Ungagged asked me to write a piece around the latest row on women’s representation in the Yes movement. The story arose after Rhiannon Spear questioned whether any women would be asked to speak at a demonstration and has re-ignited the debate around “manels” – all male panels – and whether it is damaging to have male-only speakers at Yes events or whether feminism is a distraction from the cause of winning independence.
I should start by declaring an interest: I know and like Rhiannon Spear, I have known her since she was an activist with the SNP’s youth wing and she is now a colleague on Glasgow City Council. Her commitment to the cause of independence is unquestionable. I should also declare at the outset that I am firmly in her camp on this one.
Rhiannon was described last week as a “self-proclaimed feminist” which puts her in good company as far as I am concerned, along with Glasgow’s Council Leader and Scotland’s First Minister. But this seems to be a problem for some and that’s not only a pity, I think it is a problem. Let me explain why.
The SNP, and the wider Yes movement, is a broad church and many of the pews are occupied by feminists. I remember the late great Liz Quinn (one of those quiet heroes usually described as stalwarts, to whom the party owes everything) talking at SNP Conference about how she came to join the SNP back in the 70s by making a connection between the personal independence and equality she was fighting for as part of the women’s liberation movement and the position of Scotland. The room was full of women nodding in agreement.
The right to make your own decisions, to form your own relationships, to earn and spend your money as you choose, to have your autonomy respected, to have the same opportunities as your peers, to be an equal partner with your own voice in the world……. Sounds familiar?
It’s not so long ago that women did not have these rights and for far too many women these rights still need to be fully realised. The struggle for women’s autonomy that Liz was speaking about – often a very personal struggle – has helped shape many women’s support for political autonomy for Scotland. The personal is indeed political.
This makes it pretty grim to hear people – usually men – suggest that feminism is a distraction from the Yes campaign. For many of us the values and aspirations which underpin our feminism are also those which underpin our support for independence. That doesn’t mean that supporting independence means you have to be a feminist. It doesn’t. (And the obvious corollary is that being a Scottish feminist doesn’t mean you have to support independence).
But I would hope people can understand and respect that feminism is part of why many women put so much time and effort into the Yes campaign. Others may have different values and motivations which drive them: I wouldn’t question their motives. But neither should anyone question Rhiannon’s motivation or that of any other woman.
In any case, you don’t need to be a feminist to believe that the public face of the Yes movement should be made up of both men and women. The Yes movement IS made up of both men and women. Something has gone wrong if event organisers don’t know enough women to invite. I can completely understand if a particular set of unfortunate circumstances combine to prevent a woman speaker attending. But not if it is a pattern. And I can’t accept people saying it doesn’t matter.
It matters plenty if the Yes movement that exists on the ground is not represented on the platform. And that doesn’t just apply to women but to other under-represented groups as well. People may see complaints about events that only have white men speaking as political correctness but it really isn’t – the issue is that this simply doesn’t portray the Yes movement as the diverse and inclusive movement that it is. It gives a fundamentally false impression of who we are. We are a movement for all of Scotland and when people look at us they should see that. They should see themselves.
Being a movement for all of Scotland means that of course – independence aside – people won’t always agree on everything. That’s fine. The issue of gender and politics can be pretty hotly contested and people have strong feelings. Again, that’s fine. As a veteran of the decades long debate within the SNP around gender balance I wear my scars lightly because by and large the debate was conducted in a reasonable and respectful way. This in no way undermined the passionate nature of that debate but it did ensure that no-one got hurt. There’s a lesson there I feel.
That’s not to say we should impose the kind of rules which govern Conference debate outside that environment or impose a kind of faux-gentility on twitter discussions. That would be impossible. But a little bit of restraint (and possibly self-awareness) would be helpful.
There are no bosses in the Yes movement and everyone is entitled to raise any issue they wish to raise. Rhiannon was perfectly entitled to raise the issue as she did. I can appreciate that people may be tired of the debate about manels – I think we all are, Rhiannon included! But there’s a simple solution to it that would give us all peace, as well as ensuring our movement reaches out to and represents everyone in Scotland, as we must do if we are to win.