Making Your Space Feminist, and Why it Matters

The referendum brought up many issues about women’s rights and equality. In light of these debates, Anna McFarlane offers some tips for feminist campaigning.

In the run-up to the referendum there was a lot of discussion (if you knew where to look) about how Scottish independence could be used to encourage equality for women in Scotland. Lesley Riddoch’s books Blossom (2013) and Wee White Blossom (2014) explained the problems facing women in some of Scotland’s most deprived areas, as well as addressing the role that gender quotas might have to play in equalising Scotland’s middle and professional classes while Women For Independence encouraged women to use their voice. While equality for women was mentioned in several places, the only publication to tackle feminism directly was Cat Boyd and Jenny Morrison’s collaboration Scottish Independence: A Feminist Response (2014) which emphasised the importance of women’s rights from an explicitly feminist perspective, something that was otherwise missing from the debate all too often. They discussed topics such as the history of women’s liberation in Scotland and the destructive, unequal society produced by militarisation. The Common Weal project also facilitated important contributions to the debate from Dr Angela Munro, Lesley Orr, Emma Ritch, Marsha Scott, and Nel Whiting.

Going forward into 2015 it’s important, with feminism as with the other issues that were raised during the campaign, that we do all that we can with the limited powers that we have and one of the first things that we can do to make Scotland a more equal place is to make sure that our campaigning spaces promote gender equality. We’ve already seen how a feminist consciousness can improve our events: the Radical Independence conference last November boasted gender equality across the board, as well as featuring panels specifically addressing feminist issues which resulted in a warm, supportive environment for all in attendance as well as ensuring that any outcomes from the day were reflective of the issues facing people in their daily lives, not just white men as is so often the case with other events of this kind. Collaboration was the order of the day rather than the destructive, macho, Punch and Judy show of Westminster politics that has us all sickened. RIC, Women for Independence and the Scottish Socialist Party have all contributed to a fantastic campaign while operating a safe space policy. However, even on a smaller scale there are things that we can all do to make sure that our campaigning is inclusive, supportive and feminist. (1)

The benefits of making campaigning and activist spaces feminist-friendly may be obvious to many reading this, but it’s always good to be clear about the importance of this approach. If your group (whether a political party, or just a loosely-defined group of Yessers looking around for the next challenge) recognises the importance of gender equality there are benefits for everyone. Most obviously, there are benefits for women as the group will be a safe and welcoming space where every effort is made to understand the practical matters that have, in the past, restricted many women’s involvement in politics (more on that below). However, the benefits of a feminist approach are far from limited to the women who are immediately more involved. More inclusive groups are more diverse which means that the skills of the people in your group will be more varied, and their experiences will inform their opinions so that the collective decisions will be more robust, more thoughtful and considered. More specifically, if we hope one day to win independence for Scotland then we have to be in a position to create an inclusive Scotland. Independence should be of obvious benefit to everyone if we expect everyone to vote for it, and we can only make sure that happens and get the message across if we have diverse groups drawing on all genders.

So, what practical steps can you take to make your space more feminist? There are various practical barriers that have traditionally discouraged or prevented women from getting involved in politics and these, with a little thought and consideration, can be minimised while helping other excluded groups along the way: something that ultimately helps us all as the entire movement gains a mix of perspectives and experiences. On the most practical level, do your best to make your space accessible to people with disabilities. Council and community buildings are legally required to be accessible so these can be better meeting places than function suites which are often hidden away in basements or on top floors without lifts. Good public transportation links are also important if you want as many people as possible to access your event. Not everyone has a car! Lack of childcare can be a major barrier for parents, and too often it is still women who will miss out as a result. This is not easily solved, but even if you can’t provide official childcare you can try to choose a child-friendly environment, perhaps a public library with a children’s section or a coffee shop that welcomes young ones. Making this a selling point of your event or meeting will attract parents who might otherwise be reluctant to bring children along. Most generally, try not to make assumptions about other people’s needs. Some people have disabilities that can’t be seen; others have financial worries that they don’t feel comfortable talking about. Little kindnesses can be made to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, to be understanding of other’s needs and to support each other.

