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


# pomatiaH1 2014-04-08 07:47
If you are expecting much enlightenment from the BBC and Jackie Bird, your confidence is disasterously misplaced.
Have the literati and intelligensia not been paying attention, or do they still put their faith in 'authority figures'?
# neoloon 2014-04-08 08:06
My own, very non-scientific, conclusion about the lack of support amongst 16-34 women for independence is that many of them I've talked to seem to have an illogical dislike for Nicola Sturgeon.
It's like they see her as a kind of home-breaker of the unionist family.
Very strange.
Or maybe it's just envy?
# gandkar 2014-04-08 08:23
I have detected a similar dislike for Alex Salmond amongst a lot of men. You could call it envy but my own analysis is a typically Scottish reaction to anyone who exudes self confidence in their own ability. Both Alex and Nicola have every right to be confident they are both masters of their craft. Personally I am glad they are on our side.
# Clydebuilt 2014-04-08 09:01
BBC reported on a debate held in Glasgow last night by Scottish Women In Business.
Listeners were told that the YES vote went up from(41)19% to 31% weren't told swing relating to NO ....we were told that the NO vote at the start was 60 proportion that equates to 27.8% so without any drift from NO the AYES have it.....haven't found this reported anywhere to check my figures
# pomatiaH1 2014-04-08 09:13
There is another side to this; it would be useful to know what are the Nos doing that makes women think they want to stay the way things are.
If women examine that too they may change.
# Shagpile 2014-04-08 09:45

There is a lot of baloney talked about the inferiority of women. The reality of the handicap is with the male of our species, although to be fair, it's more to do with nurture rather than nature, and both male and female contribute to that.

Dundee's fairly recent history reversed the 'traditional' roles of men and women. The jute industry produced female bread winners and male home carers, or 'kettle boilers'. It would be an incredible act of folly to patronise a Dundee lassie.

Moulds need to be broken. It will take the joint effort and confidence of belief of both men and women to define a fairer and better independent Scotland.

Good article Ms Riddoch.
# Shagpile 2014-04-08 21:46

I do apologise for replying to my own post.

Scottish women are no different. They are not genetically programmed to be anything less.

We need your help fellow Scots.
# Nigel Mace 2014-04-08 10:32
A very fine article and by its focus on the unrecognised past, it may indicate something that the YES campaign and/or the SG could take up. The lack of public recognition of Scotland's past women pioneers needs to be reversed - and with SG funds. Some elements of the local YES groups could take up the cause of recognising local past women pioneers - Mary Barbour in Glasgow is an obvious case, Elsie Inglis in Edinburgh or the women who often led crofting resistance to Clearances. I hope there will also be very clear affirmation of women's equal rights in any initial draft proposals for a Scottish constitution. We've got to show clearly that yesteryear's bad norms are exactly those things of which we wish to be free. Having said all which - the depressing sound of a few women still saying they can't respond to a canvasser because their "man's no in", hasn't yet disappeared and if Lesley has a cure for that I'd love to know it.
# weegie38 2014-04-08 12:01
Lesley, I'd say a major component in getting women to vote Yes is pointing out that it moving away from risk, not towards it. In the sense that we'd be leaving what is, by global standards a very abnormal country: over-centralised, inefficient, male-dominated and unequal.

Vote Yes for normal.
# FREEDOM1 2014-04-08 12:37
Most women I speak to say 'I don't like Alex Salmond'. What has the Destiny of Scotland got to do with Alex Salmond? Also my sister , until three months ago did not know of 'Yes Scotland'. What is going on with our other halves ?
# Independista 2014-04-08 14:44
Ive said it before and will say it again. Whoever produces the newspapers we put through the doors, need to list the pro indy websites on their front page. Its the only way we can bypass the MSM, so that excellent articles like this can get the widest possible readership
# gerrydotp 2014-04-08 16:18
Agreed 100%.
I'm one of the people pushing the Yes papers through the door.
# Will 2014-04-08 15:20
Ms Sturgeon admitted that the Yes campaign had to do more to persuade women: she explained, “Women perhaps take longer to make up their minds than men.” (2 January 2014). Would women take this as a compliment or as an insult? I think most generalisations about differences between the sexes reflect the bias of the person doing the generalising.
# altcelt 2014-04-10 14:28
I'm starting up a wee series of articles on important, and some largely forgotten, women in Scotland's history as part of my own blog. I do the occaisional comment piece too. It's maybe not quite what you mean, but the more the merrier, I guess.
# Mei 2014-04-08 16:20
MSP assaulted during pub debate on independence
# Jamieson 2014-04-08 16:43
Getting a good activist type female blog like Wings going would be a good first step. The only one I can think of is Burd's Eye View and frankly it is too wishy washy to be able to persuade anyone to do anything.
# frankieb123 2014-04-08 18:01
My wife was not political but just recently she has been watching the news both BBC and STV along with myself and as she says "The amount of drivel and negativity coming from bitter together" has pushed her over the edge. She has seen through all the scaremongering and it has in a way wore her down that she feels impelled to have her vote and say Yes. I think Lord Robertson was the final straw (lots of screaming at the telly). So in my opinion women will see through the utter rubbish being peddled on msm and their yes vote will increase. Aye! never thought I'd live to see the day my wife would watch the news with me, or for that matter First Ministers questions. Strange days indeed.
# dadsarmy 2014-04-08 19:23
I think all these explanations start from the wrong place, they start with women. What they should do is start with people. So what happens with people?

