Susan Dalgety

Will a more female Holyrood make a difference to women’s lives?

Will a more female Holyrood make a difference to women's lives?
Nicola Sturgeon and Kaukab Stewart. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
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The new Scottish Parliament has never looked more female. The number of women MSPs has jumped from 47 to 58 (45 per cent) making it the highest since Holyrood was established. There are veterans of the 1999 parliament, like Labour’s legendary Jackie Baillie, whose stunning victory in Dumbarton may well have helped save the UK. And her wise counsel, honed after 22 years in Holyrood, may well help Anas Sarwar save Scottish Labour. The SNP's Christine Grahame is now the Mother of the House.

The effervescent Lorna Slater, co-leader of the Scottish Greens, will bounce into the chamber to take her seat next to Patrick Harvie. And at last, Scotland has two women of colour in Holyrood: the SNP’s Kaukab Stewart and Pam Gosal of the Tories. Ruth Davidson may have left Holyrood for the more genteel benches of the House of Lords, but councillor Meghan Gallacher has joined Douglas Ross’s 31-strong team. She cut her political teeth on the 2014 Better Together campaign, so brings youth and experience.

And of course, there is Nicola Sturgeon. The most powerful woman in Scotland. Arguably the most powerful woman in Britain after the Queen. 'I've been a feminist for as long as I can remember,' she told the New Statesman just before the election. 'I'm a feminist to my fingertips.'

So, can the women of Scotland look forward to a plethora of new policies that will transform their lives? Not until the Scottish government can define a woman, suggests Marion Calder of feminist grassroots campaign For Women Scotland. 

Amid the heat of the constitutional debate that dominated the campaign, and looks set to define Sturgeon’s new government, a controversy over sex has simmered in Scotland for the last few years. The last SNP government had planned to reform the Gender Recognition Act, making it much easier for a man – or woman – to legally change their sex, effectively by simply asserting their new status.

Sturgeon did not expect the angry reaction she got from women, including some of her own MSPs, who argued – passionately – that if natal sex was reduced to nothing more than a 'feeling' it would distort data collection essential for robust policy development. It was an existential threat to women, insisted campaigners.

The GRA reforms were put on hold before the election but are sure to emerge as the price the SNP will have to pay for the support of the Scottish Greens in any future parliamentary alliance. 'There is absolutely no conflict between women’s rights and trans rights. Trans women are women, trans men are men,' insisted Lorna Slater on the BBC’s Any Questions recently, and Patrick Harvie is particularly proud of his party’s credentials in this regard.

For Women Scotland have a simple demand. 'We want the new Scottish Parliament to recognise women have social and political significance and that sex and gender are two distinct concepts,' Calder says.

And they want any post-Covid recovery plan to focus on women, who have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. 'But to do that, the government will have to collect robust, properly disaggregated data, based on sex,' she adds.

Another prominent feminist campaigner, who prefers to remain anonymous – 'I can’t afford to burn bridges,' she says – doubts the sincerity of the First Minister’s feminism: 

It’s how she is with many causes: the plight of young care leavers, the working poor, women. She believes she really cares about us. She has completely convinced herself of her sincerity. But she doesn’t care enough to change anything. All that matters is the constitution. So, in my book she doesn’t really care.

Sturgeon’s first interviews after the ballot closed confirmed those fears. She talked not of national recovery, not of fighting for women and girls, but of starting a fight with the Prime Minister over a new referendum on leaving the UK.

She told ITV News: 'We would proceed with the legislation that is necessary, and that would only happen if it was passed by the Scottish Parliament. If he [Boris Johnson] wanted to stop that it would be the case that he would have to go to the Supreme Court to challenge it – and that would be his decision not mine.'

As the shape of Scotland’s new parliament became clear, one of the women who fought for a gender-balanced parliament throughout the 1990s and has just stood down after 22 years as an MSP – Labour’s Johann Lamont – tweeted: 'I regret so much that the first lines going out are on the issue that divides us as a country. It would be good if those who will have the power could start with issues where we can come together – education, health, care, employment. So much to be done.'

There is much to be done for Scotland’s women, from closing the pay gap that persists to tackling the scourge of pornography, but it seems unlikely women will be able to depend on their feminist First Minister, not when there are more pressing constitutional issues on her to-do list. Sisterhood for Scotland’s first feminist, it seems, is conditional.

Listen to Stephen Daisley, Katy Balls and James Forsyth discuss what comes next for Scottish independence:

Written bySusan Dalgety

Susan Dalgety is an author, Scotsman columnist and was press secretary to former Scottish First Minister, Lord McConnell.

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