Towards a Democratic Feminism

parliament

A few months ago, Zero Tolerance’s new initiative, Just like a child, was discussed on Radio Scotland’s call-in discussion show Call Kaye. Part of Zero Tolerance’s preventative work around domestic abuse, the initiative aims to discourage gender stereotyping by parents and in nurseries, in order to promote equality and thereby reduce rates of violence against women. It’s incredibly important work that past feminists would have only dreamed of.

It is part of a wider movement amongst feminist organisations in Scotland to concertedly build preventative work into their overall strategy. Rape Crisis centres throughout Scotland are drawing together the funding to hire prevention workers, and Rape Crisis Scotland has run several high-profile advertising campaigns, most notably the television advertisements, Not Ever, challenging attitudes around rape. But the early-years work of Zero Tolerance tackles gender head-on, in an inevitably controversial way.

The radio show Call Kaye brings out the best and worst of Scottish public engagement where callers’ comments can often be extreme, nasty, and conservative. Listening to the radio conversations, it was clear that Zero Tolerance as a public organisation has an ideology somewhat at odds with the ideology of the public. Most see the psychological and social development of boys and girls up to the age of five as biologically different, revealing that they also consider the nature of men and women as different. When Zero Tolerance says that we teach men to be strong and women to be weak, it often falls on deaf ears. Public education is nowhere near as advanced as feminist organisations would like it to be, and though each initiative will create better-educated generations, the fact still remains that there is a disjoint between the organisations and the public.

That the initiatives are going forward at all is therefore testimony to the type of power held by feminists in Scotland. It’s not a lot of power, by any standards, but in comparison to other countries many are pleased with the relationship between women’s organisations and the Scottish Government. This can be diagnosed as a by-product of devolution, whereby the Scottish Government in some ways has a closer relationship with civil society organisations in the devolved sphere than with the public in Scotland. The Scottish government has sovereignty only over particular public realms, the realms of civil and social institutions, not over the public itself. Thus, a disjoint has developed between public democracy and the running of the devolved parts of state, so that in the most extreme cases the public are seen to be represented in the governance of Scotland through civil society organisations, as service users, rather than through the state, as citizens.

The steps forward being taken by women’s organisations in Scotland capitalising on this disjoint, reveal why devolution is a favoured constitutional form for many people in civil society organisations and charities. The prospects for radical feminist initiatives under independence, where the government must appear more directly publicly accountable, are slimmer. In short, the divide between public and institutions works very well for some feminist organisations, who can try to make radical change without being held publicly accountable by the misogynist parts of society, and enlisting the support of many public sector workers, such as the nursery workers in this particular initiative, who find the proposals exciting.

The other major preventative rather than reactive feminist movement in Scotland recently has been towards major economic change, as presented by Ailsa Mackay in an article on openDemocracy. Here the key measure is to challenge the pay, benefits and work of women, to resolve the high levels of poverty and the income gap through new models of economic thought and practice. Challenging the place of women in terms of work and income can of course only go so far in a devolved Scotland. Real change would require greater fiscal powers.

Both social change, such as the Zero Tolerance initiative, and economic change, such as the feminist economic models being discussed at the moment, are interrelated and important. But the constitutional arrangement and potential in Scotland mean these two objectives contradict each other.  Many who wish to radically change society in Scotland, not just feminists, are unsure whether to persist with feminist demands under devolution while they have a strong voice, or sacrifice some influence to a public unshaped by the experience of social and public responsibility, in order to attempt even bigger successes through economic and democratic change.

The question boils down to whether it is better to implement feminist change through a less democratic quasi-state, or whether change should come from a public will and a public consciousness. An argument for the former runs as follows: our democratic system does not include women as much as it should, women are still not full citizens of either Scotland or Britain, as evidenced by the poor record of the Scottish Parliament and local government on women’s representation. Why should we tease out of a democratic system, designed for men, the seeds of women’s liberation? We have found in Scotland a system that seems to work better for women that the system in Westminster, where gender equality institutions of parliament are being dismantled without a second thought, by a cabinet with only 3/22 women.

But there is good reason to be wary of the nature of the Scottish Parliament as it now stands. The point of the democratic citizen is that they act and speak, not that they are spoken for, or accounted for in a calculation by a civil servant. This is especially important for women, who should look to move on from representation by individuals and organisations to political representation by parties and committees in government. The Scottish Women’s Convention, for instance, is a body which has not been particularly successful under a devolved administration, but with full state powers in Scotland, this body could be a direct political voice for women speaking as empowered individuals. In the light of the independence referendum, there is much empty talk of democracy which ignores that our democratic system in Scotland is flailing, and failing to deliver a platform for citizens, especially women.

