Women decide: time for a more gender equal Scotland

Last month Women for Independence (WfI) held their first ‘proper’ AGM. Established in 2012 and characterised as one of the “organisations focused specifically on bringing their case to women” (Ormiston, 2014) in the Scottish Independence Referendum,WfI now has ten thousand members and over fifty groups across Scotland.

The energy and engagement of WfI is arguably a mirror of the momentous movement experienced in Scotland in the last year and more. This unparalleled swell in women’s activism is a significant by-product of the debate and the campaigning on the independence referendum in Scotland.

For many women – on both, or neither, side of the referendum question – the referendum process catalysed women’s public engagement to the extent that “we’re not going back to the couch after this…”[1] WfI has recently had a high profile across a range of issues extending from local fracking decisions or campaigning to stop Scottish Government proposals for a new “super prison” for women. As WfI activists have made clear, Scottish independence was not the endgame. Kathleen Caskie, WfI co-ordinator, explains:

“From the start our full name was double-barreled and reflective; Women for Independence – Independence for Women. Our common cause was not just support for independence, but also support for gender equality. Scottish independence did not guarantee gender equality – it simply offered us a better opportunity to get there.”[2]

Writing in 2014 before the referendum, the academic Meryl Kenny argued that “the initial face” of the constitutional debate and its formal proponents, with the exception of the party leaders, was predominantly male, and that “women’s voices have been largely missing”. As an academic researcher and feminist activist my personal and professional experience was that women were forward and centre in the referendum campaign, and have been since with the accession of Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister. However, that personal experience and analysis have reinforced the reality that while women were present, women’s voices, particularly feminist voices, continue to be limited largely to feminist spaces. This confirms Kenny’s second observation: that women and gender equality were not – and are not – central to policy analysis in Scotland. In her words, “neither side has been terribly effective at conveying the benefits of the different constitutional options for women”. That depressing truth persists as we work through the implications of further devolution proposed by the Smith Commission.

Women voters ignored and patronized

The failure to formulate gender-aware policy that not only advocates the advancement of women’s economic, social and political status, but that even contains a degree of gender analysis, has continued despite the expressed interests of the formal parties and partisan campaigns to win over women’s votes.

The data on voting intentions presented an enduring worry for the campaigners and strategists. According to Rachel Ormiston, “the ‘gender gap’ in men’s and women’s support for independence [was] one of the best-known and most frequently discussed research findings” in the run in to the referendum. Press commentators went so far as to suggest that “women may ‘hold the key’ to the outcome of September’s vote”.[3]

In 2014, the Scottish Social Attitudes survey (SSA) showed a consistent gap of between six and seven per cent in the years 1999 to 2014 between women’s and men’s support for independence. This increased to twelve per cent by July 2014 (Scot Cen 2014). In the end, the results of the referendum showed a much closer margin, with women voting 44% yes and 56% no, while men voted 47% yes and 53% no.[4] Women’s final votes, therefore, reflected a smaller margin than the established patterns of intent.

In the polls on key issues affecting voting intentions, women were most concerned about the NHS, tax and public spending, questions around currency, and disaffection with Westminster. Neither the SSA or Ashcroft polls, for example, asked about childcare or violence prevention, some of the so-called ‘women’s policies’. The point is, of course, that both women and men are fundamentally concerned with the big ticket political and policy issues that affect their daily lives in different, and often detrimental, ways. These ‘mainstream’ issues are, however, where the political parties and campaign organisations consistently lacked any gender analysis. There was no specific discussion of the opportunities and implications within mainstream policy for advancing women’s economic and political status, or forequalising gender relations and eliminating gendered bias.

This deficiency played out in a number of ways. An infamous example is “The Woman Who Made up Her Mind”, a television election broadcast produced by the Better Together campaign.[5] This presented a caricature of a mother and housewife too bound up in juggling the challenges of work-life balance to be able to process information on political issues. The nameless woman faces the camera and laments the dilemmas posed by the potential transfer of powers. She complains that breakfast time was “too early to be discussing politics”, and wishes that Paul, her husband, would stop “going on about the referendum” and just “eat [his] cereal”. As for the seemingly ludicrous idea that her “kids” be asked their opinion, these first time voters were also dismissed as never having “their heads out of their phones”.

Resolved and revived by a swift cup of tea and a gallop through pensions, security, and currency policy, the woman declares herself a decided ‘no’ voter. In two minutes and forty seconds, this television advert succeeds in highlighting a number of the key campaign tensions and issues mentioned earlier, as being of interest to women voters in a way that ultimately underscores their absence from formal campaign and party documentation.

