Nicola Sturgeon as a feminist role model? 'Real' feminists saw through her performance
How Scotland's soon-to-be former First Minister carefully crafted her feminist persona
This article was first published in The Scotsman on Saturday 18 February 2023
There has been much written about Nicola Sturgeon as a female role model in recent days. How she transformed Scottish politics to make it more women-friendly. How she was an inspiration for young women at the start of their career.
Even the former leader of Scottish Labour, Kezia Dugdale, was moved to write in the Dundee Courier that Sturgeon made her proud to live in Scotland, citing her commitment to gender equality, LGBT rights and “vastly expanded state-funded childcare” as proof of the First Minister’s sisterhood.
Forgive me if I remain sceptical about Nicola Sturgeon’s commitment to feminism – whether of the old-school ‘kill the patriarchy’ second-wave type, or the third-wave ‘everyone can be female, it’s just a feeling’ iteration. And I apologise to her many young female fans for not buying her role-model schtick.
There is something performative about Sturgeon’s feminist persona, which has been as carefully crafted as her appearance. Her only biographer to date, David Torrance, took great care to detail Sturgeon’s very deliberate transformation from a Doc Marten-wearing, spike-haired, angry young activist into the polished politician who stood before the nation on Wednesday and (allegedly) opened her heart.
“One of the features of being a women in politics is that, unlike a man, people focus on what you wear,” he quotes her as saying in 2004. And as Sturgeon’s career progressed, she made sure that her appearance was as worthy of comment as her politics.
She ditched frumpy monochrome skirt suits for bright, body hugging ‘look at me’ dresses. Her hair was never out of place. Even during the pandemic she managed – miraculously – to maintain her carefully coiffured style and professional-looking colour while the rest of us looked like banshees who had overdosed on peroxide.
And her heels. Oh, those heels. Four inch plastic spikes that elevated her 5ft 4in frame all the better to eyeball her political opponents and are, for most women, impossible to wear for longer than a night out.
Her polished appearance apart – which must have required iron discipline to maintain – she tried to soften her fundamental nationalism with a soft focus on feminism. But it was feminism on her terms and made in her image. As First Minister, she wooed a small but influential group of young(ish) women, not all of them nationalists, with talk of a female revolution and their place in it.
She set up the First Minister’s National Advisory Council on Women and Girls in 2016, to ‘drive forward action to tackle gender equality’. Now in its second phase, the Council stressed that it did not want its work to be “only influenced by the same people who have some access to power in Scotland”, which is why it felt compelled to set up its own advisory panel of “lived experience” women to guide its deliberations.
Yet for much of Sturgeon’s tenure as First Minister, it seemed that only the voices of those women who had “some access to power” were heard. Until, that is, 2018, when a grassroots women’s campaign took off across Scotland, initially in response to Sturgeon’s ill-thought through gender reforms, but which has since become an influential feminist movement. So powerful, in fact, that it can be credited with helping end Sturgeon’s reign as Scotland’s ‘first feminist’.
This new sisterhood is the antithesis of Nicola Sturgeon and her coterie. It is sprawling, with women in Orkney organising with their sisters in the Borders via Zoom and social media.
It has no command centre to keep a tight grip on messaging. There are key groups – For Women Scotland, the Scottish Feminist Network and Murray Blackburn McKenzie spring to mind – but every woman’s voice has equal weight.
There is no uniform beyond a taste for green, purple and white – the Suffragette colours. And there is no place for party politics. SNP and Alba activists share war stories with their Labour sisters as they plan the next women’s rally. Tory women MSPs like Rachael Hamilton and Pam Gosal have become heroes for their incisive scrutiny of the Gender Recognition Bill, and women who, only 18 months ago, would have walked out of a political meeting if they had stumbled into one, have been radicalised.
It is an authentic women’s movement, funded not by government grants, but by raffles and women donating what they can afford. It is as a diverse as Scotland, with women in their 70s marching alongside political science students. It has its own artists, poets, policy wonks and legal experts. It has connections across the UK and beyond, women working together across borders to protect and extend women’s rights.
And of course, it has its own ‘first feminist’, author JK Rowling, who risked her legacy by the simple – but in Sturgeon’s Scotland, courageous – act of standing up for women’s sex-based rights.
As the First Minister starts to empty her Bute House wardrobe of its power suits and heels, her closest advisers are busy trying to shape her legacy as a staunch defender of women’s rights and an inspirational figure in the history of international feminism.
The truth is far more interesting. In the end, the ‘real’ feminists of Scotland saw through Nicola Sturgeon.
They saw not a role model or a sister-in-arms, but a clever, calculating politician who cynically donned feminism around the same time she started wearing jewel-coloured dresses, and who imperiously dismissed any critical female voices as “not valid”.
The women and girls of Scotland deserve better. No matter who becomes the next First Minister, or what happens to Nicola Sturgeon’s network of women with “some access to power”, there is a legion of women out there who will do their best to make sure that women’s voices are never silenced again.
Spot on. 👍