Katharine Stewart-Murray

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at on 7 December 2023.

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Photo of Emma Roddick Emma Roddick Scottish National Party

I am grateful to John Swinney for lodging the motion and giving us the opportunity to mark the centenary of Katharine Stewart-Murray’s election. As we have heard, she was an unusual character. I doubt that she and I have a great deal in common, but I feel a connection with her journey from initially campaigning against women’s suffrage to standing for election. I have never been opposed to women having the vote, but, back in 2014, I argued against the vote being given to me and other 16 and 17-year-olds in the independence referendum. I genuinely and strongly believed that I should not be given the vote.

Going from that standpoint to becoming the youngest member of the Parliament and the Government and now being a firm supporter of the right of 16 and 17-year-olds to vote, I understand Katharine Stewart-Murray’s journey. It shows the impact that enfranchising people can have and how the best of us can internalise misogyny and inequalities, including those of us who are victims of that. I am sure that Katharine Stewart-Murray was genuine in her opposition to women’s suffrage in the beginning, but the context in which she lived, in which it was accepted that women were not equal, and then the vote being extended clearly had an impact on her belief system and perhaps on her view of herself.

I enjoyed Richard Leonard’s suggestion of radicalisation by exposure to men in politics. Many women and feminists in politics nowadays can sympathise with that. That leads me to the other reason why I welcome the motion: it gives us an opportunity to reflect more widely on how women’s experiences and representation in politics have evolved in the past century. It is easy for us to see that things are better 100 years later, but that is a considerable time frame and change has been slow.

We often hear from people who do not want to talk about or accept the problem of underrepresentation of any groups that we need to have the best person for the job, as if it is possible that that is who we can get every time when inequalities are baked into the system. If we are to get the best person for the job, there needs to be equal footing for all genders, for disabled, able-bodied and neurotypical people, and for all ethnicities and sexual orientations. We are likely to get only the best white male for the job while that does not exist.

In 2021, a historic high of 58 women were elected as MSPs, which is 45 per cent of the chamber. However, it was not until 2021 that any women of colour were elected to Holyrood and that we had our first permanent wheelchair user. We now know what the impact of women in government is. The Scottish Government has introduced a number of important policies, which likely would not have been possible without strong representation of women in government. Those include free period products for all, 1,140 hours of funded early learning and childcare for all eligible children and our ambitious women’s health plan to reduce inequality in health outcomes for women and to improve information and services for women.

We also have a number of initiatives to support more women into politics. Engender’s equal representation project works with political parties to increase diverse representation of women. It has produced a toolkit to enable political parties to assess their diversity and policies on inclusion and to receive an individualised action plan to improve the participation of underrepresented groups. That project, importantly, brings together stakeholders working for the representation of racialised minorities, disabled people and the LGBTQI+ community, recognising that intersectional representation is needed.

Elect Her supports and equips women to stand for political office through hands-on workshops and peer support circles. Fifty-four women were supported by Elect Her in the 2022 Scottish local authority elections, with 27 of those women winning.

However, to accurately understand the situation, it is important that we look not just at the number of women who are elected each time but at how many stay on and are retained for a full term or more than one term.

We see that issue across politics. Only 35 per cent of Scottish councillors are women. We have just had First Minister’s questions: out of five party leaders here, only one is a woman and she is a co-leader in a position that cannot be filled by a man. That is not necessarily a problem in itself. We have some excellent men in this Parliament who do what they can for women’s issues. I note that John Swinney, Keith Brown, Richard Leonard and Jim Fairlie are all wearing white ribbons today. We have a male First Minister who is committed to tackling all inequalities with an understanding of intersectional issues. However, everyone but me who has spoken in the debate today has been a man.

When a pattern begins to emerge of women citing similar reasons for stepping back from public life and the impact of equalities mechanisms disappears when the mechanisms do, rather than having a long-term impact, that shows that there is a problem to solve.