In early 2012 I wrote a dissertation about an issue that had constantly plagued my political experiences from the minute I got involved in the Scottish far left when I was 16 years old. It’s a problem that continues to dominate my experience of politics and one which we are committed to exploring and giving voice to at A Thousand Flowers. Put simply, the issue is that the left is a cesspit of sexist behaviours, attitudes and people. Women come and go (often unnoticed or derided by ‘active’ activists) because of the strength of this current in the left, and the ones who stay often experience extreme burnout and mental health issues.
It’s an issue I’m certain is central to many women’s experiences of activism across the world. But I felt that in Scotland we had a special story to tell, because to me it is clear that gender remains the most divisive issue on the left. In some quarters you can’t raise it without being screamed at, lied about and even physically harmed. So in the course of my dissertation I aimed to give a voice directly to women on the Scottish left. Even with the small sample size of participants in my research, it was clear that there was a strong understanding of the shared experience of this amongst the women I interviewed, and I believe that shared experience is understood and felt widely by many women with experiences in left wing activism. I encourage people to discuss this openly, and if you need a platform for talking about this too often ignored reactionary, sexist current on the left – we’re always here. Please write about your experiences, we can publish them here either credited or anonymously. Or please feel free to discuss your experiences in the comments below this article at any time.
Below I have reproduced in edited, shortened and de-academicised (as much as I could, sorry if I’ve missed anything majorly inaccessible) form my dissertation on women’s experiences on the left in Scotland. Snarky present-day comments will be noted in [these kind of square bracket hings]. It’s still a dissertation so unfortunately aye it’s gonny be pretty word heavy, I’m sorry if that’s offputting to anyone and am happy to send further shortened sections to anyone if they’d prefer that. I think it’s important to preserve the voices of the women who contributed to my research, rather than it languishing on my hard drive.
It’s worth noting that as this was written in early 2012, there have certainly been some developments on these issues in the Scottish left. Some positive moves have occurred, and some really really terrible things have happened too. We have discussed some of these developments on A Thousand Flowers (1 2 3) and will continue to prioritise vocalising the reality of the left’s troubled relationship with gender. In this dissertation I focused at times on a group called Glasgow Women’s Activist Forum, which sadly has not sustained as an organised group since the time of writing – I have included discussion of it anyway because there is a lot we can learn from actually sitting down and talking about tools we can use to effect change in our own organisations and campaigns. I’m hopeful that, in the face of so much sexist abuse directed at feminists on the left which is ongoing and frankly horrible to live through, there will be new chances for people committed to giving a voice to women on the left to work together, protect each other and one day dance on the grave of the old, sexist left and its ways of organising and talking.
I would like to thank all of the participants who volunteered to take part in this research, who were brave in sharing difficult personal and political experiences. It is my hope that this research may play a small part in assisting them and others in their pursuit of fairness and equality within their political communities.
While the politics of the far left in Scotland have always been firmly rooted in a strong sense of class-based struggle, the theoretical tradition of the left [Lenin n that] has long argued the need for the freeing of all people from social, political and economic inequalities. In practice however, the left has often fallen short of its own standards with regards to reproducing unequal power structures within its own organisations.
In Scotland the disparity between rhetoric and reality has led to significant problems for the participation of women within far left organisations and campaigns, and in recent years a need for feminism to be be genuinely embraced by left wing groups has been identified by women who have spoken openly of these problems. The splitting of the Scottish Socialist Party, they argue, was fundamentally an issue of gender politics. In the wake of the decline of the Scottish Socialist Party new forms of cross-organisational political action have grown amongst the left in Glasgow, such as the Free Hetherington occupation at the University of Glasgow and the founding of the Glasgow Coalition of Resistance. However, this has brought with it new issues for women’s activism, and some have responded by establishing the Glasgow Women’s Activist Forum, an organisation with the explicit aim of challenging sexism across the Glasgow left.
It is inarguably a problem for the successful implementation of gender equality initiatives that within left wing activist circles women report often feeling patronised, ignored and on occasions threatened.
In this dissertation I will pose these key questions:
- Why, when the importance of the connection between class struggles and women’s struggles has long been espoused by left wing theorists as far back as Lenin, do activists in modern day Scotland feel the need to establish groups like the Glasgow Women’s Activist Forum?
- What are the key areas of tension between the left and feminism in Scotland, as identified by women on the left?
- What specific aspects of Scottish left wing culture exclude and/or marginalise left wing women?
- What are women on the left doing to challenge these problems in Scotland?
In analysing the insights provided by participants, I will attempt to prove three central points:
- Feminist consciousness amongst left wing women and men tends to be raised substantially as a result of the experience of trauma related to sexist behaviour within activist circles.
- Significant numbers of predominantly male left wing activists have thus far proved fundamentally unwilling to accept or address women’s experiences within their approach to class politics.
- Sexist behaviour and practices of men within the left activist community in Scotland are directly responsible for some women scaling back or completely dropping out of involvement with traditional left wing activism.
This research is important as it discusses an area of unresolved tension within the Scottish left wing community which has been central to its development over the past decade. My research has focused on women’s experiences on the Scottish left with particular emphasis on the period 2002-2012, with the wish to bring understanding of the advances, regressions and stagnations of this political relationship up to date. I have aimed to provide a platform for women’s voices which are often otherwise ignored or marginalised within their own political communities and within mainstream representations of the left. Beyond this, however, it is important to situate these voices and their experiences within their historical context in order to establish not only how women experience left wing activism but also why it is experienced this way.
Original research was conducted through interviews. Firstly, I approached two former Scottish Socialist Party Members of the Scottish Parliament, Carolyn Leckie and Frances Curran, interviewing both regarding their experiences as feminists and women while they held high ranking positions in the largest left wing organisation in Scotland during the years 1999-2007. The aim was to provide insight into the practices of the Scottish Socialist Party and the behaviour and attitudes of its members, particularly during the time of former SSP convenor Tommy Sheridan’s resignation and subsequent court cases which were well documented in the Scottish media.
For the second round of interviews I put together focus groups in order to identify key areas of tension, gather experiences and canvass opinion on the relationship between feminism and the Scottish left as it stands in 2012. For this I approached the Glasgow Women’s Activist Forum, an activist organisation formed in 2011 with the explicit aim of challenging sexist behaviour, attitudes and practices amongst all left wing organisations and campaigns in Glasgow. Volunteers were split into three groups and provided with initial questions to prompt discussion, in which participants displayed a range of experiences, problems and solutions to commonly issues for women on the left in Scotland.
Employing these kinds of direct approaches to evidence gathering was especially important to the nature of this research as the experiences detailed by women are not experiences which have been widely acknowledged when writing the history of the left, nor in media representations of the events on the Scottish left in the last decade. By directly approaching these women to share their experiences on the left, providing a safe space for them to do so by virtue of the absence of male activists and the assurance that what information they shared would remain anonymous for the purpose of the research, voices which otherwise may not be heard were given the opportunity to shape this research into issues which directly affect their lives and their politics.
