International Women’s Day

I would like to thank Agnes Tolmie and the Scottish Women’s Convention for the invitation to speak today.

We are fortunate to be able to celebrate the many different ways in which women have already made their mark on our Scottish Parliament, whether inside or outside the building.

I was working in the Scottish Parliament in the year 2000, when it was based up at the top of the Royal Mile.

I still have strong memories of the excitement in the building and across the women’s movement more widely, as Parliament debated a national Strategy to Tackle Domestic Abuse, and we welcomed the allocation of additional funds to Women’s Aid refuges as part of that strategy, and the secondment of Lesley Irving from Scottish Women’s Aid to assist Government.

It may be difficult to imagine that parliamentary debates and meetings can be exciting, but it really was – this was about our new Parliament open to the people of Scotland, getting involved.

The Scottish Government Strategy made clear that domestic abuse was ‘part of a range of behaviours constituting male abuse of power, and is linked to other forms of male violence’.

Women were speaking up and being heard in that new Parliament.

With backgrounds in the labour movement, the women’s movement, third sector and public sector, academia, law, and in business, the women amongst that first cohort of MSPs made sure that this Parliament listened and gave voice to women’s concerns.

Those policies have been built on by successive Governments, as the First Minister referenced earlier today.

For those of you who have ever used the parliament creche in this building, I can tell you that this popular service was nearly closed down not long after it opened, as pressure mounted within the parliamentary estate for more storage space – I joined with other staff and MSPs in a cross party campaign which ensured the creche did not become another cupboard…..

Fighting for good quality creche and childcare provision has long been a priority for our movement, and is one of the issues on which I hope to see progress whilst I hold the position as Rector of the University of Edinburgh.

I was elected as Rector in March 2018 by staff and students. In other universities in Scotland, rectors are elected solely by the student body. I had been encouraged – or maybe strongly persuaded – by the trade union reps at the University to accept nomination.

The Rector chairs the senior governing body at the University, known as the University Court, and meets with students and staff across the different Schools – I’m able to add a voice to any concerns, and to promote some of the excellent work going on.

It’s an unpaid post – something women might like to look at changing, if we are serious about increase access to public appointments and other public roles.

At the time of my election the UCU trade union was in dispute over pensions, and this winter has again seen a return to the picket lines, and the staff raising issues on pay, discrimination and casual contracts too.

So – being Rector –

There is some ceremony attached to the role – and a lovely gown – having not attended my own graduation in 1978, seeking to avoid ceremony, there is a certain irony in this.

But I have thoroughly enjoyed meeting so many recent graduates and their families from around the world.

This is a big university – Over 40,000 students, over 15,000 staff – that’s a lot of people – and I can tell you that there is virtually no childcare or creche provision on any of the University’s campuses, so there’s work to be done!

I’ve met many inspirational women, in every subject area you can think of – medicine, law, social policy, veterinary studies, data sciences, archiving and libraries, sport, and more.

I’ve been introduced to the TIBA project Tackling Infections to Benefit Africa, a true partnership project, saving lives as we speak, as African experts in infectious diseases work together with experts at Edinburgh University.

There are many examples of the University working with communities across Edinburgh and Scotland too.

In 2018 students and staff from Edinburgh College of Art, working with women in the justice system, including prisoners in Cornton Vale –made a wonderful banner for the Processions event, commemorate the Representation of the People Act 1918.

Since 1869, there have been 52 Rectors at Edinburgh University, and only one of them female before me. That was Muriel Gray, elected in 1988. The position of Rector here has indeed generally been held by white titled men with alternative sources of income. Why so few women? Having looked at all that women do, now and in the past, I conclude that maybe women may have quite simply been too busy.

Being elected to any sort of public office brings responsibilities of course, but also public attention. For women in public life on the receiving end of abusive and misogynist attacks, we must all must share responsibility in speaking up and challenging unacceptable behaviour. This cuts across all political parties and movements, all families and communities. As we know from our work in tackling violence against women, those responsible are usually men who are already known to us in workplaces and communities.

In this Parliament last year a Members Motion was tabled by Jenny Marra MSP, which quickly received cross party support, following an event on women’s rights held on the University campus.

