Is Women Who Changed Modern Scotland Radical Enough?

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Is the BBC’s new show inclusive enough for the changing times, or do it’s ambitions fall short?

BBC veteran Kirsty Wark’s Women Who Changed Modern Scotland is set to air this week, with the series exploring the role that women have played in improving the lives of both men and women in Scotland. Having attended the elusive premiere at the National Museum, I can confirm that the first episode alone showcases an impressive myriad of interviewees; Anna Coote, Nicola Sturgeon, and Annabelle Ewing, amongst others and touches upon issues such as politics, poverty, media, and health.

After the showing, the audience were then indulged by a panel led by Gabriella Bennett, Director of Women in Journalism Scotland, and hosted by the show’s presenter, Kirsty Wark, alongside the Open University’s Dr Helen O’Shea, and Dr Kim Barker. The Q and A was short and sweet, aided in part by Barker’s witty one-word retorts. My only complaint is that there was so much potential for at least an hour’s long conversation; alas, too many questions, too little time.

The series begins by delving into the history of women’s professional football in Scotland, which was officially banned until 1971. Kirsty opens by interviewing Scottish Women’s Football (SWF) expert Elsie Cooke, who led the charge of women’s football. As a prominent figure on the Scottish football scene, the former SWF secretary and former coach of the Stewarton Thistles faced intense resistance to her ambitions for equality, describing her demoralising interactions with the male hegemonic structures during her conversation with Wark.

Cooke’s legacy is apparent today with the success of a thriving women’s football community, across Scotland. In both amateur and professional circles, there are those who continue to defy gender norms and misogyny in a heavily male-dominated sport.

One of the highlights of the episode was the story of University of Edinburgh alumna Anna Coote, who publicly challenged University Rector Thomas Malcolm Muggeridge in a battle for the provision of the contraceptive pill to female students.

A journalist and former Deputy Editor of The Daily Telegraph, Muggeridge was considered a controversial figure, even for his time. A Christian fundamentalist, his views on women were infamously provocative, to say the least, and accusations of harassment and assault have further embittered his divisive legacy. To challenge such powerful figure would have required a degree of bravery and valour.

Completely opposed to Anna’s mission, Muggeridge memorably compared the contraceptive pill to the nuclear bomb and she subsequently penned a fierce response in the University paper. He consequently resigned and Coote succeeded in her aims. However, herself and other female activists were then threatened with expulsion and labelled as “sluts” in the papers in attempts to defame their characters.

Anna Coote, arguably, set a precedent for student activism; she demonstrated that no battle is too daunting. Even prominent public figures with significant levels of public influence are not off limits.

Wark then went on to examine the importance of early female politicians such as Winnie Ewing and Margo MacDonald, who, throughout their careers, both left an indelible mark on both the Scottish and wider UK political scene. These women faced inordinate amounts of harassment, discrimination, and abuse, but in doing so paved the way for women in Scottish politics; a statement affirmed by Nicola Sturgeon herself in the documentary.

One of the key issues discussed amongst the panel was the evolution of harassment against female public figures, namely politicians. Figures such as Ewing and Coote faced their torrents of misogynist harassment and abuse during a pre-Internet era.

Panellists discussed the relentless nature of contemporary abuse; it’s no longer just headlines in the papers, it’s a deluge of 24/7 attacks from anybody who can access the internet. The damage to mental health is palpable, Wark said, citing Jacinda Arden’s recent resignation as an example.

There have been numerous high-profile cases in the UK of online stalking, harassment, and abuse of female MPs. MPs Rachel Reeves, Nicky Morgan, Luciana Berger, and Dianne Abbott are just a handful of examples, many of which have resulted in charges made against the perpetrators.

Although there has been much improvement in representation of women in Holyrood, complacency could result in a loss of “hard-won women’s rights”, O’Shea warned. In an admirable example of the real-life effects of these trailblazing women, two of Ewing’s children, Fergus and Annabelle, are currently both Members of the Scottish Parliament.

Another key part of the programme was the history of women’s refuges in Scotland. I was slightly dubious though of the programme’s claims that refuges established by Scottish Women’s Aid inspired the opening of similar refuges around the world.

Whilst on a whole enjoyable, I do have my criticisms. History is history and we cannot change who made it. However, we can choose from which perspective it is told. There was a notable lack of diversity within the first episode, with seldom mention of how other characteristics, such as race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, amongst others, intersect with misogyny.

In response to an audience member’s question about the presence of women of colour in the programme, Wark did assure audiences that women of colour do appear in the programme; “probably not enough, but they’re in there”.

I would have loved to have seen a segment on disability activist Dr Margaret Blackwood, who founded Blackwood Homes and Care and was instrumental in passing the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. Or Ruth Adler, a Jewish human rights activist, who was a founding member of Scottish Women’s Aid, the Scottish Child Law Centre, and Amnesty International Scotland.

Kirsty’s ambitions were noble, but a 3-part limited series is hardly enough opportunity to showcase all the women who deserve the attention. I’m excited to see what the next two episodes will bring when they are released next month and there is already a promise of a deeper dive into even more serious issues. Maybe subsequent episodes will explore a more radical, revolutionary perspective; it is difficult to judge without a wider context of the rest of the series, particularly as the series is chronological, as opposed to topically categorised. Overall, it was just slightly too tame for my liking, but enjoyable, nonetheless.

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