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Business and Finance

All the (Scottish) women, who independent, throw your hands up at me

Laura Waddell
Scotland might have voted against independence - but in the run up to the referendum, women created a greater space in political discourse. How did the people trying to win their vote get it so wrong?

Women are still a minority in formal political representation, making up 22% of MPs and 35% of MSPs. But outside of parliament, Scottish campaigning and discussion brought forth a cheering number of new female voices.

The Better Together campaign that targeted undecided female voters was widely criticised for its portrayal of a housewife surrounded by the paraphernalia of toys and crayon drawings, who referred constantly to what her husband had to say and described the First Minister as ‘that man off the telly’.

Undecided women from all quarters pointed out that they were capable of asking detailed and well informed questions to enable them to make their own decisions. “As the backlash to the cereal-pushing, cuppa-sipping worried mum advert proved, women are capable of not just caring about politics, but also campaigning, flyering, posting, writing, sharing, lobbying, critiquing, representing and changing politics,” commented campaigner Serena Richardson.

Writer Sara Sheridan was equally frustrated by the catch-all stereotype. Speaking at a time when she was undecided, she said, “can I speak for all artists or all women or all Scots? I can’t. That would be a crazy thing to try to do.” It was a mistake to assume that the female undecided voter was apathetic. “I’m sure that like many other women who are undecided, we’re just careful. It’s a big decision. We should be,” she said.

Informal politics

Kathleen Caskie, national coordinator of campaigning group Women For Independence, said women carved out their own space in the discussion.

“Women for Independence arose out of discussions between pro-independence women online about the lack of women’s voices in the political process, including the media. The idea took off like wildfire. There is always resistance to women organising themselves, from all parts of the political spectrum, but generally we have been welcomed. We have women working on stalls, fundraising, speaking at meetings, speaking in the media; the range of things we do is limited only by the imagination of our network.”

The shape of this debate, which took place largely outside of a formal arena, seemed a better fit for women. Lesley Riddoch, writing for The Guardian, suggested women felt disengaged from early formal campaigning because “debating styles were aggressive and aimed at winning plaudits from the usual suspects – male supporters and commentators.”

Keeping the momentum going

Change did seem to creep onto other platforms. I noticed far more occurrences of gender balanced panels on mainstream media since campaigning began. What brings hope to my heart is that they were not only discussing “women’s issues” but the general topics of economics and foreign policy.

That’s not to say some misogyny didn’t persist. I heard, on winning over voters, that “women are the problem” when as we’ve seen, targeting the mythic everywoman is the real problem behind voter disconnection.

I also noticed less sexualised language in online criticism of female political commentary. This shouldn’t be a sign that women’s voices are becoming a normal part of the discussion in 2014, but it is, and I hope it marks a shift in acceptance.

Kathleen Caskie says what started during the referendum campaigning will continue. “Women For Independence will continue to work as a movement promoting gender equality and constitutional change.” One day I might not even notice or think about gender representation on discussion panels. I hope women stay visible in politics, both in the innovative way campaigners have brought lively political discussion into all public spaces – but also, over time, in formal parliamentary representation.

Laura Waddell is an Edinburgh-based literary assistant with an interest in women and social media. @lauraewaddell. Image credit CC Marco De Stabile.

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