Was feminism just a myth? Edinburgh starting to feel like it – Susan Dalgety

In the 1990s, strong women helped put Edinburgh in the vanguard of civic life in Scotland, but the city council seems increasingly male dominated, writes Susan Dalgety.

Edinburghs councillors are nearly two-thirds male and out of 11 candidates for an upcoming by-election only one is a woman (Picture: Greg Macvean)
Edinburghs councillors are nearly two-thirds male and out of 11 candidates for an upcoming by-election only one is a woman (Picture: Greg Macvean)

Sometimes it is hard to shake off the feeling that we are facing the end of days.

Watching New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s strained, but authoritative, appearance in the immediate aftermath of the mosque massacres was a terrible testimony to the inhumanity of terrorism. Her heart was clearly breaking as she realised her country would never be the same again.

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“We have never seen anything like this, this level of hate and depravity,” said local journalist Kurt Bayer, as he struggled to report the unreportable.

Here at home, we are not witnessing carnage, but, night after night, we have been forced to watch the grotesque chaos of our leaders trying, and failing, to run the country.

Commentators and historians have run out of words to describe how badly Theresa May has, so far, failed in her efforts to get to the first stage of Brexit. But she is not alone in her gross incompetence. The so-called leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, offers no hope to those of us – half the population – who dread leaving the EU. The Prime Minister may have no discernible leadership qualities, but Corbyn has even fewer.

And a quick glance across the Atlantic reminds us all that the leader of the free world is a buffoon, most likely in hock to the Russians, and most definitely a danger to democracy.

Earlier this week he, chillingly, appeared to promise armed insurrection if his authority was threatened in any way. He told the right-wing website Breitbart News, “I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of Bikers for Trump ... I have tough people, but they don’t play tough until they go to a certain point and then it would be very, very bad.”

His threat of a military coup, because that is what his words mean, went almost unnoticed, even on Twitter, in part because the notion is so ridiculous. But wait, only three years ago the prospect of a reality TV star and self-confessed sex-abuser becoming leader of the free world was laughed off as impossible. Donald J Trump has now been in office for 786 days and counting.

Little wonder that as the world we used to know falls apart, we turn inwards, to familiar faces and the comfort of our own hometown.

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Think society’s not sexist? Crash-test dummies tell different story – Susan Dalg...

I love Edinburgh. I love it so much that I once spent seven years hard labour as a city councillor. I was not brilliant, nor was I particularly terrible. I learned how hard it is to govern, forced to make spending cuts to things that really matter (potholes anyone?) to save things that mattered even more, such as social care and school dinners.

I helped some families, whose terrible circumstances sometimes made me cry. I was proud to serve on the women’s committee that introduced Scotland’s first domestic abuse campaign, Zero Tolerance, and to deliver a commission on social justice.

In the 1990s, Edinburgh City Council felt at the vanguard of civic life in Scotland, not least because of the number of high-profile, progressive women, like Lesley Hinds and Margaret McGregor, who were breaking new political ground. The sisters were doing it for their city.

Fast forward to 2019, and it is as if the last two decades were a feminist myth. Next month there will be a by-election in the Leith Walk ward, following the resignation of Councillor Marion Donaldson.

There are 11 candidates, including two independents. Nine political parties, from UKIP to the Socialist Labour Party, are contesting the seat. Democracy, it seems, is alive and well down Leith Walk, but only up to a point, because of those 11 candidates, only one is a woman. One.

Let that number sink in. One woman. I was so taken aback by this that I checked out the sex of the 63 councillors running our capital city.

There are currently 39 male councillors and 23 women. After the Leith Walk by-election, unless by some miracle the Green Party candidate, the sole woman, wins, there will be 40 men. Nearly two thirds – 63 per cent – of the people who run Edinburgh are men.

I delved further. The Corporate Policy and Strategy Committee, where the forward planning on issues such as transport, social care and education takes place, has 11 councillors sitting round the table making the decisions that will affect the lives of nearly half a million people, half of them female. And, yes, you’ve guessed it, only two are women.

Now those of you who have read my column before will know that I am always banging on about women, or lack of them, in our public life, in government and in business. I sometimes bore even myself with the torrent of numbers that prove my point that women are still badly under-represented where it matters.

But I am not alone in my distress. A few days ago, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) reminded us that only 29 per cent of Scottish councillors are women, compared to 51 per cent of the population.

Their study also found that political parties who, after all, make the decisions about who should represent them at elections, routinely failed to collect data about the number of women members and candidates, which suggests that they really don’t care about gender balance.

However, Dr Lesley Sawers, the EHRC Scotland Commissioner, does. “The diversity of elected local politicians is clearly important, with key decisions undertaken at local government level,” she said on launching the report.

“Local politicians also form a crucial part of the pool of potential candidates for selection at other levels of government, including Holyrood and Westminster,” she added.

And surely even the most blokeish among you cannot argue with her when she warns that unless we improve “diversity among elected officials at the local level, it may be more difficult to make progress across elected politics”.

After a week that has seen people gunned down as they pray, careless politicians gamble our economic security for their personal advancement and the American President threaten his people with tanks on their sidewalks, it may seem parochial, pointless even, to focus on pavement politics.

But it matters just as much who decides how much we spend each year on looking after our elderly as it does who has his, or her, finger on the nuclear button.

The next council elections are on Thursday 5 May 2022. That gives the women of Scotland three years to get ready. Sisters, it’s time we took over running our hometown.