On social media, where much of the independence debate was happening, the response was fast, furious, and (mostly) very funny, with numerous memes storming commentary websites[6], spoofing the almost-spoof of the original advert.[7] Street-level campaigning, another characteristic of the referendum, saw WfI activists take to the supermarket cereal aisles to plant some subterfuge.

In the formal space of policy documents and party-commissioned reports, there were few laughs, and even fewer references, to women or gender equality as a core political or politicised interest. Taking the main parties one-by-one reveals a failure to engage with the potential of significant political change to act as an opportunity for advancing gender equality or women’s economic, social or political status.

Gender equality sidelined by all parties

In Powers for a Purpose, their Devolution Commission report, Scottish Labour make ten references to women. Six are repeated statements about facilitating minor legislative change allowing for measures to improve women’s representation on public and corporate boards.

Of the 24 references to equality, six are related to gender equality and almost all reference the role of previous Labour administrations in securing existing normative and legislative frameworks through the Westminster and Scottish Parliaments. The enforcement of equality legislation and the administration of Employment Tribunals are the principal policy measures proposed in relation to advancing equality and access to justice. In a separate briefing on the case for the union, the argument is based on the premise that “Because we pool and share our resources, the moral purpose of the union is to deliver opportunity and security for all UK citizens irrespective of race, gender or religion – or location” (2014b: 11). Arguably this is an attempt to ‘equality-proof’ policy statements but such shoe-horning in of references to protected characteristics is rather clumsy. It effectively renders concerns to advance equality of status, including between women and men, as secondary to other political goals. Equality is not framed as a central political aim that can be advanced by opportunities arising from revised constitutional and governmental arrangements.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats completely bypass women as a central political issue in Federalism: the best future for Scotland. Similarly, for the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, women and gender equality merit zero mentions in the Commission on the Future Governance of Scotland. Contrastingly, in only seven references to women in one briefing on the economy, the Scottish Green Party manage to cover business start-ups, the gender pay gap, skills and apprenticeships and, of course, childcare. The Scottish Trade Union Congress’ (STUC) principal outcome of its deliberative process, A Just Scotland, manages three references to women, but none relate to any specific policy advances. In its response to the interim report from STUC, the formal Yes campaign could only manage a single reference to women – again, in relation to childcare.

Gender equality, it’s about the economy stupid

Scotland’s Futures, the Scottish National Party prospectus for an independent Scotland, leads this poor field with thirty-nine references to women and eighteen to gender. It also features sections on equality (with 125 mentions) and human rights (seventy-two). Among the most heralded policy proposals was the offer of “transformational childcare”, framed as central to Scotland’s economic strategy.

This alternative framing aims to decouple childcare from its perception as a ‘women’s issue’. It presents it as central to core economic development and growth priorities by considering investment in childcare facilities as capital investment that would provide short-run construction employment, the longer-term creation of physical assets, labour market opportunities for both sexes, and a well-trained and remunerated workforce who would boost tax (Campbell et al., 2013). Such a proposition seeks to respond to two significant policy problems: availability of provision and pressure on household budgets as evidenced in recent research showing that childcare costs currently account for 27% of household income in Scotland, compared to OECD average of 12% (Naumann et al, 2013).

The focus on childcare, a key feminist demand, proved contentious on a number of levels. By making direct appeals to women, the policy framing arguably perpetuated the construction of women as mothers or working mothers. As a result, women were, and continue to be, distrustful and somewhat resentful of perceived political manipulation and blatant vote-winning appeals that instrumentalise an issue of such importance to gender equality. Engender[8] stated at the time that, while childcare is an important issue, it does “not come close to redressing the broad sweep of gender inequality” in Scotland.

The dual approach to equality and economic policy was as important as it was unusual. Although recognising the centrality of affordable and accessible childcare to parental choice and labour market opportunities, for the most part women’s unpaid contribution to the ‘productive’ economy remained invisible. In tussles over Scotland’s key economic sectors, the care sector did not feature in the campaigns of the political parties.

After the referendum, women still fighting for a voice

Beyond the referendum, the formal political process of extracting additional powers for the Scottish Parliament has been progressed through the Smith Commission. Created immediately after the result, this process brought together the five main political parties to negotiate on further devolved powers.

While ever aiming to present a positive argument for feminist policy change, advocates such as Engender[9] and the Scottish Women’s Budget Group have struggled to find much to cheer about in either the process or the outputs of the Smith Commission. In both the ‘Heads of Agreement’[10] paper published in November 2014 and the more substantive ‘Command Paper’[11] published in January, gender analysis is as elusive as ever.

