More than a woman
To its credit, Scotland has often been on the right side of history when it comes to matters of equality. But never more so than last week when Nicola Sturgeon stepped into the larger than life space vacated by her male predecessor and became the first female First Minister of Scotland.
This one act alone is something to celebrate. A woman at the helm, not just of Scottish politics but of the future of this country’s journey as it shakes itself down from what has been one of the most energising and empowering debates of our lifetime and as it prepares for a very different future.
Scotland is at a tipping point. The referendum gave us a tantalising glimpse of our collective aspirations and while some thought that that could only be delivered through independence, the majority thought not. But what no one wished for was more of the same. And that is not what we are going to get.
What Scotland needs now is a leader who can measure up to the task of bringing a nation back together, of steering it into this new future, of coalescing our dreams and of delivering on our ambitions, reawakened by a glimpse of what a better life could mean.
And with the rebirth of a nation, it seems apt that it is a woman who leads that charge. In accepting the role of First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, a working-class woman from Ayrshire, referred to her eight-year-old niece sitting in the public gallery with Sturgeon’s mother and sister, and said she hoped it sent a strong and positive message to girls across our lands – that there should be no limit to their ambition or what they can achieve.
“If you are good enough and if you work hard enough,” she said, “the sky is the limit – and no glass ceiling should ever stop you from achieving your dreams.”
These were spine-tingling words and they gave succour to those men and women who believe the quest for gender equality needs to be shifted up a gear and that quotas need to be embedded in law. No one can deny that Sturgeon has achieved high office through anything other than merit alone. But she brings a realpolitik to the role of First Minister. And while her predecessor was an impressive and sometimes divisive figure, whose skills as an artful tactician stood him and his party in good stead on the road to a referendum, it is now up to Sturgeon to capture the mood of a nation and govern for all.
She has put poverty and inequality at the heart of her intended programme of government and shown by example that her own gender in the top
job – and in the Cabinet seats that surround her – is not just a symbol of our times but an exemplar of how she sees the norm.
Sturgeon knows that women have become the shock absorbers of austerity. That low pay, zero-hours contracts, part-time work and the prohibitive costs of childcare mean many women can’t afford to work at all. She knows that women have paid a far higher price, proportionately, than men for the so-called welfare reforms and that with more women than men working in the public sector, they are also doubly hurt by the cuts in public service spending and with more still to come. She also knows that gender inequality has become a touchstone for a political awakening in this referendum year and if now is not the time to enshrine equality, then when?
We live in a Scotland where the debate about the kind of nation we want to live in has been at the fore of the constitutional debate and the battle to secure the female vote was pivotal. It is that vision of a different world that has pushed the momentum for change to live on long after the vote on September 18th and it has had women at its core.
So, with politicians having fallen over themselves to capture the women’s vote during the referendum, now is the time to play the real ‘woman’s card’ and bring those commitments to life.
Sturgeon is not Alex Salmond’s protégé; she was and is her own woman. She will make her mark as a political leader regardless of her sex. But what being a woman will do is ensure that women are not brought in as an afterthought or as a politically expedient box to be ticked.
With women at the political top table, setting the agenda and signing off on the policy, Sturgeon and her team have to demonstrate that if Scotland could have parity as a country then now is also the time to demonstrate that its citizens can have that at home.
Salmond clearly changed the course of Scottish history; without him there never would have been that referendum. But Sturgeon has the opportunity to make that history matter, to capture the essence of that political engagement, that quest for a better Scotland and yes, to make sure that all wee lassies look at her and know that anything is possible, not by accident but by design.
Sturgeon is a much more instinctive politician than Salmond. Both want independence but she has a much clearer vision of the kind of socially-just Scotland she wants it for. In her speech to the party conference two weeks ago, she promised “a fair society underpinned by a strong economy” that would have radical action on land reform, empowering communities, raising attainment in schools and tackling some of the deep injustices in society, like domestic abuse and gender inequality. “Labour may have abandoned social justice,” she said. “But in the SNP, the people of Scotland will always know they have a party of true social democracy.”
Sturgeon has six short months before the General Election to prove that her party is a truly progressive alternative to Labour. Labour, meanwhile, is still to choose a leader and with the perception that Sturgeon is taking the SNP to the left, the decision for Scottish Labour will be, can it follow?