The F Word: 100 Years Of Scottish Feminism
As women from all over Scotland come together to celebrate the centenary of a landmark Suffragette march, Kirstin Innes looks at over 100 years of Scottish women’s activism and wonders when feminism became a dirty word
One hundred years ago this fortnight thousands of women from all over Scotland descended on Princes Street in one of the biggest Suffragette marches the country would ever see. Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst were the keynote speakers and guests of honour. Those marching included a group of the very recent first female graduates from Edinburgh University and a group of fishwives from Musselburgh. Many of the women dressed up as female icons from history, from Mary Queen of Scots to Protestant protestor Jenny Geddes.
On Saturday 10 October 2009, thousands of women from all over Scotland and beyond are going to gather at Bruntsfield Links and make their way to Calton Hill (they’ve had to alter their plans to trace the original route somewhat, as the Princes Street tramworks wait for no woman). The march has been organised by a group of volunteers, women’s historians and community workers calling themselves Gude Cause (they took the name from a banner shown in one of the photographs of the 1909 march, which read ‘A Gude Cause Maks a Strong Arm’).
‘The idea originated round about the time of the 2007 Scottish elections,’ explains Gude Cause co-ordinator Helen Kay. ‘The Scotsman published an ICM poll saying that less than 45% of Scottish women registered to vote were considering voting in the upcoming election. Far less than the men. They just didn’t think it was worthwhile. And after everything the Suffragettes had gone through to get us the vote in the first place! Janet Fenton, one of the main organisers behind Gude Cause, felt she couldn’t just let this pass, and wanted to get people talking about it. So, after consulting with some women’s historians, we came up with the idea of a commemorative centenary march.
‘Gude Cause’s aims are threefold: to remember the work of the Suffragette movement, to celebrate women’s achievements in the intervening years, and to look at what still needs to be done. We want to encourage women of all ages to come together and celebrate, but also to educate and raise awareness of the history and need for women’s activism.’
And there is, still, a need. Although the march has been planned for two years, its occurrence now feels timely, coming right after an Edinburgh Festival Fringe at which one of the most talked-about and best-rated shows, Trilogy, by Glasgow based artist Nic Green, was an unapologetic three-hour examination of the state of contemporary feminism. Trilogy, which is now set for a high profile tour of the UK starting at London’s Barbican Theatre, reignited and reclaimed a movement, and indeed a word, which seems to have fallen out of fashion and become an easy target of neo-laddish ridicule. ‘Feminist’ has become synonymous in mainstream culture with humourlessness. Bra-burning. Sniggering about hairy armpits. All the tired old stereotypes.
‘When media commentators wrote about Trilogy, when people recommended it to their friends,’ says Green, ‘they usually felt they had to preface it by saying, “Yes, this is a feminist piece, but it’s not that kind of feminism! It’s not what you’d expect from feminism!” They had to start off with an explanation – an apology, in fact – explain their way out of the word feminism, because it has so many negative connotations attached to it.
‘Women are afraid to claim that word for themselves these days. The attitude to feminism is so negative. There’s still that stigma. It’s scorned, it’s ridiculed, it’s thought of as outdated. And what those campaigners had to say in the 1970s, earlier – it’s still relevant today.’
‘Well, this is the trouble, isn’t it,’ says Anna Span, the high profile porn director and active member of the organisation Feminists Against Censorship. ‘“Feminism” has become this easy phrase that people associate with one, fairly rigid system of belief: second-wave 70s feminism. It’s a fundamentalist kind of feminism, all black and white. Saying you’re a feminist, and not taking it any further than that is a bit like saying you’re a politician and not explaining what party you belong to. I call myself a feminist because I know enough about the movement to know that it’s OK for me to call myself a feminist and for someone who’s completely opposed to the work I do to call themself a feminist, too. It’s a broad church.’
Perhaps people responded so positively to Trilogy in part because, like the Gude Cause campaign is now aiming to do, it linked the energy of early feminist movements simply and directly to contemporary issues affecting women, most specifically societal and media pressure about body image. It chimed with people in ways they hadn’t thought ‘feminism’ could.
‘People say, “Well, you’ve got equal pay. What more do you need?”’ says Green, laughing. ‘God! It doesn’t stop there! That’s just one tiny element that’s related to economics! Feminism is related to everything! I think that’s what’s happened, it’s become really boxed into these little taglines or catchphrases, and reduced down to a singular little issue or politic which doesn’t do any good because the world isn’t like that.’ Green herself does a lot of outreach work in schools in deprived areas, working with teenagers. ‘I ask the girls what they want to be, what their aspirations are, and they say things like “I wanna be a footballer’s wife” – and then we have to have conversations about how that’s not really a vocation, that’s more a circumstance …’
Green, and the women involved in Trilogy, will all be taking part in the upcoming march on Saturday. They’ll be dressing up as women they admire – whether that be their mothers or grandmothers, or women who achieved prominence in various fields and have gone under-recognised (Green mentions Annie Londonderry and Lynn Marguilis – go on, look them up). Their banner is going to read Make Your Own Herstory.
The Gude Cause March takes place on Sun 10 Oct. To register go to www.gudecause.org.uk.
For more information on Nic Green's Make Your Own Herstory campaign, visit www.makeyourownherstory.org