Illustration: Peter O'Toole for The Pool


Is Scotland paving the way for women and politics? 

The three main parties are led by women, there are more grass-roots groups than ever and women are becoming more engaged in political conversation. Caroline Criado-Perez investigates 

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By Caroline Criado-Perez on

There are more statues of animals in Edinburgh than there are of named, historical women. Scattered across the city you will find no less than five statues of famous dogs, including Greyfriars Bobby and Bum the Dog, a tortoise, and a bear. But there are only two statues erected in honour of famous women.

Lee Chalmers, lead candidate for the Lothian Branch of the Women’s Equality Party, revealed this statistic as she launched her party’s Scottish manifesto. As we gathered around the statue of Wojtek the bear in Edinburgh’s Princes Gardens, she argued that the lack of statues of famous women “tells us all we need to know about women’s position in society.” 

But while Scotland’s women might not be doing very well on the statue front, things look slightly different down the road in Holyrood, the Scottish Parliament, where the three main parties are all led by women (Ruth Davidson for the Conservatives, Kezia Dugdale for Labour, and Nicola Sturgeon for the SNP). One of Nicola Sturgeon’s first actions as First Minister was to appoint a gender equal cabinet, and the proportion of female MSPs in Holyrood has been consistently higher than in Westminster.

Does Scotland really need a Women’s Equality Party, then?

Chalmers thinks they do. “It looks good, but we don’t have 50 per cent female MSPs. We don’t have gender running through all policy decisions. Margaret Thatcher was a female leader, but that doesn’t mean she ran a feminist government,” she adds.

Women are good at listening to other women, and they are also good at encouraging other women who might not normally speak, to speak up

Chalmers’ caution about the limited impact of female leaders is echoed by Talat Yaqoob, Chair of Women5050, a group that campaigns for equal representation of women in the Scottish Parliament. “In her first speech as First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon said she wants a Scotland where girls can be whatever they want to be. And that’s great, but it’s not the same as acknowledging and breaking down the barriers that stop them getting there.”

Kezia Dugdale is even more forthright in her criticism. “It’s fantastic that we have three strong female role models for young women, but I think we can be quite complacent about the degree of impact for a woman working three jobs in Coatbridge,” a deprived post-industrial town in North Lanarkshire. “Unless Nicola Sturgeon starts to seriously oppose austerity, she’s doing very little for that woman.” 

Dugdale is also dismissive of the idea that devolution has enabled Scotland to be more progressive than the UK. “I’m not sure I could look at the record of the Scottish Parliament and say it’s been particularly strong for women,” she says, arguing that the SNP doesn’t talk about the economy from a gendered perspective. “The way I look at it, unless we do things seriously differently, we’re going to lock women into low-paid low-skilled work and lock them out of the future.” 

So, with female leaders not being the panacea to all ills, perhaps Scotland isn’t as progressive as it may at first appear. And in fact, even the female representation argument can start to fall apart when you look at it a bit more closely. Although Holyrood’s female representation has never been as low as Westminster’s it hasn’t been a simple story of onward progress. In the first Scottish Parliament in 1999, women represented 37.2 per cent of MSPs. That’s almost 30 per cent more than current Westminster 29 per cent, which is the highest it has ever managed. The following election in 2003 saw that figure increase to 39.5 per cent. By 2011, however, the percentage of female MSPs had dropped down to 34.8 per cent.

“Unquestionably women’s representation was high in the first parliament because of Labour’s gender mechanisms,” explains Dugdale. Labour operated all-women shortlists and women-only seats, so when they were winning the majority of seats, women’s representation benefited. But when in 2007, the number of SNP MSPs increased, “they didn’t have those mechanisms, so more men arrived.” Despite their female leader and gender balanced cabinet, the SNP has, Dugdale explains, “returned a largely male group” of MSPs.

But this may all be set to change in the upcoming elections in May. This is partly because of the Scotland’s electoral system. In Scottish elections, you vote for your constituency MSP, in a FPTP system, and then you vote for a party to represent your region. Each region can send seven MSPs to Holyrood, and each party selects a list of candidates, arranged in order of preference, to stand for the region. This, says Yaqoob, “makes it easier to achieve a gender balance.” Most parties will use the zipping system, "where candidates are ordered as woman, man, woman.” So if that party’s vote share means they are allocated three MSPs, they will send two women and one man to Holyrood. 

It is also because of the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, which saw a record-breaking turnout of almost 90 per cent — the highest since the introduction of universal suffrage in 1918. This increase in participation carried over into the General Election, where turnout in Scotland was 71.1per cent, compared to England’s 65.8 per cent. In 2010, only 63.8 per cent of Scotland voted in the General Election.

The legacy of the referendum goes beyond turnout: it galvanised a whole swathe of previously apolitical women to get involved in shaping their country’s future. SNP candidate Jeanne Freeman was one of the founders of the Women for Independence movement: “I wanted to make sure women’s voices were heard in that debate, because too often it can be conducted exclusively between men, especially in the media,” she explains. “I was also a bit irritated by the fact that commentators all seemed to say, ‘women think this, women think that.’ I thought, well actually we don’t know what women think. So one of the first things we did was a listening exercise. We brought women together across the country and asked what they felt about Independence. What excited them, what worried them.” 

While Scotland may not be a feminist fairyland, only a fool would write off Scotland’s women in a hurry

“We repeated it for this year’s Scottish elections,” she adds — because the Women for Independence movement has had a life beyond the referendum. The location for meeting the group held immediately after the referendum had to be changed several times to accommodate all those who wanted to attend. The women involved “had found their confidence,” says Freeman. “They had found their voice and felt that they had a right to have an opinion and have that opinion listened to.” Many of them have gone on to be involved in food banks, and schools, she says — even to stand for election.

One of those women was Annie Beetham, now the WEP lead candidate for Glasgow. She had been a member of the Green Party for a couple of years, she tells me, but other than that, “I hadn’t been involved in party politics at all.” The Women for Independence movement changed that. They were “very visible. An inclusive, welcoming group,” she says. “I started going to their stall on Byres Road.” She became a full member immediately after the referendum, and still attends the events run by her local Glasgow West group. “Women are good at listening to other women, and they are also good at encouraging other women who might not normally speak, to speak up.” 

Scotland may not have an unblemished record on women’s rights, but there can be little doubt that its politics is experiencing a surge in female interest and involvement. You might think that this is exactly the sort of climate in which a party that puts women’s rights front and centre might thrive. But Chris Terry, an analyst at Electoral Reform Services isn’t so sure. “[P]olitics in Scotland ‘looks’ quite women focused compared to the rest of country,” he says, so the “gap in the electoral market is perhaps less obvious than in England, where the male-dominated nature of politics is much more obvious.”

And a surge in politicised women does not mean that the population at large has suddenly turned into feminists: Yaqoob points to the latest social attitudes survey of Scotland, which finds that Scotland holds “pretty much the same position” on women’s rights as the rest of the UK. As if to illustrate this point, while Chalmers says that “reception on the doorstep has been incredibly positive” she also tells me about a man who grabbed a flyer out of her hand while she was leafleting on Princes Street. “He didn’t look at it or read it, just looked me, tore it in four, spat on it, and walked away.” 

But, she adds, laughing, “his wife took one and hid it in her bag.” A reminder that, while Scotland may not be a feminist fairyland, only a fool would write off Scotland’s women in a hurry.


Illustration: Peter O'Toole for The Pool
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women in politics

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