2 December 2014

A party of government of women, by women, for women

The first woman was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates on the 13th of July 1923. Margaret Kidd KC, as she would become in 1948, was also the first Sheriff Principal in the land, appointed in the borders in 1960. For many years, Kidd ploughed a lonely furrow for the sisterhood at the Scottish Bar. The second woman, former Scottish Express journalist Isabel Sinclair, did not join Kidd until 1949 - some twenty-six years later. By 1985, the year before I was born, only thirty-one women had been admitted to the Faculty in its entire history. 

The daughter of the Unionist MP, Kidd was a lady of conservative temperament, despite her path-breaking career. It was said that she insisted being addressed as "my lord" on the bench - a practice which would make the most unbashable advocate of the present day cringe. Sinclair was a different character. Bolshier, more colourful than Kidd, she insisted on being addressed as "My Lady" when she became Scotland's first female sheriff-substitute. 

It was not, perhaps, the most radical blow for gender equality ever struck. It lacked the panache of the late Clarissa Dickson-Wright who, as a young barrister, gate-crashed a male-only gathering of her peers wearing a bear costume. But it marked the normalisation of women's participation in the legal profession and in judicial roles. It was finally time to let Portia be Portia

In politics, Margaret Thatcher didn't exactly ask her ministers to address her as "my lord", but her premiership echoed Kidd's legal career. Never entirely "one of the boys", but the solitary woman making her way. Conservative by impulses, comfortable amongst men, and largely uninterested in extending a helping hand to other women to aid them to surmount the ladder she climbed. You sometimes encounter similar views amongst the new generations of young lawyers and politicians, who wrinkle their noses at the idea that feminism has any contemporary resonance, and who baulk at making a big thing about gender politics.  

A couple of years ago, when I lived down south, I met a new-minted Conservative MP. Elected to the Commons in 2010, she was adamant that she would do everything in her power to resist being seen as in gendered terms, as a woman politician. I asked her an open question about the experience of the notoriously male-dominated lower house.  I was struck by what she said, and loosely paraphrase from memory. 

"When I was elected, I knew I didn't want to be associated with any of the usual soft, women's issues. Childcare. Domestic abuse. That kind of thing. I put in for the tough economic committees. For home affairs: crime, terrorism, prisons, drugs. That sort of thing." For her, the personal was not political. To talk about gender in politics was embarrassing, not emancipatory. It was to lose sight of the person. 

When it became clear that Nicola would replace Alex Salmond as First Minister, I wondered how she'd play this, as play it she must. Would she, like the young Tory parliamentarian, seek to soft-pedal the significance of her gender? Would she too flee from an explicitly gendered policy agenda? What was striking - even startling - about the tenor of Nicola's opening statements in post was the explicit, powerful, front and centre emphasis she placed on gender justice, equality and the empowerment of women.  

The glass ceiling, shattered. A gender-balanced cabinet, appointed. And a strong message sent "to girls and young women - indeed, to all women - across our land. There should be no limit to your ambition or what you can achieve." In an affecting moment, Sturgeon gestured towards the gallery in Holyrood, to a small, blonde, smiling face.

"My niece, who is in the public gallery today, with her brother and her cousins, is 8 years old. She doesn’t yet know about the gender pay gap or under-representation or the barriers, like high childcare costs, that make it so hard for so many women to work and pursue careers. My fervent hope is that she never will - that by the time she is a young woman, she will have no need to know about any of these issues because they will have been consigned to history. If - during my tenure as First Minister - I can play a part in making that so, for my niece and for every other little girl in this country, I will be very happy indeed."

You can't imagine Maggie saying that.  The force of the message reached even Chris Deerin, a father of daughters and not the SNP's most devoted fan, in a lovely piece.  Much was made over the referendum campaign of the gender gap in support for independence. But such the gender gap is not new, and is not limited to the referendum campaign. The SNP too has historically struggled to win the support of women. 

On the constituency ballot in 2007, 41% of men supported the SNP, compared to only 32% of women voters. On the list, 35% of men voted for the SNP, but only 27% of women.  The polling evidence from 2011 is inconsistent, but suggest that the party managed to bear down on the gap, to win its historical majority in Holyrood. 

The whys and wherefores of this gap has been the topic of considerable speculation but little study. Was it Alex Salmond? There's really not an awful lot of evidence that it was. Certainly, Salmond was less popular amongst women than men, but still recorded positive ratings from Scotland's women folk. Something else? Mitchell and Bennie concluded that fewer women backed the SNP because fewer women backed independence. QED. 

On Nicola's appointment, and since, the Scottish press have been much exercised by the question: will she lead the SNP in "a lurch to the left"? More interesting, it seems to me, is her clear intention to 
find a new formula for a successful, gendered Nationalism. The lessons of the 2014 campaign are categorical. Scotland will never - ever - achieve its independence unless more women can be persuaded that a better future awaits them in an independent country. That will be long, hard work. And work worth doing, independence or no. 

The new First Minister has a rare opportunity: to transform the SNP into a party of government of women, by women, for women. All power to her. 


  1. It is certainly true that Margaret Kidd was addressed on the bench as "My Lord". I first met her in summer 1965 when she, as Sheriff Principal of Dumfries and Galloway, was presiding over a vacation court in Dumfries. I had earlier in a Lockerbie hotel where I had a vacation job as porter/barman met the sheriff clerk of Dumfries (with a lady not his wife). On discovering that I was a law student, he invited me to meet Miss Kidd on her next visit to the court. She was utterly charming (but had a rather unconfident court manner). When I was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates in 1972 my devilmaster instructed me on the etiquette of the Bar (I wonder if devilmasters still do?). Fellow advocates were to be addressed by Christian name or surname (no prefix) with the exception of Margaret Kidd who was to be addressed as "Miss Kidd". Advocates proceeded through doors in order of seniority in admission to the Faculty (irrespective of status as QC or Junior) with the exception of Margaret Kidd who must always go first through any door. Many years later I took part in the Edinburgh Law School decision to award Dame Margaret Kidd (as she then was) the honorary degree of LLD. I believe that she was the first woman to be so honoured.

    1. Nobler times, when a sheriff clerk could nip off for an afternoon drink in a Lockerbie hotel bar...

  2. Andrew: 'Scotland will never - ever - achieve its independence unless more women can be persuaded that a better future awaits them in an independent country. That will be long, hard work. And work worth doing, independence or no.'

    Yes of course, worth doing which ever way the (w) indy blows!

    I was at the launch of the cartoon Yes/No exhibition afore the Referendum and one of the Women for Indpendence group there made that point - one might say (forgive the pun) the Jeanie won't be put back .

    Being cynical (just this once) your views on gender depends on where you start. Knox was all against Mary being Queen of Scotland so he wrote his blast proving that women could not govern men - unfortunately for him of course, Elizabeth became Queen of England and the real world blew all his theorising into the air,

    Some of the sniping I have seen on Lamont, Sturgeon and Davidson has in all three cases come perilously close to the 'who does this daft we lassie think she is' edge of play - and interchangeable.

    There is common ground in Scotland - alas not all of it is desirable.

    1. A grim consensus: yes I suppose. Given my own liberal instincts, I've felt the sting of that often enough. And on gender, from experience, this remains a contested issue with many of our younger folk. Encountering students a lot, you meet those with a keen sense of the contemporary resonance of feminism, and those who baulk at it -- along the lines of my Tory MP. An effect, I suppose, of the discipline of a relentless, individualising way of seeing the world.