Nicola Sturgeon: 'Femininity Shouldn't Simply Be The Opposite Of The Stereotypes We Apply To Men'

Exclusive to ELLE: Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on what femininity means to her

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Growing up, I was never a hair and make-up girl. I wouldn't be saving my pocket money for lipstick and nail varnish – I would be saving for the latest book from my favourite author, so I could quickly devour it in the quiet sanctuary of my room.

As a woman in my forties, I'm not ashamed to admit that I don't really cook – in fact, if I'm honest, I can't cook! My husband would never call me a domestic goddess. So it's not hard to guess that the traditional view of femininity that existed in the Seventies when I was a young girl isn't one I have ever subscribed to.

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For me, the meaning of femininity shouldn't be how we look or what we wear, and it shouldn't simply be the opposite of the stereotypes that we might apply to men – not in a world where we aspire to equality. My idea of femininity and the character of women, who we are and what we can be, comes from the way I was raised.

My mother raised two daughters to believe that we could achieve anything we wanted. She taught us that ambition was OK and the choices we might make about our lives and our careers were all valuable and legitimate. In short, we, as women, could be whatever we wanted to be.

For me, the meaning of femininity shouldn't be how we look or what we wear, and it shouldn't simply be the opposite of the stereotypes that we might apply to men – not in a world where we aspire to equality.

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And that is the message I try to share with young women in the work that I do as First Minister. When I entered politics nearly 26 years ago, it was universally accepted that politics was a man's world. While I campaigned alongside incredibly able and intelligent women, there was no doubt that the political environment was one of macho swagger and bravado.

Even with a female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, politics was very much a boys' club. It certainly wasn't a natural career choice for a young woman from a working-class town in Ayrshire.

That is beginning to change. At Holyrood I debate with two other women every week: Leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson, and the Leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Kezia Dugdale. Until recently, I did this in front of Scotland's first female Presiding Officer, Tricia Marwick. Our debates can be as passionate, sometimes more so, than those of our male colleagues. Being women doesn't mean our political differences melt away, but we can bring a different perspective to the issues we debate.

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As First Minister, I have the privilege of meeting young women and girls around the country and I'm honoured that some of them look up to me as a role model. But breaking barriers and ensuring all women have the power to make their own choices requires more than inspirational figures. It is my responsibility as First Minister of Scotland to look at how we, as a government, can accelerate progress, how we can break the barriers facing women, and how we can truly deliver an age of equality.

To all women, young and old, my message is this: speak up, challenge attitudes and call out discrimination, celebrate our collective and individual achievements, inspire and encourage those around you.

Women are under-represented in science, technology, engineering and maths. I've tasked my government with working to encourage girls in schools to have the confidence to take up these subjects, to ensure they have the same access to the high quality jobs and opportunities outside of education.

We are also doubling the amount of free childcare available to all households to give all parents – in particular, women – more choice and a greater ability to have both a family and a career. And to make progress in the boardrooms, I will legislate to ensure that all public sector boards in Scotland have gender balance by 2020.

On the day I became First Minister, I said I wanted to send a strong message to all girls and young women in Scotland: if you work hard, the sky is the limit. Absolutely nothing should hold you back from fulfilling your potential and accomplishing your dreams. Nothing brought this home to me more than when I stood on the steps of Bute House to welcome the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, to Scotland.

Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon on the steps of Bute House

In that moment, while some journalists compared who had the highest heels, I hoped that young girls and women everywhere saw this image and realised that there was nothing they shouldn't aspire to, and that is what femininity means to me. So to all women, young and old, my message is this: speak up, challenge attitudes and call out discrimination, celebrate our collective and individual achievements, inspire and encourage those around you.

In the 21st century, femininity should be about the power of women to determine our own lives, to change society and to achieve our dreams, whether we do that in heels or flats, bikinis or burkinis, in the home, in a science lab or even in a parliament.

Read more essays about femininity written by GB boxer and Olympic Gold Medallist Nicola Adams, London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Tina Brown among others in ELLE's December issue on sale now.

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