A plea for some feminist action in the isles

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.

Stornoway Herring Girl: A town icon and strong reminder of the past

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”.

A message from today’s American activists (as is the main image)

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.

The First Minister, Rt. Hon. Nicola Sturgeon MSP, during her speech

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.

What feminism looks like. Our version, anyway, with the wee guys.

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.”

Men in Suits: The gender imbalance at the opening of the Lews Castle Museum

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!


Comments 13

  1. When I look around at the state of the world today, I cannot help but wonder how much better the outcomes might have been had more women been involved in the world’s great conversations. It’s no different in Western Isles, which are undergoing irresistible changes and meeting new challenges. We need that diversity of thought to help us along the way, and that has to include the active participation of women.

    Great and timely post.

  2. Very heartened by your piece – I’ve just moved back to the mainland after almost 10years in Lewis and would echo everything you’ve said. The ingrained misogyny was very hard to take sometimes. I’ll post your piece to our SNP Women’s Officers page. Keep up the good work and I’ll look out for more from you. Anne Sobey

  3. Very timely. One thing men are much better at than women is networking, I can think of a number of informal networks of men in Stornoway, without counting the Lodge, sport, and the heirarchy of most of the churches. I found the FM’s account of the reaction to her gender-balance cabinet really sad. This attitude to women getting jobs on merit was evident when I worked in the Lothians 20+ years ago; it is depressing to know it still exists. Power to your arm, Katie!

  4. Your post resonated very much with me. I have been talking to friends and colleagues for many months about the need for an informal network. I had a great day on Saturday at Back Community Centre, celebrating women. It was amazing to feel the solidarity and energy. Lets go for it.

  5. By the way – I have been considering standing for election for the past two years but have not yet taken my bold step forward. I recall a comment from a female manager at the Comhairle telling me that it is important that female candidates have a worthy male member of their family when standing for election.

  6. Is it possible that by putting the issue of abortion so firmly at the heart of your description of what feminism is about you are putting off or excluding from your potential network a significant number of women in the Western Isles, who hold to a pro-life position because of their Catholic or evangelical Protestant faith/background? Can you conceive of a model of feminism that would work for the Western Isles that does not have abortion rights at the heart of it? The issue of representation does seem an issue which would have wider appeal and support; there must be others that could be prioritised also, rather than abortion. Best wishes, Iain

    1. Hi Iain. I referred to the issue of abortion to illustrate one of the points I was making — that we can’t take progress for granted. I feel my article was quite clearly about the lack of female representation in civic life. The issue of abortion has been a settled one in this country for a long time and we should all be thankful for that. Best wishes. Katie.

      1. Thanks, Katie. My point is that though you might think ‘we should all be thankful for that’, it is, I think, reasonable to believe that there is a proportion of women in the Western Isles who are not thankful for that – women who would agree with you wholeheartedly about the need for progress in areas such as female representation in civic life, but who would not consider the abortion laws in this country as representing progress. It would be a shame if they were excluded from – or, should any of them ever stand for office, not supported by – any network which develops to support and encourage women entering the fray of civic representation. Best wishes, Iain

        1. Hi Iain. You make an interesting point. I wouldn’t want to exclude any woman, or any person, who felt they would like to be part of a supportive network in our community. It would be a real shame if differing personal views were to become a battleground. Let’s build bridges, and all that.. Best wishes. Katie

          1. Many thanks Katie; we are on the same page in this regard! Being from Lewis, I know there has never been any shortage of women who would have been excellent councillors, had they put themselves forward. My mother always used to say that one of the reasons the council wasn’t as good as it could be was that so many people (both men and women) of quality were ineligible because you couldn’t be a councillor if the local authority was your employer – she had teachers in mind in particular (which of course would have included a disproportionate number of women of quality) – which contributed to the preponderance of people like (male) business owners with time on their hands (some of whom were very good councillors, some of whom were not…). I don’t know how things stand these days… Best wishes, Iain

  7. Hello Katie. I just stumbled across your blog and I’m a woman who doesn’t live in Lewis (although I know it quite well), and I want to thank Iain for the comment he so courteously made. There are many, many women who are opposed to abortion, and consider it damaging not only the child but to the mother and to the very special reproductive dignity of women. I don’t think you should assume that others will share your view simply because they are women – it’s much more complex than that! I hope you find good and constructive ways to help women on the island make use of their gifts and talents.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.