I am an international woman.
For many years, I had my niece and nephew believing that the day was named in honour of me. They were wide-eyed at the celebrations the world over—all for me. At the same time, I regularly adjusted my age for them, so it was a bit of a running joke that I could not face up to reaching the upper stages of my youth. It all came unstuck for me in 2011, when the world marked 100 years of International Women’s Day. They found it amusing to discover that I was around more than 100 years ago.
There are some lessons in there somewhere, and one of them is about age. As we celebrate women, let us celebrate all women and note those who often face barriers in addition to those presented by their gender. That might be for any number of reasons: race, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, income and, yes, age. Age International reports that nearly a quarter of the world’s women are over the age of 50, yet they are routinely excluded from policy and practice that aims to address gender inequality and violence against women, including sexual violence.
We, and I include myself in this, also need to stop talking about age as if it were a bad thing—it is clearly better than any other alternative. We talk as if women, in particular, are past it once they reach a certain age—a certain age I have yet to reach, obviously. While we are talking about age, let us not forget the regular exclusion of young women from the policy-making process.
International Women’s Day is not just about looking at barriers and inequality. As we have heard, it is also about celebrating successes and the barriers that have been overcome. However, until we have true equality in every walk of life and in every sense of the word, we have to keep talking about why we do not have equal opportunities in this life. So today I want to do three things. I want to read out a roll-call of just some of the women who inspire me. I also want to talk about some fundamental barriers facing women and how our male allies can help break them down, and I will end by asking two things of the Government. That will allow me to explain why I started off speaking in a different language.
On the roll-call, I sometimes think we have our famous women we pay tribute to, and then we have our so-called ordinary women. I am just going to mix them up and read a list of women who inspire me. Some are constituents, but they are by no means the only woman in my constituency who inspire me—I would need the entire debate to mention them all. The women are Mary Seacole, Helen Carroll, Marie Curie, Winnie Ewing, Mags Watson, Gemma Coyle, Rosa Parks, Mary Hunter, Marie Stopes, Janet Connor, Harriet Tubman, Laura Clark, Bessie Watson, Josephine McCusker, Catherine Yuill, Tracy Pender, Donna Henderson and, finally—I am going to say something about the last one—Chief Theresa Kachindamoto, also known in Malawi as the marriage terminator. She became the chief of over 900,000 people and immediately dissolved the child marriages of 3,000 girls. I like the name “the marriage terminator”. I want those on the list who are still with us to know that they inspire me. If they do not know why, I will tell them when I see them.
The second thing I want to talk about is the fundamental barriers facing women. I want to say a bit about how I came rather late in life to understand the barriers that I face because of my gender, in the hope that it will help others who want to understand. I am not going to talk about children and childcare. It is an obvious, although necessary, matter to refer to, but it sometimes allows people to simplify the issue. It allows those who regularly ask, “When’s International Men’s Day?” to argue that women who have full childcare or who have no children are barrier-free, and that is just not the case. I do not have children, so I cannot say that childcare duties prevent me from doing some of the things I want to do, but for my entire life I have experienced the fundamental barriers that almost all women experience—I just did not know that that is what it was.
Many of my peers were elected long before I ever was. I thought that that was because they were better, that I would not be that good anyway and that politics was not for the likes of me. I also did not like the combative and competitive nature of party politics, so if there was an internal battle for selection, I just refused to put myself forward. I remember my friend Shona Robison, who went on to be the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport in the Scottish Government, phoning me and saying, “It’s the first Scottish Parliament, Anne. We need more women. Why don’t you stand?” I just point-blank refused. No matter how much she encouraged me, and no matter how she tried to persuade me, I told her it was not for me.
I believed that the thing holding me back was me and my lack of ability, but I was not lacking in ability, and it was Nicola Sturgeon who opened my eyes to that. We were talking about gender balance mechanisms, and I said what I have heard many women say: “I would only ever want to get somewhere on merit.” She said, “Well, that’s fine—if all the men you see elected are there on merit alone too. Until they are, we need these gender balance mechanisms.” That got me thinking, and it set me on a path where I ended up spending the last two years working in different countries, mainly trying to get more women into politics. I made that argument about merit, and I could see other women’s eyes opening.
I also used something else Nicola pointed out to me that day: ask a man to tell you three things he is really good at, and he will. He is quite right to do that, because you have asked him to do it, but if we ask a woman to do the same, most women—of course, I am generalising, but I think we can use general points here—will start by telling us what they are not good at, and I could list many more than three.