Scottish activism in context: recent history
The most notable development on the Scottish far left in recent decades was undoubtedly the formation of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) in 1997, initially gaining 1 MSP in the 1999 Scottish election, followed by 5 further MSPs in 2003. The initial aim of the SSP was to bring disparate groups on the Scottish left together under one organisation with the hope of making a larger impact. For a number of years they did, gaining 245,000 votes in 2003. It brought together activists from a variety of groups: Scottish Militant Labour, the Committee for a Worker’s International (CWI) [Now known as Socialist Party Scotland – we keep calling them the CWI though], the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), Communists, trade unionists, plus activists who had been involved in anti-poll tax campaigning and activists with a Scottish Nationalist background. It also attracted a layer of activists who had not been previously aligned on the left, including Carolyn Leckie who became an MSP for the party in the Central Scotland region. She stated in interview “I joined because I was a socialist, I supported independence, and I thought that the left should be unified, and these were the three things I suppose that had always prevented me joining any other political party before.”
For Frances Curran, the SSP took a step in a progressive direction on women’s issues when it encouraged people from a variety of political backgrounds to work together in its formation: “The organisations that set up the party were coming from a very traditional left stance, and they aped and mimicked the culture of those organisations they were coming from. But also, some women joined the party who were coming from a different perspective, and they influenced the debate and the discussion that we had. We began to crystallise the position that we wanted this party not to have women’s rights or feminism as an add-on, we wanted to actually build it into the roots of the party.”
The SSP made clear its commitment to equality for women in Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCombes’s 2002 book Imagine [actually just written by Alan McCombes] which devoted a chapter to the topic, stating that “the vast majority of women across the world remain doubly oppressed, doubly exploited, under capitalism”.
For many activists who had worked alongside Sheridan, it was therefore a shock when the News of the World published a front-page article in 2004 claiming that he had attended sex clubs with a journalist. In his 2011 book Downfall McCombes describes how Sheridan admitted this to a meeting of the SSP’s Executive Committee, where concerns were raised by members about the nature of sex clubs:
“Some of the women expressed revulsion towards the sex industry. They recognised that Tommy may have genuinely believed that this was harmless fun involving people with a libertarian approach towards sex but there was a murky line between consensual sex and abuse of women. Carolyn Leckie and Catriona Grant suggested that women were often coerced, psychologically or physically, by their male partners into participating in orgies in clubs such as Cupids. There was also suspicion that some of these swingers’ clubs, like saunas and massage parlours, doubled as fronts for prostitution.”
Beyond concern about Sheridan’s behaviour while leader of the SSP on these occasions, over the course of the following two years leading to Sheridan’s successful defamation action against the News of the World and his decision to split from the SSP along with two of the party’s platforms – the SWP and the CWI – to form a new party, Solidarity: Scotland’s Socialist Movement, Frances Curran believes that “there was open misogyny displayed in the case from beginning to end. There was misogyny in the press, misogyny in the courts and misogyny in the party. No responsibility was placed on Tommy’s behaviour, women were repeatedly blamed for his resignation (as SSP Convenor) and branded liars for refusing to lie on his behalf.”
Solidarity: dreaming the impossible misogynist dream since 2006.
Carolyn Leckie said of this period in the SSP: “We were completely coerced, in the name of ‘democracy’ and ‘unity’, into silence, which happens to women all the time if they’re being abused, in whatever way. We were definitely abused by the whole process”. She reports that while the SSP had previously been making headway in formulating policy on a number of women’s issues, it became difficult to be openly feminist within the SSP as “it ended up being paralysed, some people would perceive any policy paper or motion or discussion about gendered violence or anything like that as an attack on Tommy Sheridan.”
When in 2010 Tommy Sheridan was found guilty of committing perjury during his 2006 defamation action, the SSP no longer had any elected MSPs and the Scottish far left was broadly fragmented again. Focus group participants reported little cross-organisational achievements on the Scottish left during intervening years, with new left unity initiatives only seriously appearing after the formation of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government in the 2010 Westminster elections. Participants described the formation of Glasgow Against Education Cuts in the wake of student protests throughout the UK against higher education tuition fees. Once this network of student activists from a range of political backgrounds had been established, the group went on to stage an occupation in a University of Glasgow building which lasted for six months. Focus group participants described this occupation as central to building links amongst the left in Glasgow which are currently continuing through community campaigns and the Glasgow branch of the Coalition of Resistance, which this year held a march to commemorate International Women’s Day.
Focus group discussion also centred on the existence of a new cross-organisational group called the Glasgow Women’s Activist Forum, founded initially in response to the Occupy Glasgow campsite, a branch of the left wing Occupy Wall Street movement founded in New York, where in October 2011 a woman had been raped. Participants felt that beyond this issue, there was a need for the Glasgow Women’s Activist Forum to tackle a variety of problems faced by women who engage in left wing activism.
Tensions in the relationship between feminism and left wing activism in Scotland
The purpose of conducting interviews and focus groups on this topic was to establish in activists’ own words what their experiences have been in a variety of left wing organisations operating in Scotland. Former MSPs Carolyn Leckie and Frances Curran gave an insight into how gender issues have affected their lives in their roles as politicians and high-ranking far-left party members. In the case of the three focus groups, the aim was to hear how the issue of gender has affected women at the grassroots level of left wing organisations. These discussions enveloped experiences within a number of types of Scottish far left organisations including traditional Trotskyist socialist parties, anarchist organisations, trade unions, student groups, single issue campaigns, and recent left wing unity initiatives. What became clear throughout the interviews and focus groups was that regardless of what left wing organisation was being discussed, what level of activity these women had been involved in, or how much they individually interacted with feminist politics, all felt that there was some disparity in the way women and men were treated on the Scottish far left.
Firstly, participants identified some very blatant examples of sexist treatment of women on the left. They acknowledged that sexual assaults on women by male activists were not unheard of, with two participants experiencing this first hand while others had observed other women’s experiences of this. For one participant, she felt she had no option but to be open about her experiences when some sections of the Scottish Socialist Party were advocating “left unity” initiatives with those who had split with the SSP to form Solidarity. Upon informing some male activists that one of the reasons why she felt unable to back this idea was that, having been sexually assaulted by an activist who went on to join Solidarity, she would not be willing to put herself or other women in a position where they might have to campaign with this man or share a car with him, they responded by telling her “oh, so you’ve got a personal problem with him”. This type of response would seem to betray a fundamental reluctance to acknowledge one of the key tenets of second wave feminism, “the personal is political”, which sought to recognise the rights of women not just in the “public” sphere but also in aspects of their “private” lives such as the expression of sexuality. In her 1992 book Beyond Female Masochism Frigga Haug notes that “the separation of different spheres, of politics and private life is itself a manipulation of power”. For the focus group participant, the male activist’s words were indicative of a neglectful attitude to the safety of women who join activist groups, stating that she “would never have been in this guy’s company in my life if I hadn’t been politically active”. In this instance the reduction of women’s experiences of sexual assault and threatening behaviour to simply “personal issues” placed the socialist ideal of working class solidarity above women’s basic rights with regards to safety and comfort.
