Equal Fights

Carolyn Leckie MSP speaks to Bridget Morris

In an astonishing broadside at women in the SSP, Tommy Sheridan last week compared the party to a `gender-obsessed discussion group' but, for party member Carolyn Leckie, gender is at the very heart of everything.

GROWING up in a Gorbals council house, I was always politically aware. My mother, as well as raising four children, was a machinist. My father, a shop steward at Weirs, was also involved in the Orange Order and president of the Rangers Supporters Club. An ardent Rangers fan, I'd argued with him for ages about the fact women weren't allowed on the supporters' bus. When the 1975 Sex
Discrimination Act went through, I took a stand and insisted I was now allowed to board the bus, much to the embarrassment of both my parents. I was nine years old.

From an early age, I considered myself a socialist, and spoke out about inequality, class and poverty. For as long as I can remember, I've also been assertive about gender issues. I soon learned that for some people on the left, there could be tensions between these two areas.

Seeing the industrial action in which my father was involved during the early 1970s, I became aware that it was usually women who had to deal with the practical repercussions of strikes. They were the ones who had to send the weans out to wait in the bread queues and make sure there was food on the table. There was almost a privileged role for the men in conducting the struggle. But while the women enabled it to happen by keeping the family going, their vital role never seemed to be properly valued, though it's now recognised that if it hadn't been for the magnificent work done by women in the miners' strike, the men wouldn't have been able to stay out as long as they did.

At 17, living in Castlemilk and working in local government, I became an active trade unionist. Years later, as a Unison branch secretary, I found myself organising strikes among hospital staff. It was noticeable that even when the strikers, such as medical secretaries, were mainly women, they were still expected to go home after a day on the picket line and make the dinner. The situation hadn't been reversed: the men weren't playing that supportive role, doing the housework, looking after the children and ensuring that food was on the table. There were exceptions, of course, but tensions often resulted when women, empowered through being involved in strike action, were no longer prepared to cook the family meal. Some relationships broke up as a result.

Gender issues have long existed within the class struggle. To pretend otherwise is nonsense. But although there has always been a lot of political sectarianism within the left a tendency to pigeonhole people according to their friends' political allegiances, and use vocabulary that could seem intimidating to anyone who wasn't conversant in the language of Marxist analysis in Scotland, we moved on. I joined the Scottish Socialist Party at its inception in 1998, attracted by what seemed to me a broad-based, pluralist party which brought left groups together, and developed inclusive aims and principles. The party supported independence, which was important to me, as was its commitment to gender equality.

Policies on gender are enshrined within our constitution. We have continued to hold debates challenging orthodox thinking, and thanks partly to our 50:50 policy, which ensures that women and men are equally represented on the lists for the Scottish parliamentary elections, two-thirds of the SSP's MSPs are women.

At the same time, however, the SSP is part of society. Joining the party and calling yourself a socialist doesn't inoculate you against all the prejudices that exist in the world. So naturally, there will be people in our party who express some of these attitudes. We have tried to deal with these issues in a friendly, open, democratic way.

For some people, of course, there is a difference between what they agree to in theory and what they are able to put it into practice. That's where patriarchal power structures are in conflict with what we're trying to achieve as a party.

Two major strikes in recent years revealed much about the left's attitudes towards male and female contributions within the movement. Before they'd even been out for a single day, the firefighters most of whose 5000-strong Scottish workforce are male had received massive coverage, from the left-wing, as well as the mainstream, press. Meanwhile, Scotland's 5000 nursery nurses spent days on the picket line, yet very little was written about their action, even within the radical media.

In the SSP, it was women who worked at raising the profile of the nursery nurses. To be fair, the firefighters' action was UK-wide, and was seen as a direct challenge to the government. But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the initial lack of interest in the nursery nurses' strike reflects the lack of value placed on what is seen as a woman's role. If female labour is valued less than the work that men do, then the struggles that women engage in to get the rewards for that work are valued less, and considered less politically important to the struggles conducted by men.

