Alice Bowman gave this introduction to a discussion on Women and Independence at the Edinburgh branch of the Radical Independence Campaign on April 29th.
I just wanted to start by saying how pleased I am to have been asked to speak this evening on women and independence. I’ve been involved in the Radical Independence Campaign since the conference of last year, and during that time I’ve felt slightly disheartened by the lack of discussion of issues that face women and the role of women in the campaign. Little discussion has been had on what a radical vision for Scotland could do for women’s liberation. But hopefully this evening we will outline some of the issues that need to be considered when thinking of a progressive Scotland.
I work as a support worker for women in the criminal justice system. I am not going to sit here and say that I am speaking for all women. I recognize that my reality is a different reality to a woman that is sitting in a three bedroomed council house in Craigmillar worrying about the bedroom tax, or a woman that is accepting minimum wage working as a care assistant in Leith.
I have two main discussion points to make; the first is how we can engage women in the independence debate, and the second is what an independent Scotland could do for women’s liberation.
Now as you probably know, statistically speaking, women are less likely to vote for independence. At the moment a total of 47% of men compared with only 25% of women will vote for Scottish independence. We need to start asking ourselves why this is.
Some people have theorised that is because the nationalist campaign plays on very masculine stereotypes of Scotland. Others have suggested that Scotland’s society is inherently masculinsed, both of which alienate women. Maybe its because the SNP, the most visible in the independence campaign, have done little to tackle issues that face women, in fact they have been distinctly conservative when it comes to abortion and LGBTQ rights. For example in 2008 Alex Salmond voted for abortion to be to be lowered from 24 to 20 weeks. By emphasising a pro-life stance they have sought to win back religious voters as opposed to women. The Radical Independence Campaign must distinguish itself from this, must make issues that face women, from abortion rights to equal pay, a priority. More to the point the Radical Independence Campaign must listen to and work with women, and prove to female voters that there is an alternative to the union or to the nationalists. A recent poll showed that only 13% of women would support independence if they thought they would be £500 worse off, whereas 63% would support independence if they thought would be £500 better off. Now to me this shows that there is a massive swing vote to be won, but only if we can show women that they will be better off, not necessarily financially, but socially and politically if they vote Yes. The question is how do we effectively engage with women?
What could an independent Scotland with radical politics do for women’s liberation?
It is clear to say that women are disproportionately affected by the austerity measures imposed by this disgusting neo-liberal Westminster government. We’ve had plenty of discussion on this in terms of class, but we need to think about the impact of austerity on women as well. Now we’ve talked a lot recently about the bedroom tax, but I want to look at some of the other parts of the welfare reform act that will unjustly affect women. The Welfare Reform Act cuts carers’ allowance, disability benefit, child tax credit, and child benefit. For example carers’ allowance will be £58.45 if you care for someone at least 35 hours a week. That works out £1.67 per hour. Due to gendered roles that ascribe caring responsibilities to women, these cuts will affect working class women drastically. The economic cost of care is high. Women often have to trade their wage labour for unpaid caring responsibilities. Women largely depend on the welfare state to assist them in these responsibilities. Independence is a means by which we can reclaim the welfare state, we can ensure that women will not be penalised for their caring roles. No longer will Scottish women face the brunt of the cuts, no longer will women struggle to make ends meet or struggle to feed their families.
Childcare is another important point when thinking about caring responsibilities ascribed to women’s gender roles. Women that take time out of work to care for their children suffer a drastic wage penalty. Alternatively the economic cost of childcare is at an all time high, with women and families being stung by this unnecessary expense. In an independent Scotland can we not provide subsidised or even free childcare?
Despite the Equal Pay Act being introduced over 40 years ago, women are still paid on average 14% less than men. As socialists we know that wealth must be redistributed through class, but this is not enough, wealth must be redistributed through gender as well. To do this we must end occupational segregation, where typically ‘female’ jobs like being care assistants are devalued and degraded by women having to accept little above the minimum wage. It must be noted here that residential homes for the elderly and for people with disabilities are all being privatized. Privatisation of essential services like these puts them in competition with one another, cost of care goes up, standard of care goes down, and wages decrease, the only people that profit are those in charge of the business. An independent Scotland could bring essential services like nursing homes back under state control, women who work there will be paid fairly, their skills valued.
It is essential that we demand Equal Pay. To do this however we must demand that gender roles, which ascribe women and men to different occupational roles. must be challenged and eroded.
Challenging gender roles
Now challenging gender roles is a hard thing, it is so deep rooted in society. It is important to note that there is nothing natural about gender; it is a social construct. If humans managed to construct it, then surely we must be able to deconstruct it as well. In our daily lives we can do this, we can ensure we don’t see people as different because of their gender. But on a national level this is more difficult, and I think education is key to this shift. We need real gender neutral education in schools. We can challenge the unjust fact that women are created and moulded as mothers and sexual objects. Young women shouldn’t be encouraged to study ‘feminine’ subjects or go into ‘feminine’ work, young women should have the option to do any line of work they please, and not be discriminated against for this. Proper education about gender roles and gender stereotypes must become a reality, that means scrutinising every piece of material we teach our young people, from science textbooks to personal, social and health education. In an independent Scotland, we can have a progressive education system, benefiting Scottish women.
Now my next point is something which might make some people feel uncomfortable, and I say this with a trigger warning. Only 3% of reported rape in Scotland is convicted. This statistic is appalling. It shows not only the inherent sexism in our police force, but generally within our society. Rape and sexual assault are two things which are neatly swept under the carpet in Scotland. In an independent Scotland I would like to see services for women that deal with such horrific instances to be properly and fully funded. Moreover I would like to see this horrible ‘victim blaming’ culture to be challenged through educational campaigns. Schools need to teach about proper consent. And women must be made to feel supported when reporting and dealing with such sexual violence.
All these things are possibilities; we need to make them a reality. Women for so long have been sidelined by politics; issues that face women are seen as secondary. Better Together have a women’s group, I know this because unfortunately my colleague at work is in it. The Radical Independence and Yes campaign must actively engage women, we must empower women that for so long have been denied a voice, for so long have suffered in silence. Women must play a role in developing a new politics, one in which the needs and interests of women are better represented and considered. The struggle for radical independence is a feminist struggle, but women’s liberation here in Scotland can only become reality if women are engaged with and at the heart of the campaign for independence.