In more recent left wing unity initiatives, attempts have been made to establish what are known as “Safer Spaces policies” which essentially act as rules for behaviour within activist spaces. The Safer Spaces policy adopted by the Free Hetherington student occupation at the University of Glasgow clearly addressed several issues that feminists would identify as problems experienced by women such as not welcoming behaviour that threatened or demeaned others, not making generalisations about others’ identities and encouraging the challenging of privilege. What became clear for focus group participants who had been involved in the Free Hetherington, however, was that these policies were often not adhered to and that establishing ways to challenge or ban occupiers who broke these rules was a difficult struggle which led to many activists simply walking away from the political project. One participant noted some resistance to the self organisation of women within the occupation, resulting in an argument in a meeting with one man responding to her assertions that some women had felt uncomfortable in the occupation by saying that “maybe these situations weren’t happening, it was just in our heads and we were just being paranoid.”
What emerged as a particular problem for the participants was that the inclusive and open nature of the occupation, while positive as one of the first successful attempts in Scotland to bring together disparate groups of activists since the foundation of the SSP, meant that it was near impossible to establish rules regarding who wasn’t welcome in the space. While in a smaller, less ideologically broad left wing initiative attempts to challenge threatening and demeaning behaviour may have met with more immediate results, it proved difficult to achieve tangible results in a reasonable timeframe within the Free Hetherington, according to participants. Activists reported long meetings which descended into shouting and on several occasions, attempts by some occupiers to excuse minor sexual assault as innocent, culminating on the occupation’s final day with a perpetrator of sexual harassment who had previously been banned from the building locking himself in a room while demanding to be told the names of women who had raised complaints against him.
As the Free Hetherington was the first long term broad left political project of its kind in recent years in Scotland, it may seem reasonable for there may be some teething problems in establishing adequate rules that could accommodate a broad range of experiences and ideologies. However, for some participants, the initial presumption that everyone was roughly “on the same page” and that issues of safety and comfort would therefore not be too problematic meant that by the time women felt the need to challenge sexism, raise grievance procedures and self-organise, there was resistance to upsetting the “openness” of the occupation, which resulted in women’s problems being ignored for too long. One participant who had visited the occupation twice but decided not to go back felt that the atmosphere was one that was not welcoming to her as a woman, speaking of a man who had interrupted her conversation with another woman about music to “rant at us about how bad the music we were talking about was. He just kept going and I got the vibe that this was the sort of place where a lot of men take advantage of the openness of it to run a bit riot. It was nothing really overtly sexist but that was enough to make me think I didn’t want to go back there.”
Another major problem reported by a number of the focus group participants was the tendency of some men to use the left as a place to meet sexual partners. One participant related this to the recent discovery that police plants within the left wing movement in England had spent years engaging in sexual relationships with women activists, regardless of the issues this raised about whether their partners gave informed consent, and even fathering children with them. She felt that this tactic had been used by the police as a way to “ingratiate themselves” with the activist community, as sexual relationships between activists are common and a tendency not to question men who seek out partners within left wing groups can lead to situations where “charming, articulate” men can sometimes take advantage of women in activism. This was exacerbated, one focus group thought, by the initially appealing and welcoming nature of the left to women who have had traumatic experiences and been marginalised elsewhere. “You want to believe you’ve found your tribe,” one participant argued, “but it can’t really be a utopia while we’ve still got patriarchy and we’ve still got capitalism.”
In another focus group, a participant related this issue to the behaviour of men in positions of leadership on the left, claiming that a particularly problematic aspect of Tommy Sheridan’s behaviour within the Scottish Socialist Party was “using young women in the movement as disposable sex toys when they thought they were getting into a relationship”. In Downfall Alan McCombes details how party activist Katrine Trolle was repeatedly harassed by Sheridan into attending a sex club in Manchester with him and others. Trolle has stated that “during our affair he presented himself as caring and sensitive. I was gullible and naive back then, but I now firmly believe he cares about no one but himself. We are supposed to adore him and fall at his feet, and protect him at all costs”. That the most well known left wing figure in Scotland was not only engaging in this sort of behaviour, but also then personally cross examining Trolle in court about details of their sexual relationship while branding her a liar, drove a wedge between members of the Scottish Socialist Party who were or were not willing to excuse Sheridan’s actions. In this regard it forced members of the SSP to take positions on feminist issues which previously they might not have given much thought to, such as the line between sex clubs and prostitution, and the use of psychological coercion to encourage participation in sexual acts. For feminists in the SSP at the time, an atmosphere which Carolyn Leckie described as “women flocking around him like disciples and men hero-worshipping and protecting him” allowed what both Leckie and Frances Curran referred to in interviews as abuse of female activists to continue for much longer than a left wing organisation should have allowed. A concern was raised by one focus group participant that Sheridan’s treatment of Trolle was not “hidden misogyny” but rather featured prominently in every Scottish newspaper, causing her to question “how can we seriously ask women to join our party if our most famous politician is publicly humiliating female party members in the courts and the media?”
Further to this potential for some more predatory men to take advantage of women on the left in personal relationships, focus group participants also reported incidences of unwanted sexual attention and harassment directed at women, such as “men ‘jokingly’ asking women for threesomes with their girlfriends.” One participant reported being harassed by an older male anti-fascist activist while on a train with her friends, male members of the same socialist party, “it wasn’t just that they didn’t tell him to stop it but also that it was never mentioned again. No one asked how I felt about it.”
Beyond inappropriate sexualised behaviour, there were also reports of sexist remarks directed at women which they had presumed would be considered outdated and wrong in the modern far left. In one case a participant spoke of being outright disregarded for approach by a left wing organisation due to her gender, saying “on one occasion the CWI came over to me to offer me a newspaper, and then said something like “oh no, you’re a woman” and walked away.”
In the years preceding the split within the Scottish Socialist Party, feminist activists who experienced events within this party describe an increase in the use of unacceptable language aimed at women. The aim appears to have been to lend credibility to the idea that Tommy Sheridan was not lying about having visited sex clubs, but rather that his resignation had been driven by what Sheridan described as an “unsavoury cabal” of women who wanted to oust him from the leadership of the SSP, with then SSP activist Gail Sheridan stating in the 2006 defamation action “the women are all out to get you”. SSP activist Catriona Grant stated that “seemingly the women in the party wanted to get rid of him by means of a matriarchal coup. Sheridan found himself talking publicly about witches and dark arts”. The language of “witches” as a historical expression of misogyny had previously been acknowledged by Tommy Sheridan in his book ‘A Time To Rage’ [actually written by Joan McAlpine].
