"A guid cause makes a strong arm": Holyrood honours women's suffrage

Marking the centenary of women’s right to vote, Nicola Sturgeon said gender equality “is still an unwon cause”

GENDER EQUALITY “is still an unwon cause”, which it is the duty of the current generation to win, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said at a Scottish parliamentary debate commemorating the centenary of the Representation of the People Act.

At a passionate and sometimes emotional meeting of the Scottish Parliament’s chamber on Tuesday (6 February), Sturgeon reflected on Scotland’s deep historical involvement in the campaign for women’s suffrage, yet also argued that the moment required looking to the future.

Sturgeon observed: “There is an old Scots proverb that was often used on suffragist and suffragette banners - indeed, its first part later provided the title for a history of the movement. The proverb says simply: ‘A guid cause makes a strong arm’.

“The guid cause that we honour today was given strength by the commitment of tens of thousands of women, and many men, from right across our country. By 1914, there were suffrage associations in every part of Scotland, from Orkney and Shetland to Kirkcudbright and North Berwick.

“This morning, with the suffragette flag flying outside, I chaired a meeting of our gender-balanced Scottish Cabinet in St Andrew’s House, which stands on the site of the old Calton jail, where many suffragettes were imprisoned.” First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

Sturgeon went on to observe the presence and significance of women in her government, and their links to the historical legacy of the suffragettes, saying: “This morning, with the suffragette flag flying outside, I chaired a meeting of our gender-balanced Scottish Cabinet in St Andrew’s House, which stands on the site of the old Calton jail, where many suffragettes were imprisoned in the years before the First World War.

“That poignant fact is a reminder that many of the women who campaigned for the right to vote made immense sacrifices that are beyond our imagination today.

“Some - especially those who adopted militant tactics in response to government intransigence - were not just jailed, but were horribly mistreated and even force fed. Many more devoted their energies and countless hours of their time to the cause. All too often, they encountered public ridicule, disapproval, anger and contempt.

Sturgeon continued: “We are here today to honour the perseverance, courage and self-sacrifice of the suffragists and the suffragettes. Ultimately, the best way of doing that is not through parliamentary debates or commemorative events- important as they are - but by renewing our resolve to use the powers that we have, which in so many ways we owe to the brave women of 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 on us and our generation through deeds, not words, to complete the work that the suffrage movement started.” First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

“It falls on us and our generation through deeds, not words, to complete the work that the suffrage movement started, in order that we ensure that no longer is gender a barrier to any woman achieving her dreams.”

In her contribution, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, who had prior to the debate written in the Daily Telegraph calling for posthumous pardons for those suffragettes who faced imprisonment and criminal charges, noted: “An argument that was employed by those who stood against it was that women would simply want more.

“The right to vote would not quench women’s thirst for equality, they thundered. Rather, it would encourage women to do things like enter politics and become MPs or even - shock, horror! - cabinet ministers.

“I wonder whether those unenlightened souls could have imagined a time in UK politics when, simultaneously, women would hold the offices of prime minister, first minister of Scotland and first minister of Northern Ireland, plus the leaderships of Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Liberal Democrats, the Scottish Conservatives, Sinn Féin and the Alliance Party in Northern Ireland, along with the co-convenerships of the UK and Scottish Green parties.

“In every part of the United Kingdom, young girls growing up can look at politics, see that women can make it to the top and conclude that they, too, can do that.”

READ MORE: Jeremy Corbyn joins calls for suffragettes to be pardoned

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard noted his party’s contribution to the cause of women’s suffrage, saying: “The first leader of the Labour Party, Keir Hardie, was also one of those who valiantly took up the cause of a woman’s right to vote.

“For the prophetic Hardie, equality was paramount to improving both society and the economy, yet he was one of just a handful of men in parliament who stood four-square behind the women’s suffrage movement.

“Hardie believed emphatically, as his 1905 pamphlet on this topic attested, that it was: ‘Only by removing the disabilities and restraints imposed upon women; and permitting her to enter freely into competition with man in every sphere of human activity, that her true position and function in the economy of life will ultimately be settled.’”

Tuesday also saw the announcement by the Scottish Government of a £500,000 fund to encourage more women to become involved in politics. The new initiative is intended as a tribute to those campaigners for women’s suffrage we now commemorate, and will provide grants for local political action and organising across Scotland.

Picture courtesy of Christina B Castro

Look at how important CommonSpace has become, and how vital it is for the future #SupportAReporter