Today, some 200 women, mainly from the Lothians, will gather for a conference. There’s still time to join us.
And I’ve been asked to explain how we got from there to here. The truth? I don’t know.
So let me set out what I do know.
Today’s Women for Independence conference has been organised by a handful of resourceful, redoubtable women. Most of them have never organised anything more than a family do before, never mind a conference for hundreds of women, lasting all day, with keynote speakers including Scottish Government Ministers, MSPs, Directors of national organisations, leading journalists, authors – all of them women and not all of them supporters of independence.
To say it’s been a stressful experience is probably an understatement. I’ve organised big events like this: they are a nightmare; a canvass of tiny detailed threads, which just as you think you’ve got it all neatly tied off, begins to unravel at crucial parts. But they have been amazing. And this small group of women approached the task with little fear and huge reserves of enthusiasm. They won’t realise it yet, but they have brought their life skills to bear and today will be a resounding success. Because of them.
And that there, in a nutshell, is how Women for Independence got from there to here.
Where is there? Well it all started with Carolyn Leckie, whose idea this was, way back at the turn of the year in 2012. She and I met in late January to discuss it: it was a brilliant idea to try to bring like-minded, independence supporting women together to do their own thing, to make a contribution in their own way to the nascent Yes campaign.
We met again at the end of March. She brought a few pals, I brought a few and ten of us ate, drank a bit and of course, the more wine we had, the more it all seemed like the best idea we’d ever had. A planning day in April/May at the Pearce Institute in Govan brought in a handful more women and we spent that time setting out a plan. Who would we be, what would we aim to achieve, how might we do that. And that plan, more or less, sustained us right through from 2012 to the referendum in 2014.
We would embark on a listening exercise – we had to try and work out what women thought. Our long collective history of political campaigning meant we knew that the official campaigns would struggle to reach women and women would be much more cautious about voting Yes, slower to convert to the idea.
In July, we set out aims and a sort-of constitution. We decided to officially launch in September 2012. We created a website; we launched with just over 100 women supporters and remarkable media interest.
We listened and we shared. We went on the marches and rallies. We made our presence known. We grew.
We challenged the male-dominated refrain which was already beginning to corral this debate within conventional headlines and narratives. We insisted women be invited to participate, in meetings, on media panels, in debates. We were challenged back – one of you come then.
From the beginning, we attracted women who had never before been involved in any political activity before. The appetite for local activity grew and groups were encouraged or simply sprung up on their own. By the end of the referendum campaign, there were over 60 that we knew of.
Edinburgh’s was slow to get going. After a series of false starts, a meeting was held in a space – not even a room – in the National Library on George IV Bridge. The organisers expected a handful to show: over 40 did. We agreed to focus on “adding value” to already organised Yes activity. Women for Independence started supporting the Super Saturdays, canvassing woman to woman, setting up street stalls to allow women to engage with us, organising drop-ins for local women in local cafes. It worked.
We were on panels everywhere. We talked in groups, in one to ones, to great big public meetings. Setting out the case why independence for Scotland was women’s best chance of having independence in their own and their children’s lives.
By being open, inclusive and welcoming, women got involved who had “never done this sort of thing before”. We supported Women for Indy national days of action by focusing on voter registration – doing school gates, outside where playgroups met, bus queues in areas where women (and indeed, men) traditionally did not vote. We stalked bingo halls – our free Yes dabbers – were scooped up by Yes and No alike. We kept going back, to the same areas, the same women, allowing them to move from No to Yes at their own pace. Our favourite day out was Porty prom, especially when the sun shined.
In the summer, in common with groups all over the country, we delivered thousands of our leaflet, through letterboxes, directly into the hands of other women, many of whom didn’t want a Yes leaflet but took ours.
On the glorious, sunny Saturday before the vote, we had Elaine C Smith speaking back to back at meetings in Muirhouse and Craigmillar, encouraging women whom traditional politics had ignored ever since deigning to give them the vote, to choose hope and vote yes.
And then it was all over. Or so we thought.
Since September 2014, Women for Independence, nationally and locally, has grown. A national conference of 1000 in Perth; over 3000 on our mailing list; over 80 women turning up to the first post-referendum planning meeting in Edinburgh; by Christmas 2014, Edinburgh’s Facebook group had doubled in size. And still they come.
With an appetite – a hunger almost – not to keep fighting the Yes No game but to campaign to change women’s lives. Right here, Right now. As we saw with the campaign to prevent a new women’s prison being built.
They want to learn. They want to know. They want different lives. They have taken out something stored away far deep within them, conditioned to believe that their roles are as nurturers, earners, deliverers, keepers, makers, managers, lovers, holding-it-all-together-ers, But only in a space where they can be controlled. And now they have found a political space for them where they can be all this and more, where they are in control and feel safe.
The referendum has awakened in many of them something of huge significance that none of us yet fully understands. That they do not have to be invisible. That they have skills and talents to contribute to the common weal. That they are worth something much more than society has decreed them so far.
And still they are more. Today there will be women attending who were not even involved at all in the referendum campaign – at least on the Yes side. Who have never done anything like this. Who are inspired and enthused and who will leave South Leith Parish Church even more so. Who will want to commune with other women, to keep on growing a movement, by women, for women,
By the end of March, 24 more such events will have happened, some big, some small; some political, some social; all created by women, for women. Engaging in their communities, reaching out, striving for change.
On 14 March, Women for Independence will hold its first ever AGM. Women members – nearly 1000 in less than a month – will vote for whom they want to represent them nationally. We are shifting from boundless, joyous, fractious organised chaos to begin the process of planting shoots and creating roots to ensure our continued growth. It will still be boundless, joyous and on occasion, fractious.
We started there. We are now here.
We are Scotland’s fastest growing political movement. We are now focused – utterly – on working, on our own and with others, to push and prod at every opportunity for independence for Scotland’s women in every sphere of their lives.
We will give voice to those women who have rarely been listened to, ever. We will enable women to find their own voice and make it heard, We will raise our voices to make change happen, in small and big ways.
We came from there to here. And we are not going anywhere but onwards.