In Downfall Alan McCombes describes a National Council meeting of the Scottish Socialist Party where women were singled out for intense ridicule by Tommy Sheridan and his supporters over their refusal to support his 2006 defamation action against the News of the World: “Concentrating his fire on some of the women in the leadership of the party, he said that Catriona Grant had ‘almost been responsible for the death of my wife and my unborn baby’. This alluded to an email Catriona had posted suggesting that maybe all the facts should have been brought into the open back in November 2004.” McCombes also states that at this meeting a male activist screamed “you fucking evil, lying bitch!” at Frances Curran, while Carolyn Leckie received shouts of “Liar! Liar! Liar!” from another male activist “while making repeated stabbing gestures towards her”. The atmosphere of that meeting was described by Frances Curran as “threatening, it was abusive, it was anything but democratic. One man was screaming in my face and I was sitting behind other members of my branch from Paisley and they sat with their backs to me, they wouldn’t intervene. It happened to other women too, we weren’t allowed to have any voice. We had this rabid, hysterical mob trying to prevent us from speaking the truth, and it was really shocking”. Even after those SSP members who had shouted down women speaking on that occasion left the party to found Solidarity, Carolyn Leckie still found herself subject to heckling when talking about issues of sexism within the left.
Carolyn Leckie and Frances Curran both identified in interviews that the seeds of vicious opposition to expressions of feminism within the SSP were recognisable in 2002, when a motion was put to its conference arguing for 50:50 male/female representation in candidate selection for elections and internal party posts. They characterised the debate as “fractious”, “vociferous”, “extremely polarised” and “broadly speaking gender divided”. For Leckie, this is when she began to notice that she in particular attracted the attention of anti-feminists within the SSP, stating “I think there was a general feeling amongst some men of feeling threatened by assertive women. I started hearing rumours that people were saying that I was a careerist. There were things openly said at meetings, not aimed at individuals but “fears of careerism” and “fly-by-nights”, and suddenly I found myself being somebody who was a sort of controversial figure in the SSP”. At the debate on the motion the point was raised by one male activist that “Margaret Thatcher was a woman”, implying that women could not be trusted in positions of power. Leckie felt that opposition to the move towards gender balance in SSP internal positions was opportunistic on the part of some, noting that groups within the SSP who opposed the motion such as the CWI had never opposed gender balance within the trade union Unison in which they were also active.
For one focus group participant, the problems of serious sexist behaviour within left wing organisations were exacerbated by an unwillingness to genuinely confront it for fear of upsetting the dynamic of the group, arguing that “abuse can be perpetuated by people staying in there and refusing to cut people off.” One focus group agreed that a uniquely problematic aspect of the culture of the left for women who have been mistreated by fellow activists is the tense relationship between the left and traditional forces of authority, stating that “because you’re on the left you can’t easily go to the police or courts or something because the police are the enemy, so who do you go to?” If there is an unwillingness or inability to establish robust internal methods for dealing with inappropriate behaviour as seen in the Free Hetherington occupation, where one participant stated there was particular hostility towards allowing police in the building following a police eviction attempt and a lack of police response to a physical assault, this can create an atmosphere which tacitly encourages women to stay silent about problems as there is no adequate way for their complaints to be heard.
While these examples of serious mistreatment of women on the left were very worrying and at times off-putting for focus group participants, a number raised the point that it could often be harder to challenge the more subtle aspects of sexist practices in left wing organisations. With the issues they raised regarding general perceptions of and attitudes towards women, they found it became harder to pinpoint precisely how to challenge men when they were not behaving in a manner that other men would be willing to accept was overtly sexist or threatening. In many cases these examples echoed how women are treated in wider society, but it was felt that some of these attitudes were endemic specifically to the culture of the left. In turn, these more subtle behaviours towards women fed into a culture which made it harder for women to challenge serious sexist misconduct.
It was reported in the focus groups that even today, women within activist groups are still more likely to fulfil administration duties, while male activists tended to take on organising roles. When it came to organising around issues that related to women, they found that often men stepped back entirely from this and women had to do most of the work in order to take these issues forward. Of the recent International Women’s Day march organised by the Glasgow Coalition of Resistance, intended to raise the issue of the disproportionate effect of government budget cuts on women, one participant noted that “it was largely left to a small group of women to organise that, which would never happen with something like a strike day, it’s sort of seen as a niche issue”. Focus group participants noted that this was a complex problem, as some men had taken on board that women were uncomfortable with men being too involved in women’s issues, but it was also felt that at times this led to an unfair burden on women to take on a lot of tasks in order to make sure that these issues were raised at all. It became clear that striking an appropriate balance in terms of men’s involvement in feminist issues was crucial to participants.
Some participants also stated their belief that the expression of feminism within left wing groups was treated as secondary to “real class politics” and that they were expected to pursue activism around women’s issues in their own time, “like a hobby”. One participant described her anger upon learning that members of her organisation who had wished to nominate her for a position had been discouraged from doing so by a male paid party worker who described her as having “dropped out of activity”, stating that “I’ve been really active but it’s been feminist activity that I’ve been doing.” Another participant felt that too much expectation was placed on women on the left to prove how active they were in outward displays of their politics: “I do political stuff all the time, I go into Topman and spit on all the t-shirts that are sexist every time I go in, and I keep an eye on women on the bus who I think are being sized up by somebody else for a fight or an argument. Women have to do a lot of emotionally draining things every day, especially if they are in a less gender equal relationship, so it bothers me when male activists harass me at university and ask why I’m not involved in politics. I am, it’s just not visible to them”. Participants discussed how activists who attended demonstrations or handed out leaflets were seen to be more active than women who focused on feminist activity. One participant felt that “sometimes people hold your feminism against you. If you don’t have a lot of time for other kinds of activism but you feel it’s necessary to pop in every now and again to say “you’re doing something that excludes women”, people can take the attitude of “what right have you got to comment because you’re never here”, but I feel that if I don’t point out where something is sexist, who else will?”
Following on from this, another problem that was expressed in all three focus groups was that men’s opinions were often taken more seriously within activist meetings while women were more likely to be ignored, even when both were raising the same points. One participant had raised the idea of a grievance policy in several meetings at the Free Hetherington occupation but the idea was not adopted until a male activist suggested it at a later date. For another participant, even in a case where a sympathetic male activist had pointed out to a meeting that the idea he was promoting had already been mentioned by her earlier in the meeting, other attendees still referred to it as the male activist’s idea. While participants were in favour of male activists arguing for feminist analysis in meetings, there was something clearly remiss in the fact that left wing organisations were more inclined to listen to men making feminist arguments than women.