There are zero references to women in either of the Smith Commission reports. This is despite extensive briefings from Engender informed by a membership consultation that yielded over 1,000 responses in one week and meetings between women’s organisations and Smith Commission officials. Does this mean that the parties do not consider women’s status in all its diversity to be interesting or important? Do they think the policy specifics of welfare and social security, taxation, employability, transport, and public bodies are not central in improving women’s lives and advancing gender equality? Or does it mean that, far from ‘mainstreaming gender’, political and policy processes continue to be as androcentric as ever? The Command Paper makes twenty-three references to equality and some proposals around the legal provision for formal equality. However, what powers might be further devolved to advance (gender) equality in Scotland remains unclear.

It seems, then, that the leap, or rather slow creep, from formal and descriptive equality to a weightier substantive understanding of equality remains elusive. Policies are either directed at women or ignore women. Childcare is about women. Economic policy is about the economy and not about people – women or men of any age, capacity, or ethnicity. While there have been significant policy and discursive gains under devolution to date, they appear not to have dented the consciousness of all policymakers either within political parties or across the wider polity.

Outside the political process women remain resilient

So, has another opportunity for political change been lost, or simply delayed? Across the literature, in feminist and territorial politics, the creation of political opportunity structures, such as constitutional change, are considered to open up the policy space for new actors and arenas (Banaszack et al. 2003; Keating and Wilson, 2009; Vickers, 2013).

There are plenty of live examples from the Scottish experience of Chappell’s definition of gender as “a dynamic political process in which organized women imbue institutions with gender norms”, through all the ways that Vickers describes: “parties, movements, and women’s policy agencies”. Throughout the referendum debate, and since, women’s organisations have consulted, deliberated and promoted alternative analyses and proposals as a method of addressing and improving the status of women and advancing the possibility of a more gender equal Scotland.

Women for Independence organised and supported women across Scotland and across the issues women identified as relevant to their lives as independent women living in an independent Scotland or within the union. Engender widely engaged its membership and the women’s sector in non-party aligned consultations and information events. Similarly, the Scottish Women’s Budget Group, also unaligned, made public statements on the opportunity presented by constitutional change to advance women’s equality and to improve gender analysis in public policy.[12] Of course, women within established political parties undoubtedly will have pressed the case; but the formal party response and public offerings did not include an embedded gender analysis. The recipes for changing or staying together still followed the ‘add women and stir’ method of applying gender analysis, as an extra, not as a core, ingredient. Women challenged this absence in the bigger ‘think pieces’ and in the outputs from projects, such as the Common Weal, whose range of policy papers disappointingly did not contain much in the way of gender analysis.

While an autonomous political project like Common Weal cannot be ‘re-gendered’ retrospectively, its shortcomings can be exposed, its thought processes challenged, and a sticking plaster applied to the open space where gender analysis should have been. Women o’ independent mind was such an attempt (O’Hagan, 2014). In collaboration with feminist women across personal and campaigning networks, this short comment piece reaffirmed that the status quo was not an option. Furthermore, it asserted that the opportunity presented by political change, whatever the outcome, required action across the policy areas of Scotland’s Constitution; economic, taxation and fiscal policy; welfare and social protection; employment protection; elimination of violence against women; representation in political, public and corporate governance.

Even for feminists within the ‘radical’ organisations catalysing the debate, women’s voices and the imperative to advance women’s status in Scotland were not a prominent discursive frame. In Scottish Independence – a feminist response Cat Boyd and Jenny Morrison issued a salvo that challenged the male norms of the left, just as much as it was a call to action against a dominant economic paradigm that will continue to be replicated; that is, unless women’s positions and women’s representation are forward and centre in any demands for political change.

On 8 March 2015 the UK and Scottish Women’s Budget Groups launched Plan F – a feminist economic strategy. [13] This is part of the response to enduring gender gaps in economic policy and evidence that proposals for feminist policy change still tend to come from feminist not mainstream organisations. Plan F proposes an alternative set of ingredients for a caring and sustainable economy and how public resources are utilized to achieve this goal.

Hoping for a feminist future

We are all in together as we look to the party election manifestoes for evidence of gender analysis and pledges for progressive gender equality policies. Childcare has endured as a key political issue and is playing across the parties.

In Scotland so too is the commitment to ensuring 50:50 women’s representation on corporate and public boards by 2020. The recently revised Scottish Economic Strategy is framed around the priority of inclusive growth and reducing inequality. So perhaps feminist voices are echoing inside government: what a legacy that would be!

