INTERVIEW: SCOTTISH FEMINIST JUDGMENTS PROJECT
100 years ago the suffragettes changed the law but how does the law work for women these days? We spoke to the crusading bitches at the Scottish Feminist Judgments Project looking into exactly that…
Tell us about your project and where it came from?
This project follows in the footsteps of other Feminist Judgments Projects, inspired by a Canadian initiative – the Women’s Court of Canada – that published feminist re-writings of key court decisions. By the time we joined the party, there had already been projects in England & Wales, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland & Northern Ireland; and projects have now begun in India, America and Africa – it really is a global phenomenon.
What surprised you most – something you didn’t expect that came out of Scottish Feminist Judgments Project?
It’s been full of little surprises. It was a surprise that we were able to convince a group of legal academics to take part in a theatre workshop where we role-played the voices inside a judge’s head (!) but one of the biggest surprises has been the momentum of the project’s creative strand. We always knew we wanted to move beyond a textual engagement with judgments and the judging process, but none of us foresaw how big that would become. We were lucky that our exceptionally energetic and talented creative co-ordinator, Jill, came on board to manage that part of the project. We have just held an exhibition at the Scottish Parliament, and it’s been gratifying, if not exactly surprising, to see how many MSPs were drawn in by the work and willing to talk about the project. We’re hoping to roll out more creative engagement activities in public exhibitions – so fingers crossed for more surprises to come.
How are your emerging conclusions about Scotland’s system of justice comparing with those of similar projects from around the world?
Like many other places in the world, Scotland has areas of law and policy that are worrying from a feminist perspective. What is distinctive about Scotland, though, is the way the legal and political have come together over time in the construction of national identity. We explore this further in the book that is coming out next year, which contains all our re-written feminist judgments, as well as commentaries from legal and other experts, such as Rape Crisis and the Scottish Trans Alliance. Another idea we explore is that, historically, Scots law had a certain flexibility built-in that allows judges more discretion than they might otherwise have. One of the things we want to show in this project is that we need to question who is exercising this discretion and who it benefits. What we’re doing doesn’t only show gender ‘blind spots’, it shows how dominant and powerful voices can marginalize and oppress people in all sorts of ways, whether on the grounds of their ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, gender identity, or class.
Why was it so important to combine the views of the academics involved with the project with the contributions of creatives?
Art has a universal appeal. Even though the art world can be as elite and inaccessible as academia, there aren’t the same barriers to understanding: everyone can have an opinion. It’s visceral. As we’ve said, there was an appetite in the group to move beyond textual engagement and because art has a democratising effect, we felt its inclusion would result in a more varied, and in some senses more meaningful, engagement. Art speaks in a different language to law so hopefully by using these different languages we can reach more people and find out as much as we can about their understanding and experience of law.
What is the place of activism within the law?
One of the things that lies at the heart of a feminist approach to law is rejecting the idea that law is a detached, objective and coherent system of rules that we can apply to any particular case. Law is deeply political, and the politics it tends to support often reinforce women’s exclusion or disadvantage relative to men. Every area of law is different, every case is unique and some areas of law are more progressive than others, but we think the place of activism is to highlight law’s blind-spots, challenge its partiality, and expose its impact in the daily reality of women’s diverse lives. There are always limits to law. Frequently, the laws in the statute books are not where the problem really lies. It’s about how those laws are applied (or not) in concrete cases, but also in the social structures and systems that empower women to access those laws. To think that law alone can solve the ‘gender’ problem would be naïve. Law holds a lot of power and sends a signal about what we as a society consider important, so activism – and art – has to engage with it. But also art and activism can provide other spaces, outside of law, to make visible and challenge power and injustice, in ways that are not constrained by the legal system’s rules and concepts.
If you could pick one thing to improve the situation, what would it be?
It might seem that the obvious answer here would be more women judges – and that is important for all sorts of reasons, not least ensuring a more diverse range of role models. But as history has shown, having women in positions of power does not necessarily ensure feminist progress (sometimes far from it!). A diversity of experiences in interpreting the law is crucial, but so is being able to empathise with the perspectives of others who may be different from you. In other words (as one of our feminist judges put it), whereas law tends to ‘see’ disputes as snapshots – a moment frozen in time – justice requires that we see these disputes like scenes in a movie – part of an ongoing rich story that requires context and human engagement to make any sense.
Who are the women who have shaped/inspired you?
Jill: Jo Brand, Joanna Scanlan and Vicki Pepperdine for writing one of my favourite ‘comedies’ “Getting On”. Louise Bourgeois for being a seminal artist who firmly attested that emotional responses in her work (and in general) were not gendered. Louise Wilson for being the most inspiring (and terrifying) arts educator the UK has ever known – I always wish I’d been taught by her.
Chloë: Sophia Jex-Blake, the protagonist in the case I am re-writing for the project. Jex-Blake faced a huge amount of bullshit in her attempts to get access to the medical profession and she didn’t let it crush her. She kept pushing back.
Vanessa: So this is a tricky one – the list could be endless. But if it is not too cheesy, I am going to say my little girl, Ailidh. She is 4 years old. She is brilliantly feisty. She speaks her mind freely and without filter; she is brimming full of confidence that she can achieve anything she puts her mind to; and she questions claims to authority on a regular basis. As her mum, that has its challenges sometimes (!), but it is a spirit I want to make sure she holds on to as she grows, and that inspires me daily.
Sharon: I want to say my granny because she was a character and smart, joyful, funny and resourceful even though she had no education and no money, and took no bullshit, especially from men! I was really inspired by Patricia Williams, a US critical race scholar who was told her writing was too personal to be academic and that if she published it she would be perceived as ‘unstable’. There are too many personal and political influences to list here, but I’m pretty blown away by my fellow feminist judgments project damn rebel bitches!
What are your favourite smells and why?
Chloë: I am not saying I’d wear it as a perfume, but one of my favourite smells is petrol. Not sure why exactly!
Sharon: I think for me, it is the smell of fresh toast, or that gorgeous rich earthy smell you get when it rains for the first time in ages. And tequila.
Vanessa: So, it has to be the smell of the sea, especially on a blustery day; or failing that pipe tobacco.
Jill: Spray paint. Damp (particularly in box rooms, attics and old books). Jasmine.
What do you think makes a DAMN REBEL BITCH?
A mirror. Not just because it neatly ties into the theme of Jill’s artwork… but because every woman who looks at her own reflection is looking at a Damn Rebel Bitch. Rebellion can be dramatic, loud and merciless, systematic, organised and conformist or quiet, personal and private. Because of the societal expectations placed on *all* women (many of which we subconsciously internalise), even questioning your identity and place in the world is an act of rebellion. We’re all Damn Rebel Bitches.
How can people get involved?
Come to the shows! You can see our events here. We have one coming up in February at Southblock in Glasgow – we want to pick your brains and will have lots of creative engagement activities to take part in. Other than that, follow us on twitter @Scottishfemjp – your digital support means so much…. And smash patriarchy every chance you get – obvs.