Women of Orange

IN THE windowless room of an old Glasgow building on a rainy Monday evening, a group of women are setting out coffee cups.

The noise level is high as about 20 of them, ranging in age from their twenties to their sixties, chat animatedly about work, home and the dismal weather. Some have come straight from the office and are still wearing business suits, while others are smartly dressed in skirts and heels. Suddenly, there is a rustling in handbags and a readjustment of outfits, and every woman in the room puts on an orange sash. For this is not just a coffee evening. It is a lodge meeting of the Ladies Orange Association of Scotland.

This year marks the centenary of the first Ladies Orange Lodge to be established in Scotland. In an increasingly secular age, and during a year when the spotlight has been shone starkly on the amount of money Scotland spends on policing parades held by such groups, the women's branch of the Orange Order has never been stronger.

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In May, more than 5,000 women marched through the centre of Edinburgh in a 100th anniversary parade, accompanied by a women-only flute band dressed in pink. In September, some 800 members attended a thanksgiving service in Glasgow Cathedral. Meanwhile, the order's female members are becoming increasingly vocal about the amount of influence they wield in this most regimented, Protestant and secretive of organisations. Forget The Sash My Father Wore; this evening, it's all about the sash your mother wore.

The Orange Order, founded 214 years ago in County Armagh to commemorate the Dutch prince William of Orange, has pushed women on to the sidelines for most of its existence. For many years, they were there simply "to make the tea", while the men, who parade through the towns and cities of Northern Ireland and Scotland every summer in bowler hats, black suits and orange sashes, have, many argue, fanned the flames of sectarianism. The order argues there is more to it than that, that it is not just about the parades but about family values, democratic freedom and Protestantism.

This is the first time a journalist has been allowed into a Ladies Orange Lodge meeting in Scotland. Although some elements of the ritual have been removed, "what we consider our secret work", says Helyne MacLean, past grand mistress of the Ladies Orange Association of Scotland, most of it, I am assured, remains the same. There are renditions of Land of Hope and Glory and the National Anthem. Flags – the Union flag and the saltire – are held aloft.

In the middle of the room sits a table covered with a blue cloth fringed in orange. On it sits a Bible, and on top of that a gaudy crown fashioned in crushed blue velvet and trimmed with orange and silver. The women gather around it, the grand mistress and various office bearers behind a table, her deputy behind another that sits opposite, with other members congregated in the middle. All lay their right arms over their chests whenever they stand to speak, sing or pray.

These are educated, professional women. In the room tonight is a senior clinical researcher, a company general manager, a community education worker for Edinburgh city council and a Glasgow University secretary. But when they attend a lodge meeting, they are no longer women. They are "sisters".

"Nowadays, most younger women work full-time, so it is a juggling exercise (to be a member]," says MacLean. "I think it just shows the dedication that the women have, having a full-time or part-time job and looking after their houses and families and still having time to dedicate to the Orange Order. That's how much of a commitment it is. They take it very seriously, the women. Much more seriously than some of the men."

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The ladies association wants more power within the order. At the moment, the women are recognised only by their local lodges. They are not eligible to hold office at district level or in the Grand Lodge, and have little say in the way the movement is run.

"What the women want now is to be involved in the decision-making," says MacLean. "We are in dialogue and we do have a lot of men who are more supportive than they were in the past, but we do have some, I would call them, dinosaurs. It's really persuading them that there is a much more meaningful role in the institution for women in Scotland than in the past. We are looking for equality. We don't have equality at the moment."

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Just what sort of decision-making they want to be involved in is unclear. When it comes to parades – for many Scots, representative of the most offensive element of the Orange Order – MacLean is keen to defend them, despite recent moves to clamp down on the exceptionally high number that take place in Glasgow: it is much higher than in any part of Northern Ireland. In 2008-9, about 35,000 hours of police work went into covering almost 1,000 marches and processions in the west of Scotland at an estimated cost of 1.12 million.

"There are some people who would be quite happy to wipe any religious organisation off the face of the earth," MacLean says. "The parades are important because people can understand that there is still an organisation here who is prepared to go out and defend or speak on behalf of the Protestant people of this country. We are still a Protestant country. I think it's important that people recognise there are still people who are willing to defend that right to be accepted as Protestants in this country."

Certainly, the number of young women joining the order seems to be rising, although nobody knows quite why, in an age where most teenage girls are more interested in reading Heat magazine and emulating the likes of Katie Price. Attending tonight's meeting is Alison Leckenby, 23, a secretary at Glasgow University, who joined as a child and also plays the flute and the bass drum in an all-women's band. "Maybe we're getting better at advertising or our PR is better," she muses. "We're also doing more for the younger ones, so they want to join the adult lodges and see what it's like."

What is the appeal of the Orange Order for her?

"I like going to the meetings and I like meeting different people. I like the charity work they do and working with the juveniles. We're going to Alton Towers this weekend."

The women are keen to stress just how much money they raise for charity. Once the meeting is under way, there is discussion of various charity fundraising projects that are under consideration. The ladies association tends to choose one charity a year to which to give a substantial amount of money – about 7,000 to 8,000 – with recent beneficiaries including Erskine Hospital and the children's cancer charity CHAS.

They insist the money they raise for charity is "no strings attached. We don't say, well, only Protestants can get the benefit of that", says MacLean.

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In fact, not so long ago, she says, someone came up with the bright idea of having buckets for ChildLine at one of the juvenile parades. "Our members were even wearing green T-shirts!" she exclaims proudly.

With another rendition of the National Anthem and a closing of the Bible on which the blue velvet crown perches, the meeting is over. I speak to a 28-year-old woman in a smart grey trouser suit who works for an examination body. She is happy to chat but does not want her name published. Few of her friends and none of her colleagues know she is a member of the Orange Order, and has been since birth.

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"I know that I'd get criticised a lot in work if people knew," she says. "There are certain people in my work who would give me a lot of hassle. It's especially frustrating around July time when there are a lot of discussions going on and people saying nasty things and you've just got to sit there. You can't say anything. Don't get me wrong, I would love to, but me on my own – it's just not enough against other people."

Does she understand why the Orange Order receives criticism? "I do," she says. "There are some things people come out with and you think, 'ok, fair enough, that's a fair point you've got there'. But there are others when you think 'it's just not like that at all'."

Outside work, she is equally discreet. "My closest friends know, but only the ones I can trust not to say anything to anyone else."

It must be difficult, living a double life like that. Why do it, I wonder. What keeps her coming back?

"Er," she pauses. "I don't really know. I just think it's how close everybody is in the lodge. The members help each other out or give each other a hand; it's like a family thing. We don't see it as friends, it's more like family."

Can she imagine not being a member? She shakes her head. "No. I really can't."

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The meeting is winding down. The women have removed their sashes and are sitting in twos and threes, chatting away, drinking their coffee and nibbling on home-made scones.

If it weren't for the sliver of fringed orange poking out of one woman's handbag, it would look for all the world like an ordinary coffee evening.