On Monday the 28th of October, The Women and Politics Panel, hosted by The Glasgow University Dialectic Society and The Isabella Elder Feminist Society, provided a warm atmosphere where the fundamental issues of the accessibility of women in politics and the current barriers to overcome were debated amongst a range of experienced politicians and students involved in the political scene at The University of Glasgow. It was made sure to involve a range of different speakers subscribing to different political beliefs and ages to ensure a lively debate, with a range of different perspectives on current issues. The panel consisted of Johann Lamont, the Labour MSP for Glasgow, former University of Glasgow student, leader of the Scottish Labour party from 2011-2014, including during the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014, and a fervent campaigner on equality issues and violence against women. Next to her sat Suzanne Martin, Scotland Movement Builder for the Women’s Equality Party, a title which involves the process of organising and mobilising communities/constituencies to respond to common problems and concerns and providing a common vision and agenda for change; her work is dedicated to the promotion of women’s equality and supporting charities for the most vulnerable. Adjacent were two second year University of Glasgow students: Matilda Handley, Politics student, Equality and Diversity officer for the Glasgow University Liberal Democrats Society and student member for the Glasgow University Union; and Fionuala McCarron (Finn), joint History and Politics student, Vice President of the Glasgow Conservative Society, and member of Glasgow Dialectic Society.
Robyn Lawrence, Panel leader, started off the debate with a question on whether or not there are still barriers to overcome for women in Parliament. Suzanne, as a young professional, discussed her experience of the lack of professionality in the house of commons. In particular, she noted one situation during a talk on budget reforms, where a crude joke was made about chivalry, which to her, seemed very much out of place and alienating. She then moved on to talking about inequality in the political realm in general; how there are fewer career politicians that are women, and more of them in administrative positions. She finished by affirming: ‘there is still massive barriers, childcare is a massive barrier.’
The conversation was passed onto Joanne who talked about her lived experience as a female politician. She broadly stated her view: ‘representation of women matters as it means issues that affect women are represented.’ She reflected on her mind-set as a young university student at Glasgow and remembered thinking to herself that it didn’t matter how smart or ambitious she was, it was always men who were at the top running business and politics, explicitly illustrating the barriers she was up against. She critiqued parliament for its fixation on constitutional issues, meaning that other issues that can help remove those barriers for women such as health and child care, get under-represented.
Next question asked whether female British prime ministers of the like of Theresa May and Margret Thatcher have really advanced the situation for women trying to get into politics. The question was first passed onto Finn, as supporter for the Conservatives, who described May in comparison to Thatcher for her active policy work in improving situations for women, with the example of the £1.4 billion she pledged toward FGM prevention.
Joanne, in opposition as labour member, talked about how she would never be able to forgive Margaret Thatcher for fracturing communities, however, she did manage to break the glass ceiling. Yet despite having done so, the reputation Thatcher received appeared to put blame on female politicians, who were directly and unfairly compared due sharing the same sex. She talked about how for a long time, women were not trusted in politics. An example of how unequal politics were in terms of gender equality was exemplified, when in 1989, Scotland sent 50 MSPs to Westminster, only 1 of whom were women. Joanne, with a positive manner, asserted that we will never regress ever again to that point, and that one needs to acknowledge how far we have come.
Next, the topic of sexist language and the media representation of female politicians was put into question, triggered by Finn who noted that the language used against female politicians has gotten worse to the extent of going backwards due to social media accessibility to women in power. Suzanne mentioned the paradox of expectations of female politicians from the media criticism of Theresa May which expects her to be simultaneously bold and confident and yet have a sense of caring femininity. This was exemplified with the Daily Mail’s “What about Brexit, legs it” sensationalist front page, staring Nicholas Sturgeon and Theresa May. Joanne talked of the demonization of Hilary Clinton and the fact that women did not see her as an ally, but also, on a more positive note, commented upon social media’s empowerment towards women, spreading stories of the maltreatment of women refugees abroad.
Next topic was on the recent strikes by thousands of women over gender pay discrimination, triggered by teaching trade unions, and whether or not this was a ‘consistent provider for change’. Joanne spoke of the power of trade unions, and how it was under labour that they won minimum wage, aiding low paid women, facilitated by women organising within and across trade unions. She went on to how this could be applied to young people now, exploited by doing fragile work, who need the power of trade unions to help and Labour to enforce their rights: ‘Everyone needs to be in a trade union, especially as a woman. How else do you enforce your rights?’
The talk was rounded off by all speakers giving advice as to how women can get into politics. Finn described how it can be great fun getting involved in politics at university and local activism, especially if you are passionate about a cause. Matilda talked about how political societies at university provide a fun space to chat to people about politics and try campaigning and not to worry: ‘if you don’t agree with any one party, go to all of them!’ Suzanne spoke to the importance of expressing your political views to friends and family, and being aware of the power of other people to change your views. Joanne finished the talk off with her advice: ‘Don’t start with how to do I get to become a female politician. Think about how you can effect things… it starts with what you believe in… remember that the personal is political.’
Bethany Howard, Politics Editor