Scotland either way: challenging 'patriarchy in a skirt'

Feminist grassroots activism has raised the voices of women during the Scottish referendum campaign, and to some extent forced both campaigns and the media to engage with their demands. The question now is whether this engagement can be harnessed to advance gender equality under either outcome.

Jill Wood
12 September 2014

 A year ago I argued in Restating Scottish feminism that the referendum on independence was an exciting time for feminists in Scotland. Since then, many women and women’s organisations have created space across the debate, both individually and collectively, and demanded that their voices be heard. They have forced both campaigns and the media to engage with women to some extent and significant feminist grassroots activism has emerged.

The main question now is whether this renewed engagement and excitement can be harnessed to advance gender equality under either outcome.  

The prospect of independence has generated much thinking about alternative visions of society across civic Scotland, and the potential constitutional change might hold for marginalised groups. Whilst at Engender we have not taken a preferred position on the outcome, we have been no exception in considering these questions from women’s rights and gender equality angles, and providing platforms for women to debate the implications of their vote in terms of social and gender justice.

Our policy report Gender equality and Scotland’s constitutional futures takes a detailed look at the policy landscape since devolution, and sets out how power and responsibility for gender issues is currently divided between Holyrood and Westminster. It also outlines the implications and opportunities of independence and the status quo in terms of gender equality.

We have run several ‘world café’ style hustings with campaigners, and discussion events on a feminist strategy in the post-vote policy world. Regardless of their position on the mechanisms for delivery, all of the activists, citizens and third sector workers involved have been resolute that we will work together after 19 September, to sustain momentum and the comparatively high profile of women’s equality issues in the Scottish political discourse at present. In terms of how this can be translated into real change for women in Scotland, all of this analysis and debate has supported three vital points:

  • Constitutional arrangements alone do not dictate or guarantee particular outcomes for women or for gender equality.
  • We cannot achieve a gender equal Scotland without transformative reform of our economic and political institutions and the cultures which sustain them.
  • The governance arrangements, mechanisms and political environment needed to deliver this are of secondary importance to advancing this agenda.

On the whole, the current constitutional settlement is far from clear-cut in terms of matters related to gender equality. Since devolution, this has resulted in prevarication from both Scottish and UK governments and all of the main political parties on key issues such as childcare, women’s political representation and poverty. Gender segregation, economic models, employability and the media are other key areas with major policy levers at both Westminster and Holyrood. 

If Scotland votes to retain the union, however, there is a clear range of ways that Scottish Government could take action to advance gender equality under the existing provisions of the Scotland Act. Primarily, it could implement gender mainstreaming approaches to elevate gender concerns within the policy hierarchy and to proactively integrate gender analysis across departments and all levels of government strategy. It could build on the progressive Equality Budget Statement process to improve gender-sensitive budgeting, it could enforce greater compliance with the Public Sector Equality Duty and strengthen gender components within it, and it could extend and develop legal responses to violence against women.

At Engender we have always been clear that an independent Scotland would not be more inherently likely to engage with women’s equality and social justice. In 2016, we could potentially give our mandate to a platform that is harmful to women. However, independence would entail structural change, which does hold the potential for progress at an institutional level. This would also be the case in the event of significant transfer of more powers under further devolution.

In particular, a written constitution could incorporate obligations on gender equality and provide important recourse for systemically marginalised groups of women to claim their rights, a new social security system would have scope to redress the gender discrimination at the heart of the current benefits and tax credit system and ‘welfare reform’ agenda, and a new immigration and asylum system could increase protection and wellbeing for migrant, refugee and asylum seeking women. Creating new institutions would present an opportunity to embed and deliver gender quotas and there would be raft of new legislation and oversight frameworks that could include anti-discrimination structures, including broadcasting, equal opportunities, employment and financial regulation.

None of this will be possible  of course without vastly increased engagement on gender issues within existing political party structures, and the evolving grassroots movements that have been the most exciting product of the referendum.

With regards to Scotland’s two main parties, ‘gender edits’ of the Scottish Government’s white paper and Scottish Labour’s so-called ‘red paper’ reveal that commitments on gender equality within their manifestos for the 2016 parliamentary elections are likely to be limited. Existing proposals are mainly not linked to barriers to women’s equality, and tackling gender inequality is treated as a fringe issue, rather than as an opportunity to achieve social policy objectives and drive economic growth. The notable exception is the SNP’s proposal for a universal system of childcare provision, which could have wide-reaching impacts for women and men, if adequately resourced and developed and delivered with a great deal of input from women and relevant stakeholders. 

Meanwhile, the significant political attention on women voters in the referendum debate has continued unabated. This has cast a welcome spotlight on the alienation that many women feel from a political system that is essentially redundant to them, and on the need for both campaigns to improve critical engagement with key gendered issues. The centralised behemoths of Better Together and Yes Scotland have done so, to some extent and with varying success. Dubbed as ‘patronising BT lady’ by Yes advocates on social media, and sharply criticised by some campaigning for a No vote, the No campaign’s latest attempt to tap into women’s concerns is an example of how this can fall flat when these are tagged onto a campaign, rather than strategically integrated throughout.

The distinct grassroots organising of Women for Independence, and to a lesser extent of Women Together, however, has been genuinely exciting and meaningful. To no detriment, exploratory plans to establish a women’s alliance with a collective agenda (akin to the cross-party 50:50 campaign prior to devolution) were to some extent overtaken by this flourishing of new channels and opportunities for women to engage with politics. It is a case in point regarding representative politics, that whilst transparent attempts to covet women’s votes by white men in suits on TV do not appear to have resonated with women, Women for Indy’s ‘listening exercises’, UK Women Together’s letter writing sessions, and abundant opportunities to hear from non-party affiliated female campaigners with shared experiences and concerns, have been extremely productive. 

It’s hard to believe that this chapter in Scottish political history is almost over. It is also extremely exciting that a new one is about to begin. Under either outcome there will be opportunities for the women’s movement to push for progress on gender issues in the immediate wake of the vote. Regardless of how Scotland votes at the ballot box in 10 days’ time, Engender will be working with others to restate a feminist agenda in the policy spaces that subsequently emerge, and to ensure that the sudden interest in what women think does not drop off the agenda at Holyrood.



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