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By Lesley Riddoch

Why are women still lagging behind men in support for Scottish independence?  At first the gender gap was ignored, now thousands of column inches have been written.

A small raft of explanations have been floated – chief amongst them the notion articulated by Professor John Curtice that women lack the hunter-gatherer instinct and tend to be home-makers not risk-takers. ScotCen Social Research Director, Rachel Ormston observes more men are “heart” nationalists who support Scottish independence as a matter of conviction than women who are more pragmatic, assessing and practical.

Professor Fiona Mackay suggests women are more able to admit they are uncertain. Blogger Kate Higgins suggests women – usually caregivers -- worry more about doing “the right thing.” I’ve argued women fear independence might only mean limitless power for the unreconstructed dinosaurs that sadly still abound in Scotland – self-important, puffed up men (and women) who are hostile to minorities, social change and non-hierarchical ways of working. The fear of risking everything to gain a new boss same as the old boss is common amongst Scotland’s sceptical, savvy gals but rarely discussed by independence campaigners.

The only certain thing is that female voters hold the key to Scotland’s future. If women vote yes in equal numbers to men on September 18th, independence can win. If they don’t, it probably can’t.  Over the last year women have been 10-22% less keen on independence than men (depending which poll you read). And though the SNP’s childcare proposals appeared to narrow the gap, the latest Wings Over Scotland commissioned survey suggests Yes leads amongst men by 9% but trails by 18% amongst women – a gender gap of 27%.

The weakest spot in the Yes ranks is women aged 16-34 with a 36% gap. Weirdly though 16-34 year old men are the strongest age group backing independence.

So what is going on?  

Pending more analysis we can only guess – though a BBC Scotland documentary later this month called ‘What Women Want’ will hopefully shed more light.

But I know the “home-makers not risk-takers” explanation annoyed the heck out of two feisty independence supporters -- economist Professor Ailsa Mackay who died last month at the tender age of 50 and veteran MSP Margo MacDonald whose death last week shocked everyone. Timid, non-political, reluctant to take radical action – neither Margo nor Ailsa could even spell the words.

So were they exceptionally radical women or unusually early adopters of independence?  Why have so many Scotswomen heeded their words and yet failed to warm (yet) to their pro-independence message?  When will women come off the fence – indeed will female “don’t knows” turn out to vote at all?  

Maybe women will take the independence campaign seriously when it takes them seriously. And that means more than trying to have women speakers on platforms and remembering to mention childcare a lot.

What have independence campaigners had to say about women’s place in Scotland’s recent history – in the strikes, campaigns, speeches and sacrifices that got us where we are today? It’s now customary to ask “what would Keir Hardie have thought?” as if this fascinating progressive Scot, a founder of the Labour Party and supporter of Home Rule is the only source worth quoting – the only talisman worth consulting. He isn’t.

Having been largely airbrushed from history it’s no surprise modern women see themselves as “also-rans” in this referendum and consequently feel no need to join the fractious, often bad-tempered debate. But that doesn’t just rob independence of female support it robs Scotland’s women of the chance to discover their own substantial political heritage.

The female road to the referendum started more than a century back. In 1900 six out of ten men could vote in General Elections but no woman had the vote except for school boards and local elections -- if they paid the rates. By 1900 women could bring divorce cases against husbands, keep their own money and property if married and gain access to children if divorced. These improvements in legal status helped more wealthy women. In 1900, the average pay for a woman was just 40% of male pay and if women teachers got married, they had to leave their jobs. The prevailing view probably echoed the anthropologist James McGrigor Allan who wrote in 1890;

“To man belongs the kingdom of the head’ to women the empire of the heart. In every pure and legitimate relation – as daughter, sister, wife and mother – woman is the direct assistant of man.”

So what did our foremothers do? They organised, argued, fought and braved prison to win the vote and prove these eminent men wrong. Between 1867 and 1876 two million signatures in Scotland backed giving women the vote – one of the largest petitions ever produced. Suffrage societies like the NUWSS were set up to press the case peacefully – they included women like Chrystal MacMillan who was one of the first women to qualify from Edinburgh University and the relatively uneducated Helen Fraser who made a tour of the east coast in a horse-drawn caravan in 1909 to support votes for women.

When these peaceful means got nowhere, some women became more militant. The Pankhurst family who founded the Women’s Social and Political Union in Manchester in 1903 were willing to break the law. Branches appeared in Scotland thanks, in large part, to an Arran lass Flora Drummond who became known as “the General” because of her military-style uniform and organisational skills.

Suffragettes helped opponents of four Scottish Liberal MPs who had opposed giving women the vote. But all four MPs were elected. Undaunted the women stepped up action and poured acid into post boxes led by Jessie Stephen of the Domestic Workers’ Union who recalled;

“ I was able to drop acid into the boxes without being suspected because I walked down from where I was employed in my cap, apron and black frock… nobody would ever suspect me.”