Sometimes this can mean taking a step back and letting others take the lead when tackling subjects they know more about, or issues they have directly experienced. This is particularly important when organising events. Organising an event is a lot of work, but taking on that work puts you in a position of power and responsibility. If you are inviting a panel of speakers, try to make it gender equal and think about how you can better offer a space for more diverse voices. This gender equality should extend to the chairperson, and chairpeople should make sure that everyone gets a chance to speak, not just those who shout loudest or pontificate the longest. Where possible, encourage a varied range of formats to offer opportunities for everyone to participate and to work together in different ways. Sometimes it might be a good idea to delegate organisation to other groups: whether it be disabled people, women-only organizing groups, people who organize on the basis of religion or race – offer opportunities for these groups to support each other and to take the lead. The movement will be all the stronger for it.

As well as making your own events inclusive, you can also demonstrate your solidarity with the feminist cause by fighting for women’s rights whenever they are challenged by austerity, and the thoughtless policies of mostly-male politicians. Attending feminist events, such as Reclaim the Night which is held in Dundee annually by the Women’s Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre (WRASAC), can also be a great way to show your solidarity with the feminist cause. (2)

As well as making spaces feminist, think about how to make your campaigning feminist. Since the referendum many people in the Yes movement have made food bank collections and other actions to support those in poverty a top priority. Think about the specific things that women in poverty struggle to afford: tampons and sanitary towels are crucial for most women to live with dignity; baby food and formula milk may also be useful, though food banks can usually provide a list of the most desperately-needed items. If you are fundraising then think about contributing towards women’s services. Women have borne the brunt of the majority of the coalition government’s cuts and many of the Con-Dem policies seem to be designed to keep women in the home, a dangerous tactic that can force women to stay with abusive partners out of financial necessity and lack of options. Fundraising for crucial services such as Women’s Aid and WRASAC can alleviate this problem in the most minor of ways. We have to do what we can, with the powers we have. If we show now that we can support everyone, that we can include those left behind by the current system, then those people will understand the importance of Scottish independence the next time the chance to work for it comes along.

Keep this in mind if you are a member of a political party. While the Greens and the Scottish Socialist Party already have a good record of inclusivity and the SNP seem to be taking such concerns on board there is still a long way to go. Jim Murphy is already attempting to capitalise on the SNP’s perceived lack of public commitment to a woman’s right to choose, using it as an excuse for Westminster to retain power. We could probably guess that the new influx of members to the SNP will be left-leaning, anti-nuclear and (hopefully!) committed to equality and inclusivity. Making sure the mainstream parties follow through on their existing promises (such as the SNP’s childcare plans) and make vocal commitments to protecting women’s rights and promoting equality should be a priority for anyone who wants to see an independent Scotland. Of course we already know that we can rule ourselves. We have more talent than we know what to do with and will work hard for a better society after independence – but we need to show everyone in Scotland that their rights will be defended. You can take steps towards this right now by making sure feminist-friendly candidates are selected for election and urging your party to publicly commit to feminist-friendly policies.

Making spaces inclusive and diverse doesn’t have to be hard work – most of the time it just involves a bit of thoughtfulness and an effort to understand. However, some may find it difficult to give up the power that their position offers. It’s not easy for some to cut their allotted time to let someone else speak. It’s not always easy to listen to opinions that challenge your preconceptions or your plans. It’s sometimes difficult to take criticism when you’re working really hard for a good cause. But it will be worth it in the long run, for an inclusive movement and (eventually) an inclusive, independent Scotland.

Many thanks to Sarah Browne for her helpful comments on an earlier draft of this blog.

  1. While I’m focusing on women here, there are other groups who have also faced social exclusion: many of my tips will be helpful to other marginalised groups, but if you want to think about these issues together then it would be worth finding out about intersectionality, looking at groups like the Equality Network and Disabled People for Yes and thinking about how you can make your group more appealing to diverse ethnic minorities. Many of the links I provide here are Dundee-centric, but that shouldn’t be a barrier to taking on board the general points I make.
  2. In Dundee this event welcomes people of all genders, but in other places Reclaim the Night is women-only: be sure to respect the wishes of the organisers. Women-only events can be an important way for feminist women to build solidarity so, if you’re a man and feel excluded, try not to let your own good intentions and your wish to participate get in the way of listening to feminist activists and respecting their ways of organising.
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