I’m not a feminist. I’m barely feminine come to that: a pushing-40 tomboy. My initial reaction to comments about gender balance is a cringe. So what if there are four men and no women on a panel? What do women bring to a debate that a man can’t? If I’m really honest, a man will often persuade me to a cause long before a woman – they can exude an air of authority most women would feel embarrassed to display.
It’s only very recently, partly thanks to Women for Independence, I’ve realised it’s an issue that does matter. On this site – below the line – the question of gender balance has been dismissed as hysterical feminism. On Twitter, a debate last week had the lack of women in politics dismissed with “Well, they exclude themselves, don’t they?”
The irony for me, as a woman, is how those kind of comments mirror the independence debate itself. An “I’m not a feminist but…” article echoes the now common, “I’m not a nationalist but…” refrain. The cringe when women speak up about gender imbalance is similar to the Scottish cringe: a lack of confidence in who you are; in standing up for yourself or others in your position; in insisting you on your right to be heard over those exuding more authority.
The “Well they exclude themselves don’t they? If women want to be involved what’s stopping them?” line carries within it the same lack of insight into power structures and barriers as, “What are those Jocks whinging about now? They’re represented at Westminster, aren’t they?”
The issue, as far as I’m concerned – and other women may disagree, we don’t all think the same – isn’t one about straight gender balance. Simply replacing male politicians and panellists with women who’ve made it within the same system misses the point. The issue is with politics itself, and the style of UK political and media debate.
To enter, at any level, you need to have confidence – arrogance, even – and not to be afraid of a fight. Many people prefer introspection, weighing up ideas, taking time and space to come to a conclusion. There is a danger such types end up shouted down.
Many people also “self-exclude” from politics because they have other, more pressing, demands on their time. Caring for relatives or children, working in a hard, front-line job like nursing or teaching, keeping up relationships and friendships, working hard at life. It may come as a shock to the political type, but there are some things in life which are far bigger than politics for many people.
The delineation isn’t a straight male/female one. There are confident women in politics and business, and men lacking confidence who’d never speak out in debate. However, statistically, there’s a cross-over between gender, role and personality type. More men have jobs where they can surf the net, debate with colleagues, head to the pub later for more chat and have the time and inclination for issues like post-independence currency or treaty negotiation, while statistically more women will be at home with kids or in busy, front-line caring jobs where this isn’t possible.
For too many women, especially in deprived areas, life is a constant struggle that would put men’s political “fights” in the shade. One in four women in the UK suffer abuse, to take an extreme example. For them, speaking out and having the “wrong” opinion may still carry a risk of verbal or even physical violence. Too many are used to picking up the pieces from their men’s grand schemes: the horse that was a dead cert but fell at the first leaving no money for the rest of the week; the wage packet blown down the pub in one evening; the bloke who swore he’d be around forever and left at the first nappy change.
A man saying, “Trust me doll, it’ll work out just fine”, is the kind of statement that must make many a woman’s blood run cold.
Women are the fixers, the pragmatists, the shoulders to cry on, the folk who bandage cut knees and kiss it all better. They’re used to looking for consensus and dampening down tensions, not seeking them out. For them, UK political debating style is a turn-off, and they may find few “safe” routes into the independence debate right now.
Women, along with the sick, poorest and most vulnerable in society, are also the ones frequently at the front line of social policy. They’re the cannon-fodder battered by the latest welfare-reducing wheeze from some millionaire politician full of (misplaced) authority and confidence.
They are the first hit by ill-thought-out policies on health and social care. They are the home economists who have to make the food stretch further when incomes fall or prices rise, who have to make do and mend, find some way to cope when kids grow out of school clothes or the washing machine breaks down. They are, in short, the people most reliant on politicians, yet the ones most often let down by them. Is it any wonder some might be sceptical, a little more resistant to the change over-confident men in suits might be urging on them?
Short of joining a political party, a woman is unlikely to find a group of female friends who are into political discussion. There is something considered a bit wrong about political women. Coming out to male friends about supporting independence was easy. They’d tell you exactly what they thought: Aye, you’re on the right side hen or You whit? You daft? Women, not so much.
Whether it’s because they are still weighing up, not as black-and-white opinionated as men, it’s hard to tell. But often declaring support for independence to a female friend is greeted with silence, perhaps a raised eyebrow, or scornful look. Rarely an outright challenge or affirmation. Sometimes you get the feeling they’ll be off voicing their disapproval to someone else: “You know that Cath? Joined the SNP and become one of those separatist types, she has…”
Both those reactions – male and female – can have the effect of stifling debate in someone not confident in their own voice or arguments. So the fact support for independence among women is currently statistically lower than men doesn’t surprise me. It also, in itself, doesn’t worry me. Many women – many men too – will weigh it up and take a little longer to decide. That’s not a bad thing. There’s plenty of time.
But they likely won’t be persuaded either way by men in suits telling them what to think, or by issues such as currency, treaties and technicalities. Nor by political women simply because they’re the same gender. They will be persuaded if they can be reassured independence isn’t a bad idea, that it won’t have a negative impact on their lives, often painfully fragile already. That it won’t affect relationships with friends and family down south.
They’ll be persuaded by people who understand their lives and situations and how the politics of independence fits into these, who understand their fears and needs and show how these can be addressed. And that’s where the balance issue comes into play – but it’s not so much a simple quota-filling balance of male and female voices that’s required, but one of issues and policy.
What’s required, urgently, are the voices of “real” people, those affected on the front lines of social policy. What positive change could independence mean to women who are carers? To mothers? To nurses? What risks do they run and how can these be mitigated? What risks are there with the status quo?
Ultimately, those with most experience of these as real, live issues, not just as academic “social policy debates”, are the very people with more pressing needs in their life than politics. They’re also the people who need most care and reassurance that they won’t end up as front-line collateral damage in another political experiment.
That should be true in any policy debate: if it was we might not suffer such appalling car-crashes of social butchery as the welfare reforms and bedroom tax. In a debate and decision as critical to all our futures as independence, which is fundamentally about what kind of society we want to live in, this respect and inclusive debate is vital. The best way for people to feel convinced it won’t turn out badly for them is if they are part of the process, their voices and concerns listened to and acted upon. In short, if they feel they and their communities are helping drive the change.
That’s why women’s voices are vital in this debate. It’s not about feminism or gender balance for its own sake; neither should independence be only for its own sake. Both should be about empowerment, greater democracy and better governance. If not, many will be asking what either of them are for.