The Dangerous Women Project was inspired in part by powerful women being labelled–often by mainstream media outlets–as threats or as outright dangerous.
One of these so called ‘dangerous women’ is the current First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, labelled as such in the UK General Election campaign in 2015. Before we gear up to a Scottish election, it’s appropriate to post a Dangerous Women Project contribution from the First Minister herself.
You can read more about the genesis of the Dangerous Women Project in brief here, and in more detail here. These texts explain why the home of the project is the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh.
What follows is an abridged version of an invitation from IASH’s Director to Nicola Sturgeon, followed by the First Minister’s full response.
Rt. Hon. Nicola Sturgeon MSP
First Minister of Scotland
Dear First Minister,
I am writing to tell you about an important digital project that we are launching at the University of Edinburgh on the topic of ‘Dangerous Women’.
We ask the question:
What does it mean to be a ‘dangerous woman’?
The idea that women are dangerous individually or collectively permeates many historical periods, cultures and areas of contemporary life (despite, and in some instances in response to, explicitly feminist movements). We may take lightly the label attached by mainstream media outlets to women such as yourself or previously Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty, as being the most dangerous woman in the UK. Or more recently, the accusation that Angela Merkel is the most dangerous woman in Europe.
But behind this label lies a serious set of questions about the dynamics, conflicts, identities and power relations with which women live today.
The Dangerous Women Project will publish 365 responses to those questions on a specially designed website linking International Women’s Day 2016 with International Women’s Day 2017 and we are inviting reflections from women of diverse backgrounds and identities. It will be international in character, and give prominence across the year to voices that have not hitherto been well heard.
However, we would also be delighted if prominent women, who have publicly identified as feminists, would support the project at the very beginning by offering their reflections on this question, whether by means of autobiography, or by reference, perhaps, to women who have inspired them over the years who have been sidelined because they were perceived as ‘dangerous’ and threatening to the status quo. This is why we are approaching you, because you never shy away from the gender issue when discussing political issues and your position as Scotland’s First Minister.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Professor Jo Shaw
Salvesen Chair of European Institutions
Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities
Institute for Advanced Studies
The University of Edinburgh
Thank you for your letter of 10 December 2015 inviting me to take part in this great digital ‘Dangerous Women’ project. You are right to say I try to never shy away from gender issues, or any issues for that matter.
Last year, in the lead up to the UK General Election, I was given the title of ‘Dangerous Woman’ by the Sun and Daily Mail newspapers. It was, I believe, based on the supposition that my party’s prospective success in that election would have a number of significant effects on the existing political power balance.
However, my advocacy of feminism was also used as an indication as to my so called hazardous nature. My appointment of a gender-balanced Cabinet and my public commitment to use my time as Scotland’s First Minister to improve the lives of women across our country were highlighted as evidence of this nature.
As a result, although the term was meant to give pause to those who might have been considering voting for my party in the General Election, it could also be viewed as yet another pejorative term used to minimise women’s achievements. Terms like ‘dangerous’ can belittle the positions of women in power by implying that we should be feared and I am extremely concerned that women can be collectively branded in a way that men are simply not subjected to. Despite this I took great pride in being termed ‘dangerous’ when I considered those with whom I shared the title, such as Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
To be counted among those women felt like a validation of my challenge to the status quo. When I look at the women who inspired me to take on a political career and ultimately leadership responsibilities, my role models include strong women who played an important part in shaping the SNP — Margo MacDonald and Winnie Ewing, who helped the party become the social democratic force for change we are today.
I am sure they too were seen as threatening to the political establishment of the day, as they challenged the perceived order in Scotland. Their work did so much to encourage women like me and showed us that there could be a place for us in politics.
Winnie Ewing’s election victory in 1967 was a significant by-election in Scottish political history and began a surge of support for the SNP. She said at the time of her election, ‘stop the world, Scotland wants to get on’, and her presence at Westminster proved to be a real focus for the SNP with a significant rise in membership as a result. Many feel it was as a result of her victory that the Government established the Kilbrandon Commission to look into the establishment of a devolved Scottish Assembly.
Margo Macdonald’s victory in 1973 in the Glasgow Govan by-election, until then a Labour stronghold, was another landmark result for the SNP. She faced blatant sexism and harassment as all women MPs suffered at that time and dealt with this in her own inimitable way, as she would in her battle with Parkinson’s disease towards the end of her life. She and Winnie helped pave the way for all of the amazing female SNP MSPs and MPs that we have today here and at Westminster.
Their great legacy of political engagement is something I am proud to see continue in the women of Scotland, particularly in the grassroots campaigns of the Scottish Referendum. I will work hard to ensure that the next generation of ‘dangerous women’ flourish in Scotland. Whether that be in politics, the arts, science and technology, business or sport – I want young girls to know that they should always aspire to be their best and challenge the status quo. When we are ‘dangerous’ we can change the world and our place in it.
I hope this project will be a celebration of hundreds of ‘dangerous women’ and what we can achieve.
Rt Hon Nicola Sturgeon MSP
First Minister of Scotland