I would say in general, if people have little interest in a topic they tend to believe what they read or see and accept it. Who cares, after all? For instance if the BBC told me elephants were an endangered species in India I just accept that because, shame on me, I'm not interested in elephants.

So I won't go the trouble of thinking about or researching elephants or India, I'll just have a cup of tea and think "elephants are an endangered species in India".

Perhaps at the moment women have far more important and interesting things to think about than Independence, but near the time they'll check it out and make their mind up. Meanwhile they accept the status quo and what they casually see on the BBC or read in a paper.
# setondene 2014-04-08 19:46
A timely reminder of the struggles of the great suffragist movement. Many women must still feel that politics is a man's game and have their focus directed at more important aspects of life as they would see it. It did occur to me that 16-34 is the main childbearing age range. Perhaps these women prefer the stability of the existing order even if it isn't guaranteed to last.
# cuckooshoe 2014-04-10 21:35
I wonder if all the Better Together and the Pro-Union mainstream media negativity was always intended for women voters? They will be concerned for their jobs and their benefits. Some will be the main provider. Some will be bringing up children alone. Some will be carers.

In the last 100 days of campaigning, Yes Scotland need to provide more focused information for women voters about the transition to independence. They really need to counter Better Together's fear factor, and demonstrate to women that an independent Scotland will not pull the rug from under their feet, that their jobs are safe, and their benefits guaranteed..
# Clydebuilt 2014-04-08 20:16
Quoting Independista:
the newspapers we put through the doors, need to list the pro indy websites on their front page. Its the only way we can bypass the MSM, so that excellent articles like this can get the widest possible readership

The "Aye Right" Leaflet Lists 14 such sites and is available at £66 for 10,000.
# tern 2014-04-10 09:16
How is anyone supposed to use this site when even when your comment is within the 1000 character limit as counted by the site's own counter and by character count sites, it can still get rejected as "comment is too long"?
Consequently, I refer Lesley Riddoch to post "Scots may vote unawares for exclusions from citizenship if no media focus on it" on the site . To suggest that what these women voters care about might be not getting their families divided by the humanitarian shocker of a citizenship policy, that will allow rejections of descent citizenship for the Scottish ch + grandch born in exile to our emigrants who are actually supposed to be a Yes argument. As a Scot who was born in exile yourself, why are you willing to vote to close our country to others like you?
# YesVote2014 2014-04-10 10:07
Ceòl dha mo chluasan! This really is the business. All our senses tell us this is true. Everything from common sense to our traditional sense of values. Even if we could win it without women, what would be the point? I'm fed up looking round YES gatherings and seeing myself reflected in the other middle aged men who predominate. How can we do more than merely include women? Maybe if we just got out of the way and let them get on with it? Or maybe more women will have to tell us what to do . . .
# canuckistan 2014-04-10 14:35
I think there are a number of critical issues on this subject. Primarily there needs to be a distinct, smart and "women-driven" campaign strategy appealing directly to and seeking discussion with women in Scotland on the meaning and value of Scottish independence and voting yes. One of the reasons this is critical is that the No camp understand very well that women (voters) may be influenced through not only negatively camaigning on the "risks", real or fabricated, of independence, but on a darker note, "demonstrating" that the yes position has extremist elements in it. Hence the rise of stories in the MSM of threats, vandalism etc. from "the nationalists". This needs to be anticipated and strategically countered.
# James 2014-04-12 13:56
To my astonishment, a lot of this article has been an eye-opener for me, and I am not entirely ignorant of Scottish social history. I agree with several comments above that the result will be far too much affected by personal like or dislike of the main political personalities. This is unjustified in the light of the brilliant success that the SNP has made of devolution, after having never in its history held government office.

My personal fear is that the SNP, like Scotland as a whole, is right out of its depth on diplomacy and international affairs, which will take centre stage the moment a Yes vote is recorded. Its advisers seem to know nothing outside a flawed knowledge of one sub-regional organisation, the EU, a very small part of the whole.

Women in Austria had the vote under the Habsburg Monarchy, and had no need to fight for it. The Prussian welfare state was also decades in advance of its time. UK superiority is a myth - it is time to waken up.

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