When I went to Glasgow University in 1992, I thought the world was my oyster.
I soaked up lectures in the wonderful atmosphere of the quadrangles and felt absolutely assured of my place in society. Centuries of literature were at my fingertips, from Spenser and Shakespeare to Mary Shelly and Sylvia Plath.
I learned to see writings in the context of their social history and discovered Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of the famed Gothic writer Mary Shelley, creator of Frankenstein.
Wollstonecraft had published, in 1792, one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy — A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects.
I entered the world of work. Rather rowdy newspaper offices where you had to hold your own as a girl and turn a good swear as well as a good sentence.
I remained assured of my place in society. All the work had been done for me. The battles had been fought and the early feminists and activists had prevailed. Sorted.
Then I come home to Lewis 20 years later and it’s not sorted.
Last July, I wrote a blog post inspired by the Hebridean Women concert which was launching HebCelt.
The blog, ‘Is it easier to sing than speak out? Thoughts on Hebridean women’, asked why, when Hebridean women can express themselves so beautifully in song and other art forms, do they not have much of a voice in public life?
Just look at the fact that only three out of 31 councillors at Comhairle nan Eilean Siar are women. That’s pretty poor.
Since then, I have become increasingly aware of how few women hold position of power here.
I attended a couple of events at An Lanntair this past week which made a strong impression on me.
The first was a talk on Monday by the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, about the experience of women in public life. The second was an International Women’s Day screening of the film ‘She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry’, a documentary about the history of the women’s movement in America in the 1960s and 1970s.
There were common threads.
A lot of what the First Minister said chimed with the film and my reaction to it. I’m not going to repeat it all here – see blog post 13 lessons for women in public life from the First Minister for that — but the theme of activism was key.
Referring to Brexit and the US election, the First Minister said: “We can’t afford to always take progress for granted.
“History tells us that progress made is always capable of being reversed if we don’t stand up and fight for it.”
She described the women’s protest marches the day after Trump’s inauguration as “one of the most heartening things”.
Decades ago, the women were protest marching in the US, calling for the legalisation of abortion as part of their massive campaigning for equal rights.
Here they were protesting again, this time against a President who has, among his many negative attributes, an anti-abortion agenda.
An amazing 47 years after Roe v. Wade, we can’t take progress for granted.
The First Minister also spoke about the importance of networks for women.
“Find ways of supporting each other,” she said. These networks, big or small, were “really, really important for encouraging each other, providing instant role models for each other, and giving each other the confidence to keep going when things are tough.”
The women’s rights movement in America would never have happened without this kind of connectivity.
I think we could use more of this connectivity in Lewis, so I intend to set up a women’s network — an extremely informal one, with no membership list or constitution. Think Bosom Buddies Without Babies (or with them if you like).
I’m going to manage it through my @hebrideswriter page on Facebook. I’ll arrange the first get-together as a Hebrides Writer ‘event’ and we’ll take it from there. Keep an eye out.
I’m planning to hold the first one — probably just coffee in An Lanntair — in a couple of weeks, ahead of the deadline for nominations for the local council elections. Which leads me back to… the currently woeful state of female representation in the Comhairle.
When she came into power, Nicola Sturgeon created a gender-balanced Cabinet. At the time it was only three in the developed world.
She received a lot of letters and emails asking her how she knew all the women were there on merit.
She didn’t get a single one asking if all the men were there on merit.
“I believe in a meritocracy” she said, but when women are more than 50 per cent of the population and girls outperform boys up to a certain point in school, then “we don’t have a genuine meritocracy”.
Gender balance is a reasonable ambition. Or do we live in a community that only considers women equal up to a certain point? It looks that way.
A few people have asked me recently if I’m going to stand as a councillor. I’m not. My children are still too young.
I would actively encourage anyone else, though.
Nicola Sturgeon herself said women make “fantastic local councillors” in terms of community engagement and their understanding of what matters.
Previously, I have heard former councillor Agnes Rennie say women bring “passion and compassion to public life”.
The First Minister encouraged women to stand, saying it’s the only way to change the under-representation of women in local government.
I asked local MSP Alasdair Allan what he thought.
“There is no doubt that the Comhairle, like many other councils in Scotland, would benefit from more women councillors,” he said.
“Women are drastically under-represented on the Comhairle at present.
“Perhaps the biggest obstacle, and it was one the First Minister alluded to in her speech, is that fewer women than men come forward seeking to become candidates for local authorities because they think it is an almost all-male environment.
“Like the First Minister, I would encourage women thinking of standing for the Comhairle to do so, as it’s the only way things will change.”
The need for change can be illustrated quite well with an image from the First Minister’s visit to Lewis. This picture was taken during her official opening of the museum and one woman who was at the event, Pauline Prior-Pitt, later noted: “She was brilliant at the opening of the new museum, but the invited guests were mostly huge men in dark suits.
“We do need more women in high places to redress this lack of balance and equality. Women would make a difference in many of the decisions made by the council.”
It is undoubtedly daunting to think about entering such a male-dominated arena — Agnes Rennie admitted public life “could be a very lonely place” with a very blokish atmosphere pervading a lot of places — but if we create a network and make it increasingly strong, then we can be a source of support for anyone entering the fray.
I’d love to know what you think about this idea for a network. Please do comment — and maybe I’ll see you soon!