There was an attempt to burn down Kelso racecourse and the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith was attacked as he played golf. Leuchars rail station was burned down and buildings like Holyrood Palace were closed down for fear of attack.

Sylvia Pankhurst came to speak in Glasgow in 1914. The excellent book Campaigning for Change; Social Change in Scotland 1900-1979 by Simon and Claire Wood records two versions of that event. According to a policeman;

“I rushed up the stairs followed by sergeants and constables … we were immediately assailed by chairs, flower pots, bottles and other missiles thrown by men and women who fought like tigers. The platform was well fortified with strands of barbed wire...covered with flags and tissue paper. I drew the baton to protect myself … the ladies were all armed with clubs.”

By contrast a male member of the audience recalled;

“a scene which must have made the blood of every true man present boil with indignation and shame. The stage was rushed by policemen with drawn batons who laid out in all directions, hitting and felling women whose only offence was crowding round their leader … to protect her from the violence.”

In 1914 Janet Arthur tried to blow up the Alloway cottage where Robbie Burns had once lived. She went on hunger strike and was transferred to Perth prison where she was force fed;

“Six wardresses held me down and one of them reached forward and slapped my face. The assistant doctor held my head in a most painful grip. Dr Watson then tried to force my teeth open with the steel gag and said if he broke a tooth it would be my own fault. As he was unable to open my mouth he called for the nasal tube. He tried to force it up one side but with all his strength could not. He succeeded in forcing it down the other nostril and left it hanging while he left the room. As it was extremely painful I asked the assistant to remove it, but he only laughed.”


Another suffragette in Perth prison said; “They would say, ‘We will let you breathe when we see you turn purple.’

Some women who were force fed never recovered their health and in response to bad publicity the government passed the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health” Act in 1913 which released women who became ill on hunger strike but made them subject to re-arrest once they were better.

This “Cat and Mouse Act” prompted the creation of the Glasgow Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage by George Moffat after his wife had spent two weeks in jail for suffragette activity.  The banner read; “Scots wha hae votes – men. Scots wha haena – women."

In July 1912 the Scottish Churches League for Women’s Suffrage was founded. Town councils from Thurso to Peebles passed supporting motions. The Labour Party offered consistent backing and campaigned to give the vote to all men and women. Despite all this, nothing changed.

A Scottish Anti-Suffrage League was created in 1912 led by the Duchess of Montrose. Opponents produced posters portraying suffragettes as ugly and unattractive women and mothers who didn’t look after their children and husbands. A letter to the Scotsman in 1911 opined;

“We give the franchise to women only at the price of our national existence. That is too high a cost… Surely even this present government will not commit an act so traitorous without consulting the country beforehand. If they do it will bring about revolution and civil war.”


It seems scaremongering over the impact of democratic change in Scotland has a long, shameful history.

The suffragette’s campaign ended with the advent of war when women took jobs previously reserved for men. In 1914 there was just a handful of women in engineering – by 1918 there were 500,000. Elsie Inglis -- a militant suffragette and medical graduate – founded a maternity hospital in Edinburgh and all-women units to treat the Allied war wounded in France, Russia and Serbia. She died in 1915 from overwork – but Elsie’s hospital stayed open until 1988.

Meanwhile in Glasgow, women were also a pivotal part of the “Red Clydeside” movement. At the start of World War One, thousands of munitions workers moved Partick and Govan and landlords saw a chance to raise rents because housing was scarce. Women started organising non-payment campaigns and many were evicted – even though their husbands were fighting on the front line.

In 1914 the South Govan Women’s Housing Association, led by Mary Barbour, organised resistance to sheriff officers and linked up with other groups until 20 thousand people (most of them women and mothers) were on rent strike. In 1915 “Mrs Barbour’s Army” of women tenants, shipyard and engineering workers organised the biggest ever demonstration in Glasgow. Within weeks the government had frozen rents at pre-war levels. These “mere” women, unable to vote, had nonetheless brought the world’s most powerful government to its knees.

By the end of the war there were a million more women at work than 1914. Asquith said

“I find it impossible to withhold from women the power and the right of making their voices directly heard.”

But he did. The Representation of the People Act 1918 gave the vote to all men over 21 but only to women over 30 – the young women who damaged their health by working in munitions factories were excluded. Equal rights only finally arrived in 1928.

From the first petition to the final legislation – it had taken women sixty-one years to achieve basic equality. And there was a price to pay. The return of four million men from the war meant women were “encouraged” to leave jobs they had performed successfully for four years.

Proposals put to the STUC Congress in 1918 to end gender segregation at work were opposed on the grounds that “a woman’s natural sphere is the home’ and female employment had ‘a depressing effect on public morality.’  Margaret Hepburn worked in an office in Edinburgh before World War Two and complained to her boss about not having equal pay;

“I said ‘I’ve got rent to pay and bread to buy’…and he was quite taken aback that any female should ask for more money. My mother got equal pay when she worked at the pit-heid, but that all finished after the war.”

