In some exciting non book-related news, I recently decided to put myself forward for selection as a candidate for Holyrood 2021 for the Scottish Greens. Today I treated myself to a day of undisturbed writing to celebrate the kids going back to school.
Here's what I came up with:
When I was a wee girl of about 8, I came home from school one day inspired by the presence of Maggie Thatcher in number 10 (minus any sort of clue about policy, obviously…) and announced to my Dad that I had decided to be the Prime Minister when I grew up. He looked me dead in the eye and said, “Great – do that. You’ll do a better job than the shower in there at the moment.”
It doesn’t sound like much, but now that I’m a grown woman with children of my own I understand how powerful a message that was. Society is programmed to hear, believe and respect one particular type of person – straight, white men with a bit of money behind them. Luckily for me, my Dad saw me as I was – every bit as intelligent and capable as a boy – and so I believed him.
9 years later I went out into the world. I started at Edinburgh University where very different messages became clear to me – folk who grew up in ex-council houses and had been to state schools were definitely worth less than folk whose parents could afford a “proper” education. Women were even less than “less than”. I remember listening to an old Etonian tell a joke about the benefits of anal sex (it’s warmer, it’s tighter, and it’s more degrading to the woman) and watching as the whole room went into fits of laughter.
Very quickly I began to feel invisible, stupid, lesser. I had entered Edinburgh University as a student in the top 10% of my school, and by the end of my first year I was struggling to scrape a pass in most of my subjects. I failed one exam entirely, and gave up on getting a degree. I was a minority in my environment and my confidence was shot - because I had started to believe the majority instead of my Dad.
I bumbled along for a few years working in pubs, then in my early twenties I got a “proper job” in data entry at what was then Bank of Scotland. I got into my first proper relationship via an office romance with a man in my team, and when he went to his male boss to complain about being far too intelligent to waste his time typing numbers into a computer, he was given a promotion. I don’t think you’ll find it hard to guess how it went when I naively followed his example and tried that tactic myself…
I stood up for myself a couple more times in that job; once insisting on being paid appropriately for the grade I was on, and once pushing back against being blamed for mistakes made in my department several years before I’d started. Perhaps predictably I earned myself a reputation as a troublemaker. In the end I followed a friend to a slightly less toxic part of the bank and used a clean slate and my new understanding of the unwritten rules that applied to me but not to men, to work my way up to middle management without rocking the boat.
That was 15 years ago and I’m now a mum of three boys. I went back to work full time in a contract for RBS after having my first baby, then three days a week managing projects for NHS Education for Scotland after my second. My third baby was the tipping point, where it became impossible for me to spend enough time “being seen to be there” outside of my usual working hours without the family suffering badly. I worked part time for 5 months in a software and communications company run by a group of ex-military men, and made myself ill trying to balance the needs of three tiny humans against the demands of grown men who saw me as a resource instead of a person. The levels of bureaucracy and incompetence in that company were staggering - and this comes from a woman who thought RBS was a silly place! Shortly after I left for the sake of my mental health, confidence in shreds yet again, there were huge waves of redundancy, and most of my ex-colleagues lost their jobs. The men in leadership roles were mostly rescued and promoted out elsewhere in the large corporate that owned the company. I hear they put a woman in charge of what was left…
You might wonder why I’m sharing all of this with you? Well it’s because as a woman, a non-binary person or a person of colour, I am quite certain that you will have just as many or more stories like these, where you had to be stronger, more flexible, more competent, more patient, more innovative, braver and more determined than more or less any straight white man who’s anywhere near your level professionally. I’ve shared stories of my working life to illustrate this, but like every other woman I’ve been through it in my personal life too.
The world is in chaos at the moment. The UK is in chaos. Scotland is showing some signs of getting its shit together, but it’s still mired in fighting and wrangling over constitutional issues – something my pal Sean who’s studying Sustainable Development at Edinburgh University describes as “rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic” in the face of climate breakdown. We desperately need strong, flexible, competent, patient, innovative, brave, determined leaders, and simply by virtue of you continuing to exist in a world that’s designed for somebody else – that means you.
As a new face and unproven member of the Scottish Greens it’s pretty certain I won’t be going anywhere near Holyrood this time round, however I am still putting myself forward as a candidate. I’m here to learn whatever I can from the process, and support whoever ends up on the list in whatever ways I can. The reason I am writing this letter is this:
PLEASE don’t let negative self-chat stop you from putting yourself forward. The internal voice that suggests you might not be good enough is talking nonsense – it comes from all those experiences where patriarchy or racism blocked you, and you mistakenly blamed yourself instead of the system. I saw a meme on Facebook recently that said, “God grant me the confidence of a mediocre white man” and it genuinely made me laugh out loud. I realise now that I had that confidence back when I was 8 – my Dad gave it to me when he told me to go ahead and run Britain if I felt like it. It was living a grown up life as a woman outside his sphere of influence that extracted it, drop by drop, experience by experience, as I learned the hard way that I can’t just rock up and expect to be heard, believed or respected the way a straight white man can.
When it’s put baldly like that it sounds terribly grim, but the good news is – that same life has given me strength and skills that most average white blokes just haven't had to acquire in order to be successful; I am working on the assumption here that you are pretty much the same. With that in mind, please consider this letter as my vote of total confidence in you, and a declaration of my support for you if you decide to step forward.
Best wishes, Elaine. x