Married to the cause

The first National Women’s Liberation Conference was a thunderous affair. Forty years on, Clancy Sig

When I made a decision to get married (or, to be more precise, find a wife), I had no one in particular in mind. I put the problem as analytically as possible to friends who I hoped knew me better than I knew myself. At last, the feminist scholar Catherine Hall suggested that, to avoid wasting more time, I should focus on a woman suitable to my political history, and it logically followed that the first stop should be the next weekend's debut National Women's Liberation Conference at Ruskin College in Oxford. So, on a cold and drizzly late February day in 1970, off I went.
“Women in labour keep capitalism in power. Down with penile servitude!" ran graffiti on the college walls.

I have never been so excited or scared as during that thunderous, exuberant, foot-stamping meeting at Ruskin - not even when I was caught in a New Orleans police shoot-out or swarmed by drunken Everton supporters while wearing Liverpool colours. Although some later observers claimed that a fair number of men were sprinkled among the 500 or so women, I doubt there were more than a few. Perhaps I miscounted because, like me, they were trying to make themselves invisible.

Many of the women at the conference, drawn from Marxist history workshops and local discussion groups, had that certain look I was scouting: middle-class, straight, a kind of academic intensity, long hair, ankle-length velvet coats, sometimes over crocheted miniskirts, faces flushed with exaltation and obstinate assurance. I listened to their demands from floor and platform - for equal pay, abortion on demand, community-controlled nurseries - with only half an ear, because I had to stay alert for my wife-to-be.

My mother, a flame-haired union organiser and single mother in the American Midwest, had habituated me to smart, militant women with a mouth on them, as had snarly, defiant movie queens of my youth such as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck. But the buzz at Ruskin - and then at the Oxford Union, where the conference was moved to accommodate a large crowd - was so awesome, it almost knocked me down. It was like being at the Finland Station in 1917 when Lenin's train chugged in to kick-start the October Revolution.

Trouble and strife

I'd had this feeling before, riding along with the brave young hearts of the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee in rural south-west Georgia on their dangerous midnight voter registration drives, and later while I worked for Malcolm X's Black Power movement in Detroit. In the most intense and transforming moments of the civil rights struggle, with the front-line fighters risking their lives to break the colour line, you felt yourself losing aspects of your whiteness - ironically, at the same time as angry members of the movement were demanding that "whitey" be banished.

So it sounded eerily familiar when women at the conference insisted that any males present, especially journalists, should be kicked out. My bacon was saved when Mary Holland, a former colleague of mine on the Observer, successfully argued to keep us few men.

Happily, in the face of scornful denunciations of the male patriarchy from the platform, and despite the palpable rage that ran like an electric current through the hall, I met very little personal hostility down on the floor. Some women even seemed to take pity on me: "You poor lad." They seemed to know instinctively what it was like to be shoved aside and made fun of at meetings.

Two things happened as a result of the Ruskin conference - many women who had considered themselves mad came away feeling sane, perhaps for the first time in their lives; and I found a wife-to-be. I was slouched in my chair, a nervous spy in not entirely friendly territory, guiltily examining my macho, male psyche so at odds with the atmosphere in the hall, when this stunning brunette smiled - actually smiled! - at me. "Don't take it personally," she said in a deep, rich voice. "I wish we were as tough as we talk." My heart swelled.

Thus, I became a camp follower of women's liberation, a reprobate drawing energy from other people freeing themselves from my bondage. Entering a serious relationship with a smart, fully committed feminist who had her sense of humour intact was an adventure in acclimatisation and self-censorship. Watch where your eyes stray, guard your mouth. Because my parents had had a passionate and turbulent relationship that ended badly, I was determined to make a better job of it. With this secret proviso to myself: under no circumstances would I, could I, make myself over into a "liberated man". Some of the post-Ruskin "new men" I would run into, lovers and husbands trying their best, struck me as enfeebled by guilt. And the one meeting of a men's support group I attended in a gloomy Camden Town Hall was so grimly depressed that it reminded me of a back ward in an asylum I'd once worked in. Being a "new man" did not come naturally to me.

Because I didn't possess XX chromosomes, by definition I couldn't be an equal partner in an all-women's movement. This was a loss - along with my unfortunate XY male chromosomes, I'd inherited an activist's instinct. But it was also a relief as, selfishly, I needed all my time to write. On the other hand, I could not not participate. So I did the next best thing: pry and peek in the best private-eye tradition. When Jill held male-excluded, consciousness-raising meetings at her place (where I'd moved in), I would place an empty water tumbler to my ear and press it against the wall to pick up gossip through the plaster.

Mixed in with the discussions of how to help the cleaning women's campaign for higher wages and plans to disrupt the oncoming Miss World contest was exuberant chat about orgasms and penises. My ears burned when, amid whoops of laughter, they exchanged Chaucerian tales of their men's sexual shortcomings in some anatomical detail. How I envied the women's free and easy sisterhood - most men in my experience didn't do this.

Eavesdropping on women can be devastating to a healthy male ego. Their sexual sniping hurt less (though it stung) than their blithe ignoring of men. Although there was much talk about the male patriarchy, they simply weren't all that interested in us as men.

I was lucky because Jill had a coolly ironic view of the women's movement while also being intensely committed to it. Even so, I had to tread cautiously. Some of her friends took such a hard line that one of them angrily slapped her face because she had chosen to live with a man. Self-defence karate tested my nerve to the max. One night at a north London gym, another guy and I watched from the sideline as "our" women, in sports bras and shorts, violently threw each other around, practising kung fu-style kicks and parries, part of their assertiveness training.

Jill, kicking high and punching the air, was glowing with exertion and exhilaration. The man and I grinned nervously at each other. Session over, the women streamed into the locker room to change, and my new friend and I started to leave. But his girlfriend, stripping naked, just laughed: "Don't be such fogeys, you two. Stay." We didn't know where to look . . .

Ugly beauty

A lot of the women I met through Jill and the women's movement were tough, difficult and, like my mum, sassy. But such is the moth's love of the flame that I was enchanted - in the original sense - by their uprising power and sheer joie de vivre. It was fun being around them, absorbing their positive vibes, borrowing their energy.

Best of all, Jill and her friends demanded nothing of me. I was nearly invisible, and at that early stage of the "second wave" there wasn't much of a party line. It took getting used to, this being ignored and looked through as if I wasn't there. But then came a surprise: if nobody cared what a man felt or thought, not really, I was free to concentrate on what they thought, and this turned out to be liberating.

I made plenty of missteps, of course. Jill hated it when I mentioned her attractiveness. "You still don't get it, Clancy. Being called 'beautiful' is just another put-down." The flour bombs and rotten fruit hurled at the stage during the Miss World contest at the Royal Albert Hall in London were only weeks away.

Today, I live in a different time on a different planet called Los Angeles. Most of the women I meet, and often those for whom I work, are skilled professionals who are the spiritual daughters and granddaughters of the Ruskin College revolution and its American counterparts - if only they knew it. They take coolly, forgetfully, for granted what the women in that draughty old hall in February 1970 spoke up for, some for the very first time in their lives. But I remember. Did my shallow immersion in the women's movement change me? No, not much. Did it change my outlook? Fundamentally.

Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist.

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).