, someone said it’s because he’s “dishonest” – which happened to be the same week Johann Lamont used that word, dutifully repeated by the Daily Record and other papers. Another week it’d be something else. As an orator and clear ideals politician, Salmond is one of the Yes campaign’s best assets, and No are working hard to use him as a weapon against his own side, perpetuating the same old slurs that’ve been thrown at him for decades. The cycle is working again on Nicola Sturgeon, as No desperately try to blame her for the failed STV debate with Lamont.

  3. Steve Bowers says:

    Every day I’m in peoples houses sweeping their chimneys and it’s usually the lady of the house, I wear my YES badge and talk to them as I work, point them towards Bella and Wings over Scotland, most write it down to look at later, some don’t…. 1 to 1 is def best with women and done in a rational way

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