Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Feminist Fights and the Independence Debate

I'm an academic and English Literature is my main area of study (but another post on the English/Scottish Literature difference at a later date!). As the referendum debate has developed I started to realise that I hardly know any Scottish history, I'm so unaware of the culture of this country I call home. So, in an effort to remedy this I picked up James Robertson's And the Land Lay Still (2010). It had a 'As heard on BBC Radio 4' sticker on the front and, as someone still very much infected by the cultural imperialism of 'Britain', that was enough to convince me it was to be my window into this strange world we call 'Scotland'.

Honestly, I couldn't have made a better choice. The novel takes its title from an Edwin Morgan poem and consists of a series of stories that, together, build up a picture of twentieth-century Scotland. For someone who had never heard of the 'tartan Tories' (that was the SNP's nickname back in the day), the Scottish Liberation Army blowing up post boxes (really!), or that Margaret Thatcher voted to support a woman's right to choose it's been a history lesson in the form of a massively engaging literary novel.

Anyway, what has this got to do with feminism and the independence debate? Well, the connection between the two has been in my mind for months but not expressed in any of the many blog posts or newspaper articles that I read. Until I came to this passage in And the Land Lay Still:

"A conference was held in Glasgow, in the theatre behind the Mitchell Library. A Saturday in July 1983. Three weeks earlier Margaret Thatcher had won her second General Election, routing the Labour Party under Michael Foot's leadership. The conference organiser had a big question for those attending: 'Which way now for the Scottish left?'...But on the day some were even unhappy about that designation. They felt that the adjective somehow betrayed the spirit of the noun it described. Someone was selling copies of a poster that said SCOTTISH WRITERS AGAINST THE BOMB. On it were the names of dozens of writers opposed to nuclear weapons on the Clyde. An argument started. 'Oh, you can't say that.' 'Can't say what?' 'If you say "Scottish writers" you're excluding other writers who are also against the Bomb. That's parochial, that is.'... A fight almost broke out." (And the Land Lay Still, 530-1).

Anyone reading who hasn't had much experience of feminist spaces might still be scratching their heads as to why I've just quoted this slab of a passage, but I think if you've spent much time in feminist spaces (particularly online) you'll be more than aware of similar debates. This passage is set in 1983, but some of the same debates are happening now, as we face the referendum. And, I think, we who have cut our political teeth in the world of feminism are well placed to tackle these kinds of issues, given that we spend a lot of our time thinking about them.

The equivalence, in this passage, of Scotland with 'parochialism' is very much what feminists are accustomed to experiencing when they support women-only spaces, or anything-only spaces, in feminism. There is a lack of understanding on the part of mainstream thought. Surely, if you're fighting for a cause, you want as many people as possible to follow you? This is how we think under a democracy, where numbers are everything. It's the same when someone picks a campaign to work on. There are always those voices asking how you can focus on Page 3 when FGM is such an issue? Or, what's the point of having a woman on a bank note when two women a week are being murdered by their partners?

But sometimes, numbers aren't everything. Sometimes the exclusion of dominant (male) voices can be conducive to that. The same goes for other feminist groups, who choose to restrict their membership by race, or colour, or political affiliation or whatever. There's not just strength in numbers, there's strength in having people around you who understand.

And sometimes, you see an issue where you can make a measurable difference. And maybe it's not going to destroy patriarchy by the time you're done, but you can achieve something, however small, and build on that success. And the wonderful thing is, your campaign does not damage other feminist campaigns with different messages. It makes them stronger.

The other thing to recognise here is the potential for a multiplicity of voices and positions. As well as SCOTTISH WRITERS AGAINST THE BOMB, or 'Feminists for Independence - no men allowed', there is plenty of space for other groups to be formed. WRITERS AGAINST THE BOMB and 'Mixed Gender Feminists for Independence' will also garner a wide following, and can do so without stepping on each others toes, but with mutual support and respect.

This is one of the things that the feminist movement has in common with the independence movement. In grassroots organisation we understand that 'different' doesn't have to mean 'in opposition to'. Realising and expressing our identity doesn't mean we want to crush or silence the 'other'. We make our own spaces, but we also try to make space for others. This is what I think people miss when they ask the SNP to come up with all the answers, to promise (and sign on the dotted line) what will happen if we vote Yes. You can't really blame people for this, when you're accustomed to decisions made through party politics you expect to choose things from a menu rather than get in the kitchen and roll up your sleeves - you also expect to be lied to, so that whatever a politician promises you'll never be satisfied. We should all realise that no one can promise us anything, and certainly no one can make us believe - if you want something done then you can take the first step towards making it happen. Start a campaign, knock on some doors, start a Facebook group or a conversation with someone you suspect is on your side. You will find support, there's a whole country out here to help you out; sometimes you just have to be the first one to raise your voice and say what needs to be done.

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