In Spade & Valentine’s 2007 book The Kaleidoscope of Gender they discuss the socialisation of gender with regards to speaking:
“We know from research that the social pattern in mixed-gender groups is that men talk more often than women … Girls are encouraged to use a nice voice and not talk too much. Later, as they grow older and join mixed-gender groups at work or play, women’s voices are often ignored and women are subordinated as they monitor what they say and how often they talk, and check to make sure they are not dominating the conversation.”
Expressions of these socialised aspects of speech were clearly observed by women throughout the focus groups in their experiences of left wing activism. Meetings emerged as a common arena for problematic behaviours towards women throughout the focus groups. A variety of what some participants referred to as “silencing techniques” were mentioned that either dismissed women’s contributions to discussions, or created an atmosphere in which they were discouraged from speaking in the first place. One participant felt that in being both young and a woman she was patronised “tenfold” in discussions and described often being ignored, saying “sometimes when I raise a point no one will even engage with me, never mind respect my opinion.” Another participant described one man’s disbelief that she had been invited to speak at a meeting, asking her while she sat at the top table “excuse me hen, when’s the speaker getting here?”
Aside from feeling dismissed when they did speak, participants in one focus group believed that the way meetings were set up allowed some men the floor for so long that other activists would not get the chance to even raise issues they wished to speak on. One participant described “men speaking for 50 minutes, plus writing position papers on every issue which had to be discussed, meaning that we ran out of time and if we had something we wanted to bring up it wouldn’t even see the light of day.” Another participant wondered whether the left in particular attracts a layer of men seeking positions of leadership, stating “there’s a lot of self-righteousness and you get some really dominant male characters on the left who really like the sound of their own voices, at the expense of women and less vocal men.”
In response to the tendency within left wing organisations to allow the loudest voices to be heard, some participants reported feeling that they needed to “behave a bit like men” in order to get a chance to speak in meetings. For Frances Curran, she felt that within her activism she had adapted to ”male privilege, male domination, male-gendered behaviour, male language, and the whole male culture. Within the last ten years I’ve become more interested in openly challenging that, naming it and trying to change it”. Carolyn Leckie also discussed this within her experiences, stating “I think for everybody, including women who’ve been socialised in a left wing environment, it’s about how you conduct politics. That whole male, macho way of doing things, which I’ve done in the past because you end up needing to in order to be heard, it just leaves me cold – standing up, speaking for three minutes, doing a bit of rabble rousing and a bit of chest beating and see how many votes you can get”. In speaking more loudly and demanding to have points discussed, however, some focus group participants felt that there was a double standard at play as women were then open to accusations of “aggression, or taking the wrong tone, which then meant that our points were rendered invalid”. German feminist Frigga Haug notes that Marxist theorist Rosa Luxemburg has traditionally been “relegated to the category of masculine women, that is to say, one of those women who had to deny their femininity and conform to the masculine world in order to achieve success”. Carolyn Leckie spoke of the words of some men in the Scottish Socialist Party during its debate over 50:50 gender representation in party positions that women in the SSP did not need these structures in place in order to be heard as they were “no shrinking violets.” This interpretation of women within left wing organisations would seem to fundamentally misunderstand the nuanced nature of gender socialisation, a process which is reinforced continuously throughout people’s lives.
It was clear that, whether intentional on the part of male activists or not, these ways of conducting meetings for the benefit of “male” gendered voices are deeply embedded within the practices of the Scottish left. Many of these tactics can be found to privilege certain voices in all aspects of life, including the workplace and within personal relationships, but the culture of the left regarding bringing ideas to meetings in order to set the political agenda for the group unquestioningly reproduces these unequal power structures and ultimately leads to the marginalisation of women’s voices in the outcomes of political discussions. If it is significantly easier for more dominant voices to bring ideas to the group, the group’s agenda will in turn be set by those voices.
Where efforts have been made to ensure that left wing meetings are not solely populated by men, focus group participants described this as sometimes amounting to “tokenism”, whereby a member of a marginalised group has been invited in order for the group to appear diverse rather than through a genuine interest in their experiences. For one participant, entering a meeting with mainly male attendees carried some risks – “If I come to the meeting am I going to be the only woman there? Am I going to be the only feminist there? Are they going to pound me with questions? Will I need to defend all of feminism all on my own? Even if the invitation was well-meaning, it’s not always easy to put yourself in that situation”. For other participants, there was a problem with the consideration of women’s experiences, with women often feeling pressured to share difficult experiences in order to prove that what they were discussing was genuinely an issue for women while at the same time navigating the possibility that their lived experience might be disregarded, which one focus group agreed was “traumatic”. A “tendency to pontificate on issues that for women are real life occurrences with consequences” amongst some left wing groups was deemed unwelcoming to women by one participant. Another participant raised an issue which she called “mansplaining” – whereby a man presumes to know more about what a woman is discussing than she does – which became particularly problematic for participants when male activists applied their own interpretations to women’s lived experiences.
For a participant who had experienced the 2006 split of the SSP, her belief that those activists who left to form Solidarity were less committed to understanding and challenging the marginalisation of socially disadvantaged groups was intensified upon attending two meetings at the time of this split, one for those remaining in the SSP and another for those founding the breakaway party Solidarity. While she said that the former meeting was significantly populated by women and younger activists, the latter was mainly male trade unionists. She noted her disappointment that a male activist approached a group of men outside the Solidarity meeting while ignoring her in order to announce that “this is a much more serious political crowd than yesterday”. She expressed her feelings towards this activist’s attitude, saying “you have done nothing, you’ve sniped from the sidelines while I have risked everything to save a decent socialist alternative for the people of Scotland and you’re saying I’m not politically serious?”
This belief that in the eyes of some male activists, women were seen as less serious or less committed to left wing movements was echoed in the focus groups. One participant believed that this was tied up with historical representations of working class politics as an intrinsically male pursuit, noting that a friend had described a ‘typical’ Labour councillor which caused her to realise that “the caricature of a Labour councillor is always male”. While it was felt that the Scottish left was right to be proud of its radical history such as the Red Clydeside era, it was noted that by and large, the experiences of women were absent when these histories were told. One participant noted that while there are numerous memorials to historical Scottish left wing activists John MacLean and James Connolly, the sole statue commemorating Mary Barbour, Glasgow’s first female Labour councillor and an activist central to the organisation of the women-led Clydeside Rent Strikes, was placed indoors at the Govan Pearce Institute. Participants noted that this reflected the traditional public-private distinction between men and women, where politics was regarded as a public activity and therefore not for women. Another participant who had grown up in a mining family felt that the tendency was to “sanitise” women’s history on the left, such as the presentation of miner’s wives as “standing by their men” which she felt tended to erase the reality of women’s lives, including high rates of domestic abuse. She also characterised the left as a place where it was difficult to raise alternative interpretations of women’s history, describing how a small number of men actually left the Scottish Socialist Party after she raised these points on an online discussion forum. For some participants, this perception of the left as a male arena was intensified in Scotland by the recent history of “charismatic” male figures such as Tommy Sheridan and George Galloway and how these men were represented in the Scottish media. All three focus groups discussed what they saw as a “macho west of Scotland culture” within the Scottish left.