There is also a widening gap between the actions of the Scottish parliament and the will of the public in Scotland, evidenced in unpopular laws such as anti-sectarian law, or laborious long-winded processes such as that around same-sex marriage. A parliament can drag its people along with it only so far, until there is a democratic deficit, and the institutions of religion and privilege step into the political sphere, in place of the democratic channels. While the Scottish government cannot easily harness a public political spirit in its current form, apart from at the rare points where it harnesses an impotent nationalism, we in Scotland should look to where this relationship might emerge.

Given that an independent Scottish state would result in the development of a more directly critical and vocal public, feminists in Scotland may need to move away from policy and political strategies to think about how to influence public perception and public support. This happens already in terms of social attitudes, but not specifically in a political sphere. A public political voice would be a good thing for the movement. If, for instance, the new laws on sexual violence had been subject to greater public and popular scrutiny, the journey to achieve them may have been harder, but we would have come out of this process with a public with a greater understanding of violence against women, consent, and the need for a feminist movement.

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4 thoughts on “Towards a Democratic Feminism

  1. To my mind, what is missing from this analysis is that in deciding whether to choose to implement “feminist change” through the state or through the public will, it’s important to consider exactly why the state would want to drag its people along to more progressive (?) social attitudes. I think, for the most part, progressive legislative initiatives (such as same-sex marriage bills) are fueled less by a genuine desire to help out women or queer people, and more by the state’s desire to legitimize itself as both a) inherently benevolent towards its citizens and necessary for the protection of their well-being and b) the expression of specifically white European values, which are superior to the hateful, backward values of sexist, homophobic non-Europeans – especially non-white folk from Africa and the Middle East.

    My feelings on this are conflicted – it’s clear that these kinds of initiatives are pretty rare – it’s much more common for the state to legitimize sexism / homophobia – and that they can be used to protect some vulnerable groups / individuals, so it doesn’t seem worthwhile to oppose them – but, at the same time, it’s important not to be naive about the state’s intentions? And I used “the state” rather than “the Scottish Parliament” because I feel like this is what happens across the EU, regardless of the form of government in individual countries – which, I guess, raises the question how much potential Scottish independence has to change this?

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  2. I think there is a bit of a distinction between Scotland and Europe, and one reason for this is that the Scottish Parliament is not a state, it is a devolved administration. So the Scottish government doesn’t actively pursue feminist policies very often, but strong and committed feminist organisations have a much bigger voice in law and policy than in England, and so the government agenda tends to be more feminist. For this reason (that organisations rather than publicly scritinised political parties set the agenda), the gap between feminist policy and public opinion is larger in Scotland than in Britain, though I can only compare Scotland to a few European countries.

    I am not keen on the state itself being a site for feminist propaganda, but I think feminist organisations in an independent Scotland would be more exposed to public and Party opinion, and therefore would have to play to it more, in order to achieve significant policy ground (in the same way feminist groups in Britain do at the moment). This in the short term would probably mean a loss for these groups, but in the longer term I think it is worthwhile that public attitudes develop alongside the majority of policy.

    I agree with you, there are two sides to the argument, and I tried to present both in the article, while coming down on the side of a more democratic feminism. It is certainly difficult for feminists to realise their objectives through traditional state structures, which is perhaps why devolution is a good state form, with an emphasis on the representation of oppressed groups. But while the transfer to an “everyone with an equal voice” liberal patriarchal democracy might be difficult, I do not believe the current system is sustainable, nor do I believe that feminist demands can continue to progress in Scotland without control over economic powers, particularly at a time when Westminster cuts are driving women into poverty.

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  3. With the risk of sounding horribly ignorant since I don’t really know that much about how the Scottish Parliament collaborates with women’s / feminist orgs – I do think there is an European trend of governments claiming to “protect” vulnerable groups like women / LGBT people (who are otherwise very under-represented in the government) from the dangerous / hateful public will – partly because of how the EU has taught us to think about Europe and about governments. I mean – we have to be realistic, – we should prioritize imperfect solutions which can help women right now over utopian initiatives which might bring us complete gender equality some time in the distant future – and a state form in which oppressed groups are better represented is definitely going to help oppressed people, and it’s something we should support. But, at the same time, we should be ask ourselves why patriarchal institutions would want to help us – and what kinds of abuse / exploitation are disguised by our accepting the help?

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  4. Reblogged this on Diana Brydon and commented:
    The question boils down to whether it is better to implement feminist change through a less democratic quasi-state, or whether change should come from a public will and a public consciousness. An argument for the former runs as follows: our democratic system does not include women as much as it should, women are still not full citizens of either Scotland or Britain, as evidenced by the poor record of the Scottish Parliament and local government on women’s representation. Why should we tease out of a democratic system, designed for men, the seeds of women’s liberation? We have found in Scotland a system that seems to work better for women that the system in Westminster, where gender equality institutions of parliament are being dismantled without a second thought, by a cabinet with only 3/22 women.

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