Debate: Celebrating 100 Years of Women's Right to Vote
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
06 February 2018
It is a pleasure and a privilege to move today’s motion. There’s an old Scots proverb which was used on suffragist and suffragette banners. The first part later provided the title for a history of our suffragist movement. It says simply “a guid cause makes a strong arm”.
The guid cause we’re honouring today was given further strength by the commitment of tens of thousands of women, and also many men, from right across the country. By 1914, there were suffrage associations in every part of Scotland – from Orkney and Shetland to Kirkcudbright and North Berwick.
Indeed, if you look for them, you can see powerful symbols of the suffrage campaign across Scotland. When I was a student at Glasgow University, I must have walked on countless occasions past the Suffragette Oak in Kelvingrove Park.
The First Minister’s residence at Bute House overlooks Charlotte Square – which was the starting point for the Scottish suffragists’ march to London in 1912. Occasionally I look out of the window on Charlotte Square and find myself wishing that I could spend a few moments with those women to pay tribute to their courage and their sacrifice, but also to thank them for enabling a woman like me to occupy the office that I do today.
Of course Charlotte Square is also where Elsie Inglis, one of the very greatest of Scottish suffragists, went to school. And this morning, with the suffragette flag flying outside, I chaired a meeting of our gender-balanced Scottish cabinet in Saint Andrew’s House, which of course stands on the site of the old Calton Jail, where many suffragettes were imprisoned in the years before World War 1.
And that last poignant fact is a reminder that many of the people who campaigned for the vote made immense sacrifices – sacrifices that are beyond our imagination.
Some – especially those who adopted militant tactics in response to government intransigence – were not just jailed, but horribly mistreated and even force-fed.
Many more devoted countless hours of their time to their cause.
And all suffragettes and suffragists risked public disapproval, or anger, or contempt. We in this generation know even today that it’s not always easy for women to speak up in public life today; but whatever the challenges we face now, it must have been far more difficult then. The Glasgow and West of Scotland Suffrage Association described what a woman often went through: “she defies convention and throws aside that much-prized virtue – respectability. She gives up friendships that she values; often she renounces all her past life.”
So when I stand here in this chamber - as a female First Minister, to be followed by a female leader of the opposition - my overriding emotion today is one of deep gratitude. All of us – but women in particular – owe an immeasurable debt to the suffragettes and the suffragists that we honour today.
For that reason, this centenary is being marked – not just by this parliamentary debate, but by events and commemorations across the country.
The Scottish Government confirmed yesterday that we will provide funding for local projects which will mark the anniversary. We will also support the Glasgow Women’s Library, which is developing a programme of commemorative events.
In addition, we are organising a cross-party event for young people here at the parliament. And we will fund projects to improve women’s representation and participation in public life.
And these final two strands to the programme that I’ve mentioned are important. These commemorations should not simply be about marking our past; they should also look to our future.
After all, some women secured the parliamentary vote a century ago. They have had equal voting rights to men for 90 years. But the uncomfortable truth is that gender equality is still an unwon cause - an unwon cause that it is the duty of our generation to win.
A century on, the gender pay gap still stands at 9% in the UK, and almost 7% in Scotland.
Women are more than half the population, but only make up 27% of members on the boards of the UK’s largest companies. And we still need to address the gender stereotyping which means that just 6% of our engineering modern apprentices are women, while only 4% of our childcare modern apprentices are men.
It’s worth thinking deeply about all of this. A key reason for women getting the vote was the contribution they made to the war effort – from the munitions factories of Clydeside to the field hospitals of the Balkans. They demonstrated – quite irrefutably – that women’s competence and capability was equal to men’s. But 100 years later, that equal capability still isn’t reflected in equal pay or equal status.
In addition, we’ve been reminded all too recently that sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and sexist behaviour are still far too widespread across our society.
Inequality also persists when it comes to political representation. When this Parliament was first elected in 1999, more women were chosen to represent Scottish constituencies than had been elected at Westminster in the previous 80 years. But the hard reality is that there has been little progress since then.
The proportion of women MSPs in the parliament was 37% in 1999, and now stands at just 35%. In my own party, it is 43% - which represents progress since 2011, but that also means, as with all parties, that we need to do more.
However, there are also areas where this parliament has genuine grounds for pride. Just last week, every single member of this chamber supported the Domestic Abuse Bill –legislation which has been acclaimed as setting a new gold standard in protecting women from coercive and controlling behaviour.
Last week we also approved legislation to ensure 50% female representation on public boards – ensuring that the public sector will lead by example on appointing women in leadership positions.
And this parliamentary session will also see a massive expansion of childcare – something which will help parents, particularly mothers, to return to work and pursue careers. And much of Scotland’s international development work in Africa and Pakistan prioritises the empowerment of women.
We still need to do far more. But we can and we should draw strength from these significant recent accomplishments.
And when you look at some of the wider social developments of the last year – such as the public response to stories of harassment and unequal pay, and the development of the “me too” and “times up” movements – I think that there is a chance to achieve even more significant and rapid change.
After all, public scrutiny of discrimination has never been higher. And public tolerance of it has never been lower.
That gives all of us - not just an obligation, but also a huge opportunity – to make much greater progress towards true gender equality. It is an opportunity we must all work together to seize.
When I was first elected as First Minister by the Parliament in 2014, I commented on the fact that my niece- who was then 8 years old – was in the public gallery. I said that my fervent hope was that by the time she was a young woman, she would have no need to know about issues such as the gender pay gap, or under-representation, or the barriers, like high childcare costs, that make it so hard for so many women to work and pursue careers.
I hope that this parliament can play a vital role in consigning those issues to history. I want young people in the future to be able to see them in the same way that we see voting rights for women – as a cause that was argued for, and won, by earlier generations.
Because Presiding Officer, we’re here today to honour the perseverance, courage and self-sacrifice of the Suffragists and Suffragettes.
But ultimately, the best way of doing that is not through parliamentary debates, or commemorative events – important though they are. It is by renewing our own resolve to use the powers we have – powers which in many ways we owe to the suffrage movement – to make the world a better place for the girls and young women who are growing up today.
If we can add our strength to that guid cause, we will pay a fitting tribute in this centenary year. It falls to us on our generation – through deeds, not words – to complete the work that the suffrage movement started, to ensure that no longer will gender be a barrier to any women achieving their dreams. That, in my view, is the only truly appropriate way of for us to repay our enormous debt to the heroic movement that we celebrate and honour today.