Nearly a century after the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteed their right to vote, women hold less than 20% of the 535 seats in the U.S. Congress. In the private sector, only 14.6% of executive officers, 8.1% of top earners, and 4.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. To explain this phenomena, some point to the apparent “demise” of an organized women’s movement (a claim not supported by evidence); others point to the path dependency of “old boys clubs” in political parties and corporate networks that keep women out. But what if citizens, and women in particular, were involved in the creation of a new government? Could the creation of a new country with women’s interests at the center address barriers to women’s access to political power, barriers that seem so intransigent in established political systems? Could such a “shake up” of the status quo fuel significant change?
In Scotland, women may have such an opportunity. On September 18th, citizens will decide whether Scotland should become independent from the UK. Scottish women, according to recent polls, remain more skeptical of independence than their male counterparts. In light of this data, leaders of the Scottish National Party (SNP) are actively pursuing women to close the independence “gender gap.” Scottish Women’s organizations are working to foster a community of northern women, identifying common struggles and articulating their vision for an independent Scotland.
And the SNP is listening. The party promises several changes in legislation to promote women’s equality in an independent Scotland. Among other women-centered promises, the cornerstone of the SNP’s gender equity platform is a push to ensure 40% of private and public boards are occupied by women. This is a substantial promise given that today some of Scotland’s most important non-governmental public bodies are less than one third female.
Certainly, the SNP could be accused of only caring about women’s unequal position in light of the upcoming vote. Regardless, the organization of women and articulation of women’s interests over the past year have reignited important debates about women’s position in the UK. Even if the leaders of the SNP become less committed to women’s equality following the pivotal vote, the current debate about gender equality in the UK may have implications beyond the movement for independence. Social movements are often the first and most important step towards policy change.
If activists remain engaged, the organizational efforts of groups such as Women for Independence may lead to political momentum for gender equity regardless of the outcome on September 18th.
Sierra Smucker is a PhD student at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. Her areas of interest are gender, social policy, inequality, poverty, and health. She received her Master's degree from the London School of Economics and her Bachelor's degree from Occidental College.
Further Reading: “Women are the Biggest Losers from Failure to Raise the Minimum Wage” from CAP “Women on Corporate Boards Face Gender-specific Obstacles” from Think Progress Michele L. Swers. The Difference Women Make: The Policy Impact of Women in Congress. “Report: The United States Scores a Measly C on Reproductive Health Care” from Think Progress.