The first wave of women in politics had to act like men to survive, but the second wave is now joining forces with millennials to create a new world, writes Susan Dalgety.
Several years ago, in a different life, I told a then senior politician we were facing the “feminisation of politics”.
“Thanks Susan,” he grunted, “I am facing annihilation.” I shrugged.
I was, perhaps, a few years too early in my bold prediction, but the women are coming.
A full 12 months before the Democrat primaries begin to choose their 2020 Presidential candidate, four women have already declared their candidacy. My personal favourite is Kamala Harris, the one-time Attorney General for California, who looks like she has just stepped out of an episode of Law and Order.
She is a progressive liberal, smart and her slogan ‘For the People’ resonates across a country where a ‘Gangtsa’ President and his crew of billionaires and dodgy lawyers, are presiding over the shutdown of government and the destruction of nearly one million lives.
But Kamala (pronounced comma-la) is not the main reason I am cheering. It is the fact that there are three other women in the race – and at least one more, Senator Amy Klobuchar, looks set to run.
For what seemed like forever, Hillary Clinton was the lone woman fighting the equality battle in American, and therefore global, politics. She cut a lonely figure on the campaign trail, her block-colour pantsuits and helmet of hair her only protection against a gang of men that dismissed as her as “likeable enough” or “crooked”.
But the misogynistic world of American politics can’t ignore four, maybe five, female presidential candidates, just like Trump can’t hide from Nancy Pelosi. America has reached a tipping point where women can finally, nearly a century after they won the right to vote, take their rightful place running the country. Back home, amid the chaos of Brexit, there is a host of sensible, pragmatic voices arguing against the suicidal tendencies of Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. Yvette Cooper, Jo Swinson and Nicky Morgan may not wear the same party colours, but they are working as a team to try and prevent a hard Brexit.
If we manage to avoid empty supermarket shelves and a stock market crash, it will not be thanks to May or Corbyn, but because a group of women cried a halt to the madness.
They don’t grandstand or lie; they simply get on with their job of being effective parliamentarians and holding a dysfunctional government to account. The feminisation of politics.
And if the recommendations from the National Advisory Council on Women and Girls, published yesterday, for legal binding quotas in the 2021 Scottish parliament and council elections are accepted by the government, then the feminisation of Scotland’s often toxic politics will take a major step forward.
Here in Malawi, where I am for the next two weeks working with councillors, women are on the march too.The country, one of the poorest in the world, is holding its tripartite elections in May. Voters will be asked to choose a President, their councillor and their MP. Malawi is still a traditionally male dominated society, so the majority of the candidates will be men.
But there are women’s voices struggling to be heard, sometimes against quite difficult odds.
Earlier this week, in an unprecedented move, women from across all parties, and none, gathered to condemn political violence against women. They had come together following an incident where a young women activist had had her campaign t-shirt ripped from her back by supporters of another party and was left only in her underwear. Veronica Katanga was further humiliated when a clip of the attack was posted on Facebook.
“Enough is enough, we say no to political violence,” said the women. “We need to help each other, we need to protect each other during the campaign,” exhorted one.
Malawi’s establishment reacted quickly. Violence against women has been condemned. Arrests have been carried out. Promises made, at the highest level.
A statement from the country’s President, Peter Mutharika, reads: “...as a He-for-She champion, I will not tolerate any acts deliberately calculated at humiliating women on the political space and creating politics of anarchy.”
It is too early to say whether the cross-party protest has done enough to stop the violence in its tracks, but all this week the newspapers have been full of powerful images of women saying “no”. And being heard. The feminisation of politics in Malawi has started.
The fight for gender equality in politics has been a long, hard road. Party politics, by its very nature, is male. People are praised for their tactical genius and their risk-taking, consensus and policy development are for wimps, and women.
Bullying behaviour is regarded as a show of strength. And misogyny is the default position for those men who regard politics, not as means to building a better society, but as a blood sport, where only the smartest, strongest blokes prevail.
Women like Theresa May, Nicola Sturgeon, Hillary Clinton and Malawi’s former President, Joyce Banda, had to navigate their way through this political jungle to reach the top of their party.
They had to find ways of accommodating the bad behaviour of their male colleagues, the casual sexism, and worse. They had to contend with institutional barriers that favoured men and find a way of coping with a bar room culture that has no time for family life. They had, in effect, to be better blokes than the boys in their way.
Only the toughest, most ambitious women survived, and that very survival made them tough. That generation of women politicians may wear high heels and statement necklaces, but their political instincts are all male.
But the world is changing. Battle-scarred women who fought their way through the second wave of feminism are joining forces with millennials to forge a new world. One where the lived experience of women is honoured, not dismissed as whining or worse, lies.
A world where violence against women, whether in the home or on the campaign trail, is abhorred.
And a world where there are as many useless women standing for election as there are useless men, to paraphrase the great Shirley Williams.
Women are not asking for special treatment, though we still need support to achieve gender balance, which is why campaigns like Scotland’s Women 50:50 and Emily’s List in the US are so important. All we want is the feminisation of politics, before Trump, Rees-Mogg et al destroy our world in the pursuit of their boy’s own nightmare.
The SNP group in the House of Commons, through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, is supporting Malawi’s 32 women MPs get re-elected. You can help too with a small donation to their campaign.