The Scottish Socialist Party have identified that there was a problem with the way that Tommy Sheridan as its most famous political asset was able to utilise media connections to place pressure upon women in the SSP not to tell the truth regarding his 2006 court case lest they face public humiliation. In Downfall Alan McCombes states that in 2004 Sheridan encouraged the Scottish Mirror to run a front page article titled ‘Lovers Plotted to Axe Tommy‘, referring to a relationship between SSP party workers Alan McCombes and Carolyn Leckie, because “the myth of the scheming blonde was too good a story for some middle-aged male journalists to question”. During Sheridan’s 2006 defamation case against the News of the World regarding its allegations about his sex life Frances Curran, Rosie Kane and Carolyn Leckie, all SSP MSPs at the time, were singled out in a Daily Record interview with Sheridan for “smiling” as they walked to court, the implication being that those women in particular were pleased to be giving evidence against Sheridan. The SSP’s female MSPs always faced more intense media scrutiny over their appearance, demeanour and words than male SSP politicians, particularly seen in the response to Rosie Kane’s decision to wear jeans in the Scottish Parliament, commentary on which focused on both her gender and her social class. What is clearly problematic within the left is the exploitation of this media tendency to over-scrutinise female politicians by male activists for political gain.
The perceived ideological incompatibility of feminism and the left
It became clear throughout the focus groups that there remains a strand of left wing politics which believes that feminist arguments have no place within leftist movements. Participants had experienced these arguments in a variety of forms: “feminism is not a class issue”, “these issues only matter if they directly intersect with class”, “men are just as disadvantaged by patriarchy as women”, “it is wrong to say that working class men have privilege”, “feminism is a distraction from the real struggle”, “we can discuss these issues after the revolution” and “identity politics are bourgeois”.
A rejection of feminism within the SSP was expressed when Tommy Sheridan released an open letter shortly before his 2006 defamation action claiming “We are a class-based socialist party. Not a gender-obsessed discussion group. Our socialist principles and class-identity defines us first. Not our gender or sexual orientation.” For Alan McCombes, the attempt to paint the issue of Sheridan pursuing a false defamation case as a problem of jealous “gender-obsessed” feminist women within the party was both an expression of misogyny and a case of “political expediency” in utilising the language of anti-feminism to gain support from less progressive sections of the SSP, given that Sheridan had not displayed an ideological hostility to feminism in the past. Indeed, as McCombes points out, he had supported the 50:50 gender balance motion within the SSP, and had written in a column for the Scottish Mirror in 2004 that “It’s always the women who get the blame” in relation to the issue of male infidelity [hahahahahaha].
The claim that feminists on the left in Scotland “talk too much” about women’s issues is one that focus group participants said had been levelled at them. One focus group discussed feeling that there was never a time which was deemed appropriate to raise women’s issues outside of women-only spaces, with women who challenged men for speaking down to women while discussing other topics told that they were “derailing the topic and making it about women”, while those who specifically raised women’s issues for discussion had been told that what there were more pressing topics to be discussed, “such as the Greek financial crisis.”
One participant felt that this reflected a regression in wider society’s attitude to feminism in recent years, stating that “there’s so many media messages trying to ridicule people and shame them for speaking out against sexism. It’s like anyone who puts her head above the parapet is fair game and if you’re a man and you speak out then they say you’re henpecked.” The Observer noted the recent experiences of women bloggers on the internet as consistent targets for online threats and hateful messages on the basis of their gender, particularly feminist writer Laurie Penny.
For some participants, there was a distinction between a left wing organisation which says that it supports equality for women, and one which is committed to putting into practice the feminist understandings of gender politics that they felt were required in order for this to be achieved. Feminists involved in protest camp Occupy London expressed concern that Wikileaks spokesperson Julian Assange had been invited to speak on the platform despite facing accusations of rape, and in Glasgow focus group participants expressed concern at “casual attitudes towards the seriousness of sexual assault” within Occupy Glasgow. For one participant, this was indicative of some left wing organisations tendency to see “all broadly left leaning enemies of capitalism and the government as friends or assets to the movement”, regardless of concerns about other forms of oppression and marginalisation.
The focus on class within left wing understandings of feminism meant that some participants felt that activists could often fail to approach gender issues with a nuanced analysis. One participant stated that a small example of this had occurred at a conference of the Scottish Socialist Youth, the SSP’s autonomous youth wing, where delegates had been discussing songs by pop artists Rihanna and Beyonce which had feminist themes. While most of the delegates felt that this was a positive message for these artists to be sending, some delegates took the position that “we shouldn’t support them because they are capitalists, they’re businesswomen”, which the participant thought misunderstood the way that women relate to how they are oppressed not just by capitalism but by patriarchy, and women’s desire to see themselves represented as strong in the media. For another participant, the tendency of the left to only understand how to relate to women’s issues in economic terms ignored vital aspects of the nature of patriarchy. In her experiences in Scottish Militant Labour the group had discussed possible solutions to domestic violence, concluding that “women had to have equal pay because if we had equal pay then we would be able to leave abusive relationships and if refuges were properly funded we’d have somewhere to go. I don’t want to diminish that experience because it was the first time that I sat down and talked about domestic violence, it was really important for me and I met incredible women when I was doing that, but the whole idea of why men batter women just wasn’t addressed because you can’t boil that down to nice, easy economic answers”. Another participant felt that this was a particular problem within democratic centralist organisations like the Socialist Workers Party where dissent from the party line was discouraged, so “the ideology can become all consuming and it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that what this organisation produces is the right answer.”
Some participants felt that amongst certain types of left wing organisations, there was an unwillingness to challenge or accept criticism of the theoretical groundings of their ideology. In Marx and Engels’s writings there is little understanding of the nature of women’s oppression and how power relations are gendered. One focus group participant stated “I think the ideologies are quite static so it would be hard to re-appropriate them so that they’re inclusive”. Another participant felt there was a tendency to reduce feminism to its historical successes while shying away from engaging with debates in modern feminist theory. Of the left’s theoretical traditions, one participant said: “it’s method and ideology that have been inherited and handed down encased in protective materials gingerly from generation to generation because that’s the way that things were done, and both the ways of working and the ideas we’re working with exclude women.”
Participants in one focus group felt that in order for male activists to feel empathy for women’s experiences, they had to “immerse” themselves in acknowledging the effect that patriarchal systems of oppression have on women, with one participant relating this to her experiences as a white immigrant worker in a country with a 70% Black population where she “had to confront my own racism, sometimes kicking and screaming and didn’t want to admit it. But I did confront it and I don’t understand why some men are so opposed to being confronted with the reality of their own male privilege, if they consider themselves revolutionary.” For Carolyn Leckie, it was easier for some men on the left to recognise sexist behaviours in other men: “I think some men were happy to identify with feminist politics as long as they were attacking Tommy Sheridan, but when it starts to actually be about them as well, then I think a lot of the ground was lost.”