[1]Libby Brooks, The Guardian, Monday 6 October 2014. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/scotland-blog/2014/oct/06/women-for-independence-in-perth-scotland

[2] Kathleen Caskie (2015),



[3]Libby Brooks in The Guardian, 2 May 2014 ‘Scottish independence debate: women hold the key far from Westminster’, online at http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/may/02/scottish-independence-debate-women-key-far-westminster

[4] Lord Ashcroft polls. Available at: http://lordashcroftpolls.com/2014/09/scotland-voted/

[5] “The Woman Who Made Up Her Mind”, Better Together. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OLAewTVmkAU. First aired 26 August 2014.

[6] http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/08/27/patronisingbtlady-scottish-independence_n_5721048.html

[7]See an example, “Patronising Better Together Woman with subtitles. Now eat your cereal!” at Hour Scotland at https://youtu.be/-H_psPVLk-8.

[8]Engender is a feminist research and campaigning organisation in Scotland. See www.engender.org.uk for futher details.

[9] http://www.engender.org.uk/content/publications/Engender-Smith-Commission-submission-October-2014.pdf; “Equality campaigners raise concerns about devolving more control over welfare to Scotland”, The Herald, Wednesday 11 February 2015. Available at: http://www.heraldscotland.com/politics/scottish-politics/equality-campaigners-raise-concerns-about-devolving-more-control-over-wel.1423672306

[10] Report of the Smith Commission for further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament, 27 November 2014.

Available at: https://www.smith-commission.scot/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/The_Smith_Commission_Report-1.pdf

[11] Scotland in the United Kingdom: An enduring settlement, 22 January 2015. Available at:



[12] http://www.swbg.org.uk/content/publications/SWBG-Statement-to-Smith-Commission.pdf

[13] http://wbg.org.uk/economic-social-policy/plan-f/

Further reading

Banaszak, Lee Ann; Beckwith, Karen; Rucht, Dieter. eds. (2003) Women’s movements facing the reconfigured state. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Campbell, Jim; Elson, Diane; McKay, Ailsa; (2013) “The Economic Case for Investing in High-Quality Childcare and Early Years Education”. Available at: http://www.gcu.ac.uk/wise/.

Chappell, Louise, A. (2010) Comparative gender and institutions. Perspectives on Politics 8 (1): 183–189.


– (2014) Gender Equality and Scotland’s Constitutional Futures. Available at: http://www.engender.org.uk/content/publications/Gender-equality-and–Scotlands-constitutional-futures.pdf.

– (2015) Submission to the Smith Commission. Available at: http://www.engender.org.uk/content/publications/Engender-Smith-Commission-submission-October-2014.pdf

Keating, Michael and Wilson, Alex (2009) “Renegotiating the State of Autonomies: Statute Reform and Multi-level Politics in Spain”, West European Politics,32:3, pp.536 – 558

Kenny, M (2014), “Engendering the independence debate”, Scottish Affairs 23:3, pp. 323-331.

Naumann, Ingela; McLean, Caitlin; Koslowski, Alison; Tisdall, Kay; Lloyd,Eva (2013) “Early Childhood Education and Care Provision: International Review of Policy, Delivery and Funding”. Edinburgh: Scottish Government.

O’Hagan, A. (2014) “Women o’ independent mind”. Common Weal. Available at: http://www.allofusfirst.org/library/women-of-an-independent-mind-the-future-of-womens-equality-in-scotland-2014/

Ormiston, Rachel (2014) “Minding the gap. Women’s views of independence in 2014”. Edinburgh: ScotCen.

Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party (2014) Commission on the Future Governance of Scotland.

Scottish Green Party (2014) “Jobs-rich, fair and flourishing: An Economy for All”.   Available at: http://www.scottishgreens.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2014/04/Green-Yes-Jobs-briefing.pdf

Scottish Labour (2014a) Powers for a purpose – Strengthening Accountability and Empowering People. Scottish Labour Devolution Commission.

Scottish Labour (2104b) Together we can. Available at: http://www.scottishlabour.org.uk/campaigns/entry/together-we-can

Scottish Liberal Democrats (2012) Federalism: The best future for Scotland. Available at: http://www.scotlibdems.org.uk/homerule

Scottish Social Attitudes Survey (2013) “Is it really all just about economics? Issues of nationhood and welfare?” http://www.natcen.ac.uk/media/265694/ssa_is-it-really-all-just-about-economics.pdf

Scottish Government (2014) “Scotland’s Future: Your Guide to and Independent Scotland”. Available at: http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2013/11/9348

Vickers, J (2013) “Is Federalism Gendered? Incorporating Gender into Studies of Federalism”, Publius: The Journal of Federalism 43:1, pp.1-23.

Photo by byronv2

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