The meeting at Perth on 4th October was exactly the meeting that Women for Independence wanted it to be. A place where women from all backgrounds and political party affiliations and none, could get together in a safe space and reflect on their own journeys and the journey of WFI and look ahead to what they, as women with a political voice, wanted from Women For Independence.
I have been a member of WFI since June 2012 and I am on the executive such as it is – perhaps I am perfect evidence of the organic nature of WFI. I fell into the executive as a result of stumbling onto the original Facebook page when there were about 27 members and being intrigued by the discussions and posts, I joined in. Never having been politically active and holding no “position” other than wife, mum and part time worker I have nevertheless been actively involved in the WFI discussions since then and when an executive was pulled together to give some decision making ability to the group, I too was gathered up alongside Carole Fox, Carolyn Leckie, Jeane Freeman, Kate Higgins and other equally impressive women.
There are no WFI committees, no “office” other than our kitchen tables, no expense accounts, no donor funding stream, no hierarchy or strategic planning group. Some of these things will have to come but just now they don’t exist. We have strong, impressive and articulate women with a huge amount of political experience on the executive and we have some strong, impressive and articulate women who, like me, have utterly no experience of political activism.
In the run up to the referendum WFI has largely left me and many others to our own devices. I mooched about the Highlands holding meetings which enabled women to talk to other women about what was important to them. I didn’t “SPEAK” at many of the meetings although I did at some – particularly later in the campaign, but for me and for many women, the opportunity to encourage other women to ask questions, discuss what was important to us as women, as voters, was the strength of the local meetings. I remember one of the first meetings I held in Inverness, where one woman looked at the 30 odd women gathered there on a wet Tuesday night and said “Oh my God, I thought I was the only one” and promptly went off and set up a local group and organised her own meetings. The local meetings I organised and attended were not MY meetings, they belonged to the women who attended them and that is how it should be. And so the meeting in Perth did not belong to WFI executive members, it belonged to the women who came along for the day. We were not there to tell them anything but to listen. And that’s what we did.
There was no media there because we offered a safe space where women could put their hands up and be free and feel safe to say what they wanted to say. Where they could chat with other women – next to them or by taking the mike and speaking, or by coming to the front to have their say. Where we, as an executive, would be able to hear from the women who had been doing their stuff locally like I was doing, under their own steam, about what they wanted from Women for Independence in the future, as we consider a response to the Smith Commission, approach a General Election, and try to work within the political system as it changes almost before our eyes. Several women had held local meetings already – I had three in the run up to the Perth meeting – and we wanted to share the views of our local groups.
There is much already said about how wonderful the day was and how fabulous the speakers were, Carolyn, Elaine and Jeane – three women we had all got to know well from their television performances. Carolyn Leckie helped us celebrate our successes, Elaine C Smith roused us all after lunch and Jeane Freeman sent us all off with hope and aspirations for the future. Wonderful, rich, affirming, powerful speakers all three.
Our speakers were feminists, as Elaine C Smith reminded us loudly to joyous cheers, but was it a feminist’s meeting? Well, there were women there who would identify themselves as such and women who would not. Women for whom feminism is fundamental to who they are and some for whom the word Feminism is one they are uncomfortable with. It is worth remembering that the full name is Women for Independence|Independence for Women. This is a women’s group, a women’s movement, whether each of us wanted to use the label of “Feminist” was immaterial we were all sisters in that room, all women looking forward to the future and working out how we use our power to make change in our society as we remain in the UK. That we may disagree how we do things and that we may do things differently across local groups isn’t a weakness – it is a strength. Individuals and groups working locally and nationally in a variety of ways to ensure the political voices of women are heard is important in today’s society where women are still often judged on how they look rather than what they say.
Women for Independence will not be the home for everyone. People will find us and find we don’t suit their political, personal, social or feminist perspective. But that is ok. We don’t need to have every single woman singing from the same hymn sheet. We want people to find their voices and a place where they feel their skills and talents are able to be used. That might be WFI for ever, for a wee while until they move on to somewhere else or not us at all and that is fine and exactly what we want to see happen. Because after all, it is about ensuring women’s voices are heard, not just within WFI, but within Scotland. What WFI becomes, how it grows and changes over the next however long, will be influenced by what the women involved in it want. This group is not about Jeane Freeman, Carolyn Leckie, Elaine C Smith, Kate Higgins; it isn’t about those of us on the executive, it is about those women who attended the meeting on Saturday, it is about local women turning out on a wet Tuesday night in Invergordon or Inverclyde. It will reflect their views and their priorities and their hopes and aspirations for women and for our communities and our society in 21st Century Scotland whatever its constitutional status and regardless of whether they identify themselves as feminists or not.
At the end of the day on Saturday I sat there looking out over the church and watched the women leaving. I felt completely overwhelmed. WFI has given me a place where I can give voice to the political and feminist part of me which was always there, but which had no real place outside my own consciousness and its not exaggerating to say my life has changed as a result. I know from talking to women during the day that many of them felt the same way. Many of them were speaking publicly for the first time because of WFI; many of them were politically active for the first time because of WFI; many were seeing feminism at work for the first time because of WFI. Women For Independence was not holding the meeting at Perth to TELL these women how WFI will work for them, it was about asking them how THEY wanted us to work for them and actually listening to them. That’s a bit of a novel idea in politics I know but that’s the way we do things – get used to it.