Participants noted that an unwillingness to challenge ingrained ideas about privilege could occur within feminist movements also, stating that the issue of the inclusion of trans or non-binary gendered activists had become a point of argument in several feminist organisations they had worked with. However, one participant felt that “if you understand that people experience different kinds of oppression on the basis of intersectionality, which I think generally feminists are more willing to accept these days, then it becomes easier to challenge yourself and accept that sometimes your instincts might be wrong and try not to get defensive about that. I think that’s what’s missing from some socialist men’s understanding of oppression and power.”
Positive relations between feminism and left wing activism in Scotland
It was clear throughout all focus groups and interviews that women activists have identified significant problems with the way that gender issues are approached by the Scottish left, and with how women are often treated within organisations. However, several participants also believed that there were positive aspects of the relationship between feminism and the Scottish left to acknowledge. There was a strong sense within the focus groups that receptiveness to feminism amongst the Scottish left had increased over recent years, which gave some participants hope that this trend would continue.
A participant involved with the International Socialist Group, an organisation formed in Scotland from a split with the Socialist Worker’s Party in 2011 with primarily young members, described how it had recently taken a vote to establish itself as an explicitly Marxist Feminist organisation. The willingness of various left wing groups to mention a commitment to feminism within their constitutions was reported as having improved in recent years. One participant who had been involved in the Scottish left for two decades believed “there at least is a willingness to acknowledge feminism now, which is weak but it’s at least a big step forward from what I was involved in before. In Scottish Militant Labour we did have women’s self organisation but it never fed back into the main group, which it usually does now.” Within one participant’s trade union branch, she had noticed a change in recent years whereby women were more likely to be in charge of meetings, and noted that “with the new Equality and Diversity Act we’ve all had new training now, and I noticed a big difference at the last meeting I was at.”
A young participant involved in the Scottish Socialist Youth felt that when she joined the group two years ago, most of the male members seemed to “just get it” with regards to feminist politics, although there were undoubtedly some problems. An older participant involved in the same organisation noted that “in the early days of SSY we had to have the debate over women’s self organisation and why it was important. We don’t always get it 100% right but if young women can join now and feel like they’re not having to go through these old arguments then that is so positive and proves that things can get better if people make it a priority.”
For a participant who had been involved in the Scottish Socialist Party throughout its 2006 split, her experiences within the ‘United Left’ platform within the SSP were largely positive. In her view the platform acted as a “support group” for some members while the party was being “split along the fault line of gender politics, but we also did a lot of things like bring in radical education methods and change the culture of meetings to make the party more democratic”. In challenging how meetings were set up within the SSP they established methods which would encourage all attendees to speak and broke meetings down into smaller groups which then fed back to the wider meeting, meaning that more voices could be heard. For that participant, the decision to disband the United Left was “probably a mistake. We didn’t want to dominate, but I think we should have been a bit more proud of our feminism and really took it forward.”
A number of participants who had been involved with the Free Hetherington occupation felt that, despite serious problems with some male occupiers, the experience had allowed many of them to develop a strong feminist critique of the issues faced by women within activism. One participant stated that she had witnessed a number of women who initially had not identified as feminists change their minds through the experience of the occupation and through discussion with other women in activism. Another participant felt that while in the past the Scottish left has been particularly “tribal”, allowing for a certain amount of blaming other groups for “being the sexist ones”, now that the left are working together on joint initiatives more frequently there has been a level of acceptance that “these problems exist across the board”, opening up opportunities for women to work together to challenge sexist practices. Important for a number of participants also was the development of “a strong group of male allies who saw what happened at the Free Hetherington and at Occupy Glasgow and elsewhere who want to be on board with fighting sexism and who are open to being challenged.”
It was believed by one participant that the growth of the internet made it easier for feminist activists to point others in the direction of feminist resources online, with the consequence that they had to devote less time to repetitive debates. She expressed her surprise when recently after sending a link to a male activist explaining the concept developed by feminists online of ‘concern trolling’, whereby someone expresses support for feminism only with specific qualifications regarding how feminism presents itself, he responded taking on board her points: “It was the first time in my life that someone took it positively and I didn’t have to go into a long explanation about how he had been patronising.”
For many participants, one of the most rewarding aspects of their involvement in the Scottish far left had been the opportunity to meet and learn from other women. Even though these women’s experiences and wealth of knowledge were rarely recorded in the history of the left, they had been central to the development of younger women activists’ politics. One focus group felt this echoed how knowledge is passed on from mother to daughter, with one participant stating “other women’s amazing experiences made a huge impression on me, but it doesn’t really have any other means of expression apart from the influence on the women they inspire.”
Responses to the problem
Once it had been established unanimously throughout the interviews and focus groups that the participants believe there are a number of problems facing women on the Scottish left, there was discussion of what solutions there may be.
For Frances Curran, it was key that the Scottish left learned from its experiences: “I think socialist and left wing politics is dead in the water if it doesn’t actually learn the lessons. I wouldn’t claim that we’re at the end of this road, I think we’re at the very beginning, but I can’t see feminism not being a big part of the debate in the SSP on any issue now that we discuss.”
Glasgow Women’s Activist Forum
For participants who had experienced sexism within the Free Hetherington occupation, what they saw as a lacklustre and “victim blaming” response to feminist criticism within the Occupy Glasgow camp following a rape that occurred onsite which they found “incredibly upsetting” forced them into action. Activists from a variety of left wing backgrounds who primarily knew each other through the Free Hetherington discussed the need for intervention, deciding to contact Green Party councillor Martha Wardrop to ask her to rescind her support of the Occupy Glasgow camp. In searching for a name to call the group of women who had gathered to discuss the issue, they settled on ‘Glasgow Women’s Activist Forum’ for the purpose of making phone calls and releasing a statement, writing “Our decision to write this letter is not based on political or ideological rejections of the Occupy movement, but is motivated by a very real concern for the physical and emotional well-being of all those involved in Occupy Glasgow, with specific concern for women and vulnerable people”. Participants discussed their realisation that no organisation like the Glasgow Women’s Activist Forum (GWAF) existed, with activists expressing a shared sense that an organisation of that description could be useful in tackling the problems faced by women who participate in left wing activism in the city.
