Votes for Women

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 5:35 pm on 26th November 2009.

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Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party 5:35 pm, 26th November 2009

I, too, congratulate Shirley-

Anne Somerville on bringing the debate to the chamber. I thank members for their interesting speeches.

As members have said, this centenary year of the great procession and the women's demonstration of 1909 gives us a wonderful opportunity to celebrate and commemorate women of the suffrage movement. We had the centenary procession in Edinburgh in October, in which some members here participated, as did other politicians from across the parties, members of women's organisations, trade unionists and many others. Complementary local events have been held throughout Scotland, such as the suffrage exhibition that is being held in the museum of Edinburgh. We have today held a timely debate, to which I am delighted to respond. Like other members, I thank gude cause for helping us and giving us the opportunity to reflect and celebrate.

Scotland's first suffrage groups appeared in the late 1860s. They demanded the vote for women as a basic human right and as a means of improving women's lives in the workplace, at home, in the courts of law and in education. They demanded justice and equality for all women and used peaceful tactics to try to win support. They sent petitions to Parliament, wrote letters to MPs, distributed leaflets and organised meetings. However, 30 years of peaceful campaigning produced only minor change so, in the 1900s, more militant campaigners—whom we know as the suffragettes—began to emerge.

We have heard about people from Edinburgh and Glasgow, so I will choose another city: Dundee. Two Scottish suffragettes—Ethel Moorhead and Lila Clunas—are celebrated in two of the 25 bronze plaques on the Dundee women's trail, which is a city-centre walk that Linda Fabiani opened last year. Ethel Moorhead was an artist and was known locally as the "most turbulent" of Dundee's suffragettes. She was force-fed in Calton jail—the situations that Christine Grahame described in that regard were telling—and she had a string of convictions, but her first recorded act of dissent was in 1911, when she threw an egg at Winston Churchill. It is ironic that St Andrew's house stands on the former site of Calton jail and is where all four female Scottish ministers have their offices, as did the female ministers in the previous Scottish Executive.

Lila Clunas was an elementary schoolteacher who ensured that working-class women were involved in the fight for the right to vote. She was imprisoned in London and went on hunger strike after an unlawful incident at 10 Downing Street. After world war two, that remarkable woman was elected to the council in Dundee, where she served until she was 88.

As a result of the pressure and agitation from the suffragists and suffragettes, Parliament passed the Representation of the People Act 1918, which gave all women over 30 full voting rights. However, that was less than full democracy. Women continued—rightly—to campaign until 1928, when full voting rights were finally granted to all women over 21, as others have said.

Democracy had finally triumphed and the suffrage campaigners had won their argument. Without the suffragists, how long would it have taken to move on from an age in which women could not own property, hold public positions or vote? Without the suffragists, the Duchess of Atholl might never have become the first Scottish female MP. As a Conservative and Unionist Party member, she represented Kinross and Western Perthshire—my home area—from 1923 to 1938, although I was not there at that time. She was the first female minister in the Westminster Parliament.

The suffrage movement made a lasting contribution to Scottish democracy and society. It led the way in women making their voice heard, campaigning for an end to all discrimination and prejudice, and striving to achieve equality with men in all aspects of their lives. It is not easy to find proper recognition of the women who were and are part of shaping Scotland—those who made the country what it is today and what it can be in the future. By awarding proper recognition to women, we promote pride in communities and in Scotland and create role models for the rest of us, most importantly our young people.

This Government is committed to proper recognition for women in today's society. I spoke earlier about the Dundee women's trail. This year, the Government has demonstrated our commitment in other areas, too. Examples include ministers' involvement in the Evening Times Scotswoman of the year awards in January, international women's day events in March, the Scottish Trades Union Congress women's conference in November and, of course, the centenary suffrage procession in October.

The Government is committed to encouraging more women to become involved in political decision making. It is funding the Scottish Women's Convention to the tune of £521,000 over a three-year period. The convention organises a large international women's day event in March each year. The theme for next year is the importance of the involvement of women in all aspects of the political process, from voting to becoming an MSP. In addition, the Government is providing £245,000 over a three-year period to Engender, which is an information and research networking organisation for women that provides opportunities for women to engage in focused debate on issues of concern and enables them to influence policy decisions.

We have heard in the debate about the rigours and hardships that the women's suffrage movement endured in the early 1900s. That reminds us of the significance of the right to vote. Voting is the single most important action that anyone can take to ensure that their voice is heard. By voting, we directly elect the people who make the decisions that affect us and our families every day, locally and nationally. We all—the men and women in civic society, political parties, trade unions and local authorities—need to focus on the reasons for the low turnouts at elections and do more to make people want to turn out to vote. We owe it to the memory of the women of suffrage to do all that we can to strengthen democracy.

Meeting closed at 17:42.