Scotland

How the political spectrum is widening for women in Scotland

The recent independence referendum has added impetus to the push for the voice of women to be given equal weight in Scottish politics. Is the possibility of real change now possible?

At the 2014 London Review of Books Winter Lectures, Professor Mary Beard, who had recently been subject to prolonged and fierce online bullying, chose to speak about The Public Voice of Women.

She highlighted the deep-rooted misogyny employed when we describe how women voice their opinions and the subjects upon which it is considered valid for us to comment.

Unsurprisingly, these are mainly women's issues - childcare, for example.

Stray into 'male' territory, she warned, and you will stir up a backlash of threats and violence.

Image caption Mary Beard presented a series of lectures on the public voice of women called 'Oh do shut up dear'

Prof Beard had only just herself managed to crawl out from under a horrifying deluge of 'Shut up you bitch' comments, some of which escalated into threats of rape.

This is the traditional way of keeping women in line - sexualised threats that men seldom have to deal with.

Bravely, Prof Beard stood up to this treatment, and famously shamed one of her attackers - a young man who was sent round by his mother to apologise.

Quite right too. Standing up to this kind of bullying, however, is unusual. The received wisdom for women is to back down, ignore it and hope that it will go away.

This state of affairs has only recently changed somewhat for women in Scotland.

The independence referendum revolutionised politics north of Hadrian's Wall.

In the latter months, approaching the 18 September polling date, you couldn't buy a cup of takeout coffee, stand at a bus stop, attend a dinner party or even walk along the pavement without getting into a conversation about your political views.

Comedian Kevin Bridges joked that it was as if the whole country was taking its Modern Studies Higher.

What is true is that huge numbers of people suddenly took an interest in political issues across the board - from bond trading to fishing rights.

This flowering of political debate flourished on both sides of the gender divide.

Image caption Sarah Smith presents the BBC's Scotland 2015 programme
Image caption The Better Together campaign's advert - The woman who made up her mind - caused controversy

I appeared on BBC2's Scotland 2014 programme only to discover that not only our host, Sarah Smith, was (obviously) a woman but that of the seven guests appearing that evening, six of us were female.

We discussed, among other issues, oil revenue, social mobility, political corruption and (I think our only 'female' issue) the 'Better Together Woman' advertisement that horrified people on both sides of the debate with its assumptions about gender, and almost immediately became a meme across the country's social media.

No-one on the programme received a whisper of 'Shut up, you bitch.'

When the cameras turned off I was accompanied to the Green Room by a production assistant and the truth was, it was only then I noticed the gender issue.

When I mentioned it, her response was 'Oh, we hardly even look at that any more. We just book the best people for the job'. Oh brave new world.

The referendum marked a seismic shift in the Overton window in Scotland - a political theory that describes the range of ideas acceptable in the public eye.

From a standing start, not terribly different from the rest of the UK, Scottish women suddenly found their public voice was welcomed on all the issues in question.

Image copyright Yes Highland

Campaigning group Women for Independence was founded in 2012 and grew exponentially over the course of the campaign.

Local groups sprang up all over Scotland with a mandate to increase women's political engagement and improve their representation in public life.

Shortly after the No vote, at a time when the expectation was that Yes campaigners would feel hopelessly defeated, more than 1,000 women from this organisation turned up in Perth, to discuss the way forward.

Scottish women have long blazed a trail in terms of social and political activism.

This derives in part, historically, from greater legal rights in Scottish law.

After the 1745 Jacobite uprising, there was the first ever call for women MPs at Westminster which was directly inspired by English women realising that the Scottish women on trial for their part in Bonnie Prince Charlie's campaign, had legal rights (including limited property rights) of which they could only dream.

Those legal rights continued to enable Scottish women over time, for instance the Royal Scottish Geographical Society was founded in 1884 in part by Mrs A L Bruce, 50 years before the London society accepted women members at all.

Further down the social scale, Scottish women were no less formidable - the mavens of the Govan Rent Strike on Red Clydeside in 1915 were led by councillor and magistrate, Mary Barbour.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Nicola Sturgeon's first cabinet had a 50:50 gender balance
Image caption Margo MacDonald has an award in her honour for women in politics

It is significant, perhaps, that when Nicola Sturgeon became First Minister of Scotland in November, one of her first acts was to appoint a 50:50 gender balanced cabinet - an achievement yet to be approached by a Westminster prime minister.

In the wake of this, Women for Independence has inaugurated the Margo Awards for women in politics - named after the indefatigable independent MSP Margo MacDonald, who died in April 2014.

There is little question that things have changed for women in Scotland when it comes to their public voice with a myriad of female campaigners, MSPs and activists proving not merely 'acceptable' but downright welcome on the Scottish political scene.

This shift is a widening of democracy, as much as a change in what is culturally acceptable.

It will be interesting to see how far that change travels over the border.

When Green activists, Natalie Bennett and Caroline Lucas launched their 'What are you afraid of boys?' campaign for inclusion in TV debates during this year's General Election, they shot a warning cannon not only over Westminster's bows but also into the wider world.

It's not often that we are presented with the possibility of real change but whatever your view of the Referendum in Scotland, and what it has stirred up, this must be one of the more enticing possible outcomes - a voice for women, equal to the voice of men.