From there, women organised meetings under the name of GWAF to establish the aims it wished to achieve, and which methods it would utilise. In the months since its foundation, GWAF’s primary aim has been to promote the inclusion and safety of women within activism in Glasgow. In order to achieve this, aside from allowing women in activism a safe place to share their concerns, it has begun to develop what focus group participants described as a “toolkit” for activists to use to counter inappropriate and sexist behaviour. Participants felt that the skills and knowledge required to deal sensitively and appropriately with different situations was key to making the left a more welcoming atmosphere for women. They acknowledged that dealing with inappropriate behaviour while on a demonstration required a different approach to dealing with it within organisations or at different kinds of events, and wished to provide organisations with “supportive documentation” to make dealing with these problems easier and faster. They hoped in the future to be able to provide training to activists on how to manage a variety of potential situations. Further to this, GWAF members have been working on a scheme similar to that which is used by drinking establishments in some cities whereby “organisations sign up to the scheme and if you ban someone who’s behaved really inappropriately, everybody else who signs up to the scheme also bans them, knows who they are and has a picture of them. It’s for the really egregious cases, not people who are just a bit annoying, but ones who actually do harm”. Participants noted the case of a man who was well known amongst London activists to have sexually assaulted women at the Occupy London camp who then moved to Edinburgh where he sexually assaulted another woman: “we felt that if we can work out a way for this kind of information to be shared ahead of time we could prevent something like that from happening in future”. Participants stated that they were in discussions with Edinburgh activists to set up an Edinburgh Women’s Activist Forum due to the similar experiences of women in left wing organisations there. A GWAF supporters group was also set up in which male activists could participate, meeting with the women’s group for joint discussions.
Focus group participants acknowledged that there were limitations to working within a group like GWAF. One participant who had been heavily involved in GWAF noted that attendance had dropped at recent meetings, which they believed was an issue of finding the time for GWAF amongst other commitments. Another participant worried that there was the potential for women’s activism to become even more isolated from the broader left, and felt that there was a problem with “having to think in terms of providing organisations with incentives or threats to do anything involving feminism. It feels wrong that we’re in this position where we have to do that, especially to get organisations to adopt a Safer Spaces policy”. For a participant in another focus group, she felt that “a lot of men know how to put themselves across as feminist, they would sign up to a Safer Spaces policy if they had to, but I feel that making them sign bureaucratic documents doesn’t really change their behaviour, there needs to be a change in culture. I think there is a tendency amongst feminist organisations to be a bit inward looking, to be policy-based rather than activism-based.”
For one participant, the experience of working within GWAF had caused her to question “whether you really need the left to do feminism or whether it’s just something that holds it back”. She felt that at times it has seemed like GWAF mostly functions as a support group for women who feel the need to participate in both feminist and left wing activism. However, that in spite of resistance from other activists within Scotland’s far left there remains a demand amongst women to integrate these forms of activism, connected to their intersectional experiences of class and gender-based oppression, shows that there is clearly a space for a group like GWAF to make an impact on the culture of the left in Glasgow.
The alienation of women on the left
For some women however, their experiences with male gendered behaviour within left wing activism has made the problems seem insurmountable. Once a left wing MSP who sat on her party’s Executive Committee, Carolyn Leckie no longer attends Scottish Socialist Party meetings nor most organised political events, not entirely through choice [2013 update – Carolyn is involved in the Women For Independence campaign and you can sometimes catch her on telly discussing it]. She stated that “there are movements that have sprung up, and things that I think “I would quite like to go to that”, but the idea of having to be in the same company as some of the people that egged Tommy Sheridan on, and were party to my and a lot of other people’s character assassination, it just produces physical symptoms”. Presently, she considers her political energies best spent in work directly associated with feminism, a sentiment that was echoed by some focus group participants. For women in the focus groups who had dropped out of activism, or redirected their activism towards more explicitly feminist ventures, reasons given were exhaustion from a feeling of constantly fighting the same battles over gender politics, feeling uncomfortable around certain men who have behaved inappropriately or women who have undermined efforts to build an understanding of feminist politics into left wing movements, feeling sidelined by male-led meetings, and developing “antennae for spotting sexist men through years of experience” which leads them to deliberately stay out of certain organisations and events where they predict women won’t be taken seriously.
For one focus group, the most important skill that women needed to challenge sexist practices on the left was confidence, the ability to “say something to someone that might be deemed ‘not nice’ in another situation, but actually is entirely appropriate in this situation”. If the Glasgow Women’s Activist Forum is able to overcome its obstacles and provide women in activism with the confidence and support to challenge where necessary, they hope that in future less women will feel the need to drop out of left wing activism in Scotland.
Throughout the course of this research I have related the experiences of women on the Scottish far left to the key questions outlined at the beginning of this paper. It is clear that there is a bridge to cross for the Scottish left in relating its theory on women’s oppression to the reality of how oppression is experienced by women, especially within its own organisations. The significant areas of tension reported between feminism and left wing organisations will not be resolved through empty rhetoric, but through serious trusting and acceptance of women’s experiences and effort on the part of all activists to understand the complex nature of power structures beyond economic disparities.
It became clear throughout this research that while inequality and marginalisation is experienced in all aspects of women’s lives, there is a culture within left wing organisations that allows this to thrive. In Scotland in particular, the “macho west of Scotland” image of the left could sometimes intensify the left’s appeal to traditional expressions of masculinity and exclude women.
In exploring the case of the Glasgow Women’s Activist Forum, it is obvious that women on the Scottish left do not identify with expressions of women’s issues as solely an issue of capitalist exploitation. The attempt to hold individual male activists’ inappropriate behaviour to account makes a clear break with traditional left wing understandings of women’s oppression as a solely class-based matter.
To return to the key points outlined at the beginning of this research, it is clear that the left has failed to adequately address women’s experiences within its approach to class and gender politics. However, the experience of what can fairly be described as trauma related to sexist behaviour as seen in the examples of the Scottish Socialist Party, the Free Hetherington and in the wake of the rape at Occupy Glasgow has clearly played a role in raising the feminist consciousness of activists within relatively short periods of time. This does not necessarily reflect a genuine commitment amongst some activists to translate increased awareness of women’s experiences within left wing organisations to practical changes. As a result, sexist practices within the left can clearly be seen to be responsible for the loss of women activists to exhaustion and loss of idealism. If the Scottish left is to truly overcome these barriers to women’s participation, acknowledgement of the experiences, words and ideas of women on the left is crucial.
Downfall – The Tommy Sheridan Story, Alan McCombes 2011. This deals with the detail of the split in the SSP and the two related court cases.
A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story, Elaine Brown 1992. An autobiography of the only female chairman of the Black Panther Party, detailing her experiences as a Black woman in America and the sexism of the Panthers.
Beyond the Fragments – Feminism and the Making of Socialism, Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal and Hillary Wainwright, 1979. Discussses experiences on the English left and women’s movements throughout the 1970s.
Beyond Female Masochism, Frigga Haug 1992. Explores the meaning of oppression to both women’s movements and labour movements.
The truth about Tommy Sheridan, Scottish Socialist Youth 2010. An epic but accessible telling of the story of Tommy Sheridan and the SSP, from the perspective of the SSP’s youth wing.