Over 50% of the population are female, and we will never improve society unless we offer dramatic changes to these women's lives, and take the inequality problem seriously. You can't say to half the population: "Just hang on and put up with this injustice until we've achieved socialism." Clearly, there are people on the left including a minority within the SSP who still think that, come socialism, all of these oppressions will be sorted out. But historical precedent doesn't support this.

The Russian revolution, for example, brought the working class to power, but it took three years for specific steps to be taken to help the cause of women's emancipation. Only one woman in the central committee of the Bolshevik party, Alexandra Kollantai, had permission to do that work, and she had to be subordinate and accountable to the male-dominated central committee. Within the socialist movement in Scotland today, there remains a minority that doesn't accept the need to self-organise around specific oppressions such as ethnicity, disability or gender.

There are lots of progressive, right-on, feminist-thinking men within the SSP. But a few members still seem to resent the progressive gains we've made as women, particularly over the 50:50 issue. I was surprised by Tommy Sheridan's recent comment that "we are a class-based socialist party, not a gender-obsessed discussion group", because I understood he supported 50:50 at the time the policy was agreed, although he wasn't an active participant in the debate.

You hear a lot of partriarchal, macho language within the Scottish Parliament. That kind of chest-beating appeals to some people. But to me, and other women within the SSP, the important question is: how are we going to change society by having competing strong leaders, or by empowering every single member of society so they can change it on an equal basis?

I think it's a mistake to put up with inequalities within an organisation which exists to eradicate those very problems in the wider world, in the naive belief that, should that it ever achieve power, it will sort itself out. Organisations that want to change society need to be constantly evolving, critically examining themselves, challenging power imbalances and prejudices which exist internally. That can't be put off until another day.

It would be unfortunate if comments about "gender-obsessed discussion groups" were seen as representative of the SSP's views on women's issues, because that would be inaccurate. Our party has progressive policies on gender. We have talented, committed women who are upfront and arguing on that terrain, at the same time as they are fighting on the picket lines and in their communities against hospital closures, school closures and privatisation. I don't accept that you can't do all of that while also tackling gender inequality, racism and other oppressions.

In 2004, I was criticised for speaking out in the parliament about hypocrisy over breastfeeding. Yet double-standards in society, and among politicians, have to be challenged because we are living at a time when women are increasingly under attack. In America, fertility and abortion rights have been almost obliterated. Worldwide, rape is being used as a weapon of war. There are similarities between the abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, and the kind of brutal and violent pornographic imagery that's becoming commonplace on the newsagents' shelves. Increasingly, women are being objectified and pressurised to accept a definition of their sexuality which has nothing to do with intimacy, or their sexual needs, but has everything to do with a representation of sexuality which is about an abuse of power.

Young girls are under enormous pressure to portray themselves in a sexualised way, yet women raising these issues are accused of being moralistic and puritanical. Too many men have a double standard over the behaviour they expect from women in order to obtain sex, and the behaviour they expect of women who are family members. This kind of injustice needs to be tackled in a political way. Yet the left itself is not immune from such attitudes. Within the trade union movement, for example, I witnessed countless examples of women being subjected to macho, bullying behaviour or inappropriate comments and sexual language.

How can you liberate the working class without liberating the half or more than half who are female? Compared with the left in general, the SSP has been phenomenally successful in advancing women's issues. With progress, however, there is always a competing tension. Right now, the party is under tremendous strain, and those tensions are in unusually stark relief. The next few weeks and months are going to be a white-knuckle ride. But I am confident that we'll come out the other end intact.

We have to, because we live in a hideously unequal society. A third of our children and a quarter of our pensioners still live in poverty. Women on full-time pay earn 80% of men's earnings. Huge inequalities persist. It is crucial that there is a party like the SSP pushing all of these issues within Scotland.

So we will survive, because there is a demand for a party such as ours. Because all the problems we are trying to tackle within society, are not going to go away. They may be about to get worse.


June 2006

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