Scotland politics

Baroness Thatcher: The views of Scottish women in politics

Image caption Margaret Thatcher did not believe in quotas to increase women's representation in politics

Scottish politics is dominated by some powerful female figures: Nicola Sturgeon, Johann Lamont, Ruth Davidson and Jo Swinson to name just a few.

So what influence did the Iron Lady have on the women at the top of Scottish politics?

For Ruth Davidson MSP, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, growing up seeing a woman in No.10 was inspiring.

"Seeing her on TV every day made me think, even during my primary years, that there was nothing that women could not do, and nothing her office could not accomplish," she said.

"In becoming Britain's first woman prime minster, she didn't so much smash the glass ceiling as blow it to pieces.

"She proved to women everywhere there was nothing they couldn't accomplish."

Lady Thatcher also made a deep impression on Ms Davidson's predecessor, Annabel Goldie MSP.

She made reference to Lady Thatcher in her maiden speech as first female leader of the Scottish Conservatives in 2005, when she vowed to act against "disloyalty and disobedience" in the party.

"I think you may take it matron's handbag will be in hyper-action..." she said.

Ms Goldie remembers the first time she saw Lady Thatcher in the flesh.

She said: "The atmosphere was one of tangible excitement as we awaited the arrival of Mrs Thatcher.

"I was more there out of interest rather than as a political aficionado, just to see what went on. I remember being immediately engaged by her speech.

"At the end of it I was convinced that, notwithstanding the appalling, and I thought irremediable, mess which the country was in, this was a woman with the personal courage and resolve to get us back out of the mess.

"I believe the decisions she took were necessary. It is interesting and telling that ensuing governments have never sought to overturn them."

'Politics of despair'

But for other women leading the way in Scottish politics, Lady Thatcher acted as a spur for very different reasons.

Johann Lamont MSP, who was elected as the first overall leader of the Scottish Labour Party in 2011, said: "I think she inspired lots of people to come into politics because they were so angry.

Image caption Ms Davidson said Lady Thatcher proved to women what they could accomplish

"I was teaching in the 80s. You met people in communities who were trying to make things work, whether in the fight for the steel industry or for the mining industry. Women were the ones managing budgets and the brokenness of families at that time.

"The politics then was one of despair."

Scottish women were also mobilised at a grassroots level during the campaign against the poll tax, said Joan McAlpine, journalist and SNP member of Scottish parliament for South Scotland.

"That was a really key moment," she said. "For a lot of women it really politicised them, because it was a community campaign, not led by trade unions.

"It was street by street. Each street had its own union, and they would make a banner out of a bedsheet. Women would gather and defend one another. They couldn't understand why she had so little empathy.

"It was around that time that I joined the SNP. It was just so unfair, the idea of a standard charge.

"They believed that they could brow beat Scotland into supporting it, and it just didn't work that way."

'Unintentional legacy'

But what legacy, if any, did Lady Thatcher leave for women in Scottish politics?

One unintended impact was to increase women's political involvement in constitutional debates, said Dr Meryl Kenny, visiting fellow at the University of Edinburgh.

She said this played a role in reviving the devolution campaign.

Image caption The poll tax was unpopular in many areas of the UK

"The negative and gendered impacts of Thatcherite policies actually served to unite women from different perspectives, both inside and outside political parties," Dr Kenny added.

"They argued that they faced a double democratic deficit, in that they were excluded from the political process as Scots and as women.

"And their strategic efforts ensured that gender equality and demands for equal political representation became a fundamental part of the broader campaign for a more democratic, accountable and inclusive Scottish Parliament."

Although she may have proved that women could "do the job" of prime minister in a male-dominated political environment, Lady Thatcher did little to advance feminist objectives while in office, according to Ms Lamont.

She said: "She could beat any man in the chamber. She played men at their game and beat them, but she wasn't a sister.

"I would like to think that a lot of feminists like myself believed you didn't have to take the worst elements of male politics."

Gender quotas

In Scotland, just under 35% of MSPs elected in 2011 were women, which puts the Scottish Parliament at position 22 in the world league tables, compared with the UK House of Commons which ranks 57th.

The relatively high number of women MSPs is attributed by most to the use of gender quotas by Labour and, informally, the SNP in the 1999 elections.

Lady Thatcher always opposed the use of gender quotas to improve women's political representation, saying: "But no, a woman must rise through merit. There must be no discrimination."

Dr Kenny argues that quotas are essential, however.

"I think the crucial point to make here is that women's political under-representation in Scottish politics is not about enough women coming forward to stand for office, but about parties not selecting enough women candidates," she said.

"What's crucial also is that these measures are well-designed and well-implemented, that they ensure that women are selected for winnable seats and that they are accompanied by strong sanctions for parties that do not comply."

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