11 August 2010

Women & the SNP (Volume II).

Provocative and interesting responses to my post of last week on women, the SNP and the party's gender voting gap. So interesting, that I thought I'd summarise them.  My piece was largely an attempt to substantiate that a gendered differential in support for the SNP exists and use some of the information available to us to give some sense of the extent of that difference. Predictably enough, most replies and subsequent analysis have focussed on the issue I discreetly bracketed - the deceptively simple, twenty shilling question -  why? For anyone who has ever dipped into contemporary gender theory, the perils here are obvious. We have the quantitative category of women without important sociological distinctions which might refine our understanding - in terms of education, income, social class, geography or what have you. The only form of generalisation we're able to make from the data available - although we can justly spice it up with our own best guesses - involves the unhappy phrase "women are..."  

The difficulties begin immediately, because the bare phrase "women are... " is a harlequin, admitting perfectly contradictory analyses. Are could be essential argument, affirming that gender is a "given", bestowing a universal female nature, this nature a fixity, unalterable. Alternatively, another version of our women are sentence might well reject such certainties but analyse women in terms of the "social construction" of gender categories. While these categories are created and in this sense mutable, they can also come to interpellate our lives, making us different sorts of people, structuring our consciousness and influencing it in different ways. The bottom line is that although the idea is prevalent that there is a feminist analysis, for example, this really is not the case. Different feminists can and do take different positions on these matters - and make other arguments beyond the very sketchy examples I've outline here. Some might react positively to the idea that women have a caring ethic and a disposition towards relational understanding. Some attribute this to womanhood in a more essentialising way. Others reject that entirely. While they'd support the idea that women reason and judge differently from men, they might attribute this to women's subordinate social position, the virtue of the subaltern in a patriarchal society. 

Take a further example, from Mary Wollstonecraft's (1792) Vindication of the Rights of Woman. She concedes that the women of her day were ignorant, but insisted quite rightly that they could be taught and that they were being made into numpties by want of education, rather than being born thus. This recognition that pernicious norms can hamper the development of the character and the mind obviously wasn't terribly flattering to women of her day. However, the criticism is progressive, not reactionary. It is the sine qua non of her programme of reform.

That is the background of our speculations on the SNP gender gap - where knowing about gender is in itself profoundly controversial. And in our own way, we're all gender theorists, with something to say on the subject. Generalisations are problematic - but so is the idea that everything is irreducibly individual. And we're still left with the fact that there is a significant gap between the number of men who vote for the SNP and the number of women. So what explanations have people proffered? Alex Massie takes up the issue on his blog in an article entitled "Alex Salmond's woman problem". More or less, he contends that as a theoretically-premised, grand political narrative Scottish independence is less likely to appeal to women voters:

"... the problem is that, as a nationalist party, the SNP is inevitably big on concepts and thunderous political rhetoric and dreaming big dreams and all the rest of it. The average man is more likely to be enthused by this stuff than the average woman. That is, I think, just the way it is."

He also suggests that:

"... women are more sceptical of government than men and, hence, more sensible. But the downside is that they're also conservative. With a small c. Which means that the beneficiaries of this small-c timidity are the Scottish Labour Party."

This article has drawn a furious response from 'the Spectator's shocking stereotyping of women voters',  "essentialism" and as 'theoretically weak and complacent journalism':

"Massie claims that 'when it comes to gender one cannot avoid generalisation', which I assume is supposed to serve as some hack-job justification for the wildly stereotyping generalisations that Massie indulges in. Women would apparently find 'retail politicians' a lot more palatable, and there is implication that female voters may be frightened by the SNP's signature policy of Scottish independence. Anyone who has taken the time to read up on gender - or has some critical faculties about their person - would be aware that blank claims of the inevitability of generalisation, of 'that's just the way things are', serve to shore up some very tired routines of gender based discrimination."

Moving on, drawing on her experience as an SNP party activist, BellegroveBelle argues that:

"...the gender gap is an odd one, and I can't see myself why it exists - I have always been made welcome in the SNP. The women members I know are committed and enthusiastic campaigners, despite being usually outnumbered by men .. What concerns me is that I don't see the gap, and therefore can't cross it."

Others shared this sense of puzzlement with the statistical gap. Dubbieside suggested that the SNP could make more of Nicola Sturgeon, theorising that increasing the prominence of female figures in the party might help, but emphasised the importance of better communication from the SNP on particular policy areas:

"Maybe we would be better spending more time highlighting policies that resonate more with Scottish women. High up the list would be, to my mind, the continuation of free personal care, but the NHS including prescription charges and of course education. These are my views from a male perspective, maybe some of your lady readers can give a better insight."

The discussion turned to the Westminster election campaign video, with Robert P echoing this idea that there are particular "women's issues" which could be better addressed by the party:

"The promotional video from the last election was toe-curlingly pish. I hope the party asked for their money back. Have a vid instead of a worried woman talking about heating her parents home, cost of care for the elderly, education of her children, losing her job in retranchments, that kind of thing."

While Indy writes:

To my mind we have not yet refined the independence message adequately. I remember a female member talking at a Conference about why she joined the SNP back in the 1970s as a direct consequence of her involvement in the women's movement. It is about making the connection between personal freedom and independence - which women have fought long and hard for - and the freedom and independence of the communities that make up Scotland. That's what I think we need to work on.