‘That the Parliament ………. believes that universities should be safe places for complex and sometimes controversial discussions to take place, and strongly believes that there is no place for violence or threats of violence towards women engaging in public life in Scotland.

I strongly support these sentiments and would urge all Universities and indeed all institutions, to take this seriously.

In particular, it is important to understand that our MSPs and MPs have a responsibility to make laws –

laws which must be robust, and built on policy that is evidence based.

I do expect academics, policy makers, and politicians to question, and challenge and debate and they must be free to do that without fear of the consequences.

That goes for us all. Do not be afraid to ask questions.

If you do not understand a proposal or a policy – sometimes a certain type of language is used that is hard to follow in politics and in different areas of our lives- ask, and also take time to explain.

Today’s theme focuses on celebrating women’s achievements and increasing participation in influencing policy development and that means using our voices and listening too, being open to all points of view, and speaking for those women who cannot for various reasons speak for themselves.

As the language of mainstreaming, equality, citizenship, and human rights for all people, fills our discourse, sometimes women disappear.

Language and the words we use, matters.

As women, we have a legacy on which to build, a legacy from way before 1918, a legacy across countries, cultures and continents.

A history and a legacy built on the energy and sacrifices of other women.

Women such as Mary McArthur, active in the shopworkers union in Ayr in the late 1800s. Along with others, Mary established the National Federation of Women Workers in 1906, combining campaigning for justice for women in the workplace along with campaigning for the vote.

She organised with jute millworkers in Dundee, chainmakers at Cradley Heath in Birmingham, and made representations to Parliament about the work women were doing in the sweated industries, hidden often from public gaze.

One outcome of Mary’s work and all who took their stories to the Westminster Parliament, was the establishment of Wages Boards in 1909 – effectively setting minimum wages and standards across industries.

This is a great example of women doing the work outside parliament – making policy leading to legislation by organising, and giving voice to those women who were not in the parliamentary room.

These were women who did not even get the right to vote until the franchise was extended to all citizens over the age of 21 in 1928.

Those early days of women organising in the workplace always included demands around childcare, against dismissal of pregnant women, around sanitation, and all aspects of women’s health.

I would briefly like to come back to my earlier remarks about language and why it matters. This is a personal example.

I worked for British Rail for fifteen years, latterly as a train driver in Glasgow in the early 1990s.

When pregnant, my request for suitable uniform was met with a navy smock dress, which was completely impractical for my job, climbing in and out of trains to go onto the track, or to go to the signal post phones. The alternative I was then offered was a very large pair of trousers suitable for a very large and overweight male driver.

Not good enough! This was 1994.

I was subsequently reimbursed for appropriate trousers, that I purchased appropriate trousers from the shop Mothercare, for which I was then reimbursed.

In amongst boxes of papers at home, I came across the British Rail form which authorised that reimbursement. The reason given for that expenditure on non-standard BR clothing, was given not as pregnancy or maternity wear – it was given as EXPANSION!

Another chance to gather useful data is lost.

If we are to support women in the workplace and tackle pregnancy discrimination effectively, we won’t get far, if we are simply seen as ‘people who expand’.

We are women.

Language matters when talking about women’s health and women’s lives, and making policies in the workplace, or anywhere else.

On International Women’s Day I will take strength again from the women around the world who are speaking up, and I would urge you all to do likewise.

And it is not always easy. We all have other pressures in our lives.

There are times when we all need a hand – not a video link or searching on a website for advice – a real hand, someone reaching out to you and giving support and care. The hand that takes a child to the park, or reassures a loved one at a moment of sadness, or those hands intertwined in the solidarity of our movement. It’s the hand that supports through mentoring, as an earlier speaker mentioned.

That’s also what today is about, with us all being here in the Parliament, a chance to meet other women and be a support for each other.

Today is about the past, the present and the future. It’s about remembering and treasuring those who are no longer with us, and it’s about hope, sisterhood and solidarity.

I will finish with Mary Macarthur’s words from 1910:

Fight the wrong that needs resistance
For the future in the distance
And the good that you can do

Women are, quite simply, amazing –

Thank you

Ann Henderson 7th March 2020

Picture copyright scottishwomensconvention.org: Ann Henderson, Cathy Peattie, Agnes Tolmie


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