In 1941 war meant women were once again essential but underpaid members of the workforce. Agnes McLean led women on strike for equal pay at the Rolls Royce factory in Hillingdon.

“It was against the law to withdraw your labour [but] we were not considering anything except the fact that we were knocking our pan out and getting less wages than the guy next to us.”


Once again women were expected to give up these gains.

Over time, that changed – but a grudging attitude towards mothers in the workplace and job segregation by gender have endured. Scottish politicians have backed high quality, affordable childcare later than almost any other country in northern Europe -- and it’s still an aspiration not a reality. Meanwhile, work published in 2009 by Scottish academics Jim Campbell, Morag Gillespie, the late Ailsa McKay and Anne Meikle shows segregation in the Modern Apprenticeship scheme (MA) “is a major contributory factor to the gender pay gap.”

Scottish Enterprise figures show just 22% of those undertaking MAs in 2008 were female - down from 34% in 2004. That “female high” followed the introduction of the Adult MA in 2002 by the last Scottish Labour Government which allowed women who missed the boat at school to retrain.

The SNP has opted to concentrate MA cash on school leavers instead so the returners’ share of the budget has dwindled. Even though most politicians agree the “male-breadwinner, female care-giver” model thwarts personal development, social fairness and hampers economic efficiency, the figures suggest it’s still going strong.

According to the EOC (2005), the biggest skills shortages exist in the most (gender) polarised professions – construction (0.9% female Scottish MAs in 2008), engineering (1.9%), plumbing (0.8%), ICT (no separate category) and childcare (97.8%). Old fashioned ideas about jobs for men and women are damaging our economy. And the marginalisation of women has actually been getting worse. In 1999, 41.9% of all male apprentices were in plumbing, construction or engineering MAs – by 2008 the figure was 53%.

All of this has allowed women’s work to become underpaid and undervalued. A 2007 report found completion of an MA raised the average wage in construction by 32% whereas in (largely female) retail there was no wage impact at all. This contributed to a 21% pay gap between male and female apprentices in 2008 – the same as the pay gap in the wider economy. In other words, apprenticeships – advanced by all political parties as a way to overcome disadvantage -- not only mirror gender inequalities in the marketplace but actively reinforce them. According to academics, this produces “labour market rigidity.” In plain English, sexism is stifling Scotland.

So is it any wonder women hae their doots about claims for greater equality on the other side of the referendum? They, their mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers have heard it all before.

Is it any wonder women feel unwanted in shaping Scotland until wars or important votes arise? Happily the role of Scottish women in the wars is now part of the Standard Grade and Higher History syllabus. But where are the statues, stories, public buildings, memories and above all – where is the respect for our activist, radical grandmothers and great grandmothers who beat the UK government over rents, created the largest petition for the vote ever seen and endured force feeding and imprisonment in the name of equality?

I’m not saying belated recognition of the role of women in Scotland’s male-dominated history will swing votes on September 18th. I’m not saying restoring part-time MA’s will warm women towards independence fast. I am saying Scotland’s track record on women’s rights has been weak and nothing less than a whole-hearted and wholesale commitment to dump the cynical behaviour of the past will persuade female voters everyone benefits from a Yes vote in September.

Scotswomen spent 67 years agitating for the vote only to find themselves at work in war and at home afterwards. Despite having the vote, women’s pay has remained stubbornly lower than men’s to this day, Scottish councils have been dragged kicking and screaming into court to finally pay female manual workers the money they are due by law and childcare is probably the most expensive in Europe.

Warm words just don’t cut it with women. Even if we are unaware of the details of history, we are fully aware of the pattern. Wars, referendums, elections and even independence campaigns in the UK have generally meant improved conditions for the elite not the masses and certainly not the mass of working mothers and part-time female workers.

In other countries it has brought in big change pronto. All women got the vote in Norway straight after independence in 1905. Equality in the workplace was a strong feature of the new state. But women were expected to be housewives until the 1980s when a demand for labour by the state was matched by a demand for top quality childcare from women. And that transformed the nation.

So will independence make Scotland a better place for women?

I think it will. Any new start for a nation tends to enshrine the values of today rather than yesteryear. Holyrood was the second most gender equal parliament in the world when it opened in 1999. Childcare has now been put on the agenda very publicly by the SNP as the defining policy change of independence. Freeing up cash by dumping Trident will provide more money for public services – all of which make life easier for working women.

A written constitution will go further to enshrine gender equality and offer a legal platform for future fights.

But as the epic struggle for the women’s vote has demonstrated – that’s only half the battle. A sense of entitlement by male-dominated elites has long hobbled Scotland. We need to hear more from Yes campaigners every day about the benefits for everyone before women will feel confident to turn a new page.

‘What Women Want’ presented by Jackie Bird Tuesday 22nd April at 2100, on BBC Two Scotland


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