Finally, an Anonymous commenter offered this analysis, based on the limited powers of the Scottish Government and Parliament:

"My perceptions are anecdotal, gleaned from many conversations with women who are interested in politics and from a feminist and left-leaning perspective, so are likely not representative of great numbers of individuals. However, there is concern that the SNP are not focussed on women's issues. One example is an assumption that Scottish control over abortion legislation would threaten existing access because the SNP will not hold out against the usual anti-choice movements.

Equalities legislation remaining a reserved power means that the Government cannot meaningfully engage with those issues. These are crucial issues for many women. A lack of control or assurances of protection of hard won rights play into anxieties that certain elements of Scottish society would roll back these gains if they were devolved.

Do add to the discussion if you're so minded. I appreciate any and all contributions and ideas.


  1. Boys make forts.

    Girls make nests.

    Is that what you were trying to say?


  2. In a way I can understand why Amy Watson was so annoyed by Alex Massie's piece, because it's not based on any hard evidence, but all the same my guess is he's not that far off the mark. If they can afford it, the SNP should be doing some detailed private polling to answer these questions.

    If we'd been having this discussion twenty years ago there'd be no mystery at all about the gender gap. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the "can't pay, won't pay" campaign, effectively telling people "we don't just want your vote, we want your soul" was a bit of a macho message! But time has moved on. I wish every household in the land could be sent a "Greatest Hits of Iain 'the Snarl' Grey" DVD, and women would quickly realise which is the pointlessly belligerent party in Scottish politics these days.

  3. I scrupulously avoided saying anything substantive, Conan - just took me all those words to do so! I find the absence of more evidence on this issue rather paralysing. So I'll echo Francis Urquhart and avoid answering:

    "You might very well think that, I couldn't possibly comment."

  4. Personally, I think Watson jumped the gun and let fly. In particular, as I tried to tease out in this piece, I don't see how one could discern Mr Massie had "essentialist" attitudes towards gender from his relatively brief analysis. And what's more, as I tried to suggest here, in sections of feminist scholarship you can find parallel arguments made about men's affinities towards the airy and abstruse, contrasting with claims that women respond relationally, in a more spatially oriented manner. I'm not saying there is nothing in Alex' piece that I have my reservations about - quite the reverse. However, these are debates to be had - not ready certainties to be set against obvious error. At least, not in Massie's case. I'd much rather we were able to talk and think about these things with minimal rancour. I can't say that I find Watson's piece to contribute in that spirit.

  5. Of all the generalisations about women and men, I had thought that which holds that women are, by and large, inherently more cautious than men, was one of the most respectable and widely-accepted. It is certainly an assumption on which insurance companies construct their pricing policies. No doubt Ms Watson has complained in print about this outrageous discriminatory blanket approach, though I can’t seem to lay my hands on it. So yes, I think it is fair that women may, generally, take more convincing to make the leap into restored independence than men might.

    However, for sheer rancour, one should look at Labour’s monstrous regiment and its fellow-travellers, like the normally-sensible Malcolm Chisholm. Take a look, for example, at the Official Report of the debate on domestic violence against males on 10 June; a phenomenon of which they could scarcely permit the public assertion that it might exist, let alone that anything should be done about it. If the SNP wants to outbid or outflank this kind of pitch for the female vote, it can do without my support.

    Fortunately it shows no signs of doing so, and it doesn’t need to. It is not the SNP which has jeopardised the security of women and their families by bankrupting the UK, to which this country is chained. Nor is it the SNP which sent women’s sons (and even some few of their daughters) to die as mercenaries in assorted dustbowls. The truth will out, eventually. As Mary Wollstonecraft asserted, you can’t keep women (or men) numpties forever.

  6. You get to the nub of my problem with the piece, Am Firinn. A treacherous weapon is ever a danger to the hand. A treacherously broad argument, deployed against a foe, is all too disposed to boomerang and knock out your own supports. In particular, if generalisation is impossible and immoral - and universalism presumably also rejected - just what is gender anyway? What is left to understand? We lapse into incoherence. It seems to me that generalisation - as such - can't be the problem here.

    I only dimly recall the Holyrood debate you mention, but am not familiar offhand with the specific remarks you describe. I'll have to take a look.

  7. For reference, the section of the Official Report recording Holyrood's domestic violence against men debate, mentioned above by Am Firinn, can be read here.

  8. For what it is worth I think Alex Massie is both right and wrong. I think women are more sceptical – that is a generalisation I can’t substantiate but it’s what I think.

    However I think that there is little difference between men and women when it comes to the intellectual, cost-benefit analysis type of analysis that Alex Massie cites – the retail politics. As a general rule I believe this is a kind of politics will only appeal to a minority of voters of either gender.

    Most voters – men and women – vote because of a range of factors and emotion plays as big a part as reason in deciding which political party they identify with. They vote for a party’s values as well as its policies. It is how ideas are communicated as much as the ideas that are being communicated.

    I’m not saying it is style not substance that wins votes but I would say that striking the right tone is key.

    And it’s the tone that we need to work at. It’s not that women are more or less likely to support independence than men are, it’s about how we communicate.