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Why is the Scottish independence debate dominated by men?

Women make up 52 per cent of Scotland’s population, and are more likely to be undecided about independence than their male counterparts, yet the public debate about Scotland's future is mostly taking place between white middle-aged men.

Alex Salmond and other SNP delegates at the launch of the Yes Scotland campaign in 2012. Photo: Getty

“Whenever my female friends talk about the independence referendum, the first thing that comes out of their mouths is always ‘well, my dad says. . .’ They’re letting the men in their lives dictate their opinions on it and I don’t think they even realise that they’re doing it,” says Saffron Dickson, the 16-year-old independence campaigner speaking at the Glasgow launch of Women for Independence. “We’ve just been whispering about equality for so long but now it’s time for women to stand up and have their voices heard.”

Born out of a sense of frustration that the independence debate was being dominated by men, Women for Independence has sought to provide a “safe space” for women to do exactly that. Last week’s Glasgow launch of Women for Independence felt somewhat different to other public events hosted by the Yes Scotland and Better Together camps so far. “Listening exercise toolkits” were handed out on arrival, nobody was singled out as “unionist” or “nationalist” during the discussions and for once, nobody was shouting at each other from opposite sides of the room. It was strictly women only.

“All of us were a bit fed up that whenever independence was being discussed on programmes like Newsnight, it was invariably middle-aged white men talking through a party political viewpoint. It was all very polarised and very much about a Punch and Judy exchange. There didn’t seem to be any real, illuminating discussion, and it certainly wasn’t addressing women’s questions or concerns,” says Caroline Leckie, one of the founders of the organisation. Those sceptical of Leckie’s viewpoint need only try to count the number of high-profile female figures across the debate. The public conversation has so far been carried by Alex Salmond, Alastair Darling, Michael Moore, Blair Jenkins and Blair McDougall. The obvious exception to this is of course Nicola Sturgeon, and yes, the leaders of the pro-union Labour Party and the Conservative Party in Scotland are women. However, it would be dubious to class Johann Lamont and Ruth Davidson as top-level ambassadors for the Better Together campaign, given that they rarely discuss independence in a non-partisan capacity.

In fact, a certain weariness about the constant partisan point-scoring and posturing, which has to an extent characterised the public independence debate so far, pervades the Glasgow launch event. One audience member, a former SNP politician, expressed the view that women in general find this element of politics, and particularly the independence debate, off-putting. “I was really good at shouting down opponents when I was in politics but then I thought to myself . . . what a stupid, counter-productive way to get things done at work,” she says.

This led Natalie McGarry, co-founder of Women for Independence and chair of the panel, to speculate that women have a fear of being “shouted down” when they express their concerns and opinions about independence. “I’ve been to Yes meetings across Scotland, and every time, it’s the men who ask the questions. Every time. That’s not to say that women aren’t interested – they usually tend to come up to us at the end to ask questions. I think it’s because some of them worry that they’ll be dismissed or shouted down if they ask them publicly.” Considering the misogynistic vitriol that feminist campaigners like Laura Bates and Caroline Criado-Perez are subjected to, it isn’t hard to believe that being a woman and expressing an opinion is a little akin to sticking your head above the parapet. Eddi Reader, another panellist at the event, learned this the hard way when she received a torrent of abuse on Twitter after her appearance on an episode of BBC Question Time where independence was discussed, with one troll even threatening to cut her tongue out.

Common assumptions about the natural cautiousness of women may or may not be true, but the fact remains that they are more likely to be undecided about independence than their male counterparts. With all to play for before the referendum in September next year, both sides are eager to engage with female voters still to make up their minds, with the SNP’s white paper proposals for an ambitious, Nordic-style system of childcare to bring more women into the workforce of an independent Scotland being the most recent example of this. Regardless of whether women welcome this is a progressive step or view it as an SNP electoral bribe, one thing is clear from the Women for Independence launch – women are far from disinterested in the independence question, and they will not be silenced come 2014.