The theme for IWD this year is leadership and how ‘challenge creates change’, which Lucy (and the rest of the team at Back Off Scotland) perfectly encapsulate.
The protests at Chalmers have been happening for over 20 years, how did you take the step from not agreeing with something to actively challenging it?
The Chalmers Street clinic is very close to Edinburgh University so lots of the women who formed Back Off Scotland regularly walked past the protesters who gather outside Chalmers to protest and hold “prayer vigils”. There’s a really active sexual and reproductive justice community at Edinburgh University, and one of the leaders there initially suggested that we start a grassroots campaign and challenge the protests through the local council. I suggested we tackle the issue nationally. Abortion can be a polarising issue, but the harassment of women isn’t, so I wanted to bring national attention to it.
Is the campaign team mainly women?
Mainly, yes. Some advice I got very early on from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and Humanist Society Scotland was that the campaign needed to be led by women as it’s an issue that affects women. But we’ve had a lot of support from men, whether that’s men signing our petition or leaving supportive comments under our Facebook posts, or male journalists supporting us. Before we started Back Off Scotland my boyfriend, for example, would never have thought that this kind of protest was an issue, let alone still happening in Scotland in 2021. But he’s now a staunch advocate for buffer zones. My dad has sent the campaign details to his friends and they are all very supportive of it as well, so I think anybody you tell is usually onboard with it, which is good because they should be!
As the campaign has gained momentum, how have you handled the need for leadership?
There’s a core of around ten women who provide leadership for the campaign. We’ve been very careful to try and spread the workload and share out things like the press opportunities so that people hear lots of different voices of young women on this issue who all have different takes on why it’s important. I think that’s crucial to building a case for change.
Does change feel more possible now that you’ve started this campaign?
I think change feels within touching distance and I believe that we will get legislative change on this issue. When you feel as though change is possible, I guess that’s when the real movement starts. In terms of our campaign, I think the right set of circumstances arose to trigger the movement. We were in lockdown and there were still protesters congregating outside a sexual health clinic targeting the women using the service, which was at that point only seeing arguably the most vulnerable women. The frustration of that persisting even when we had all of these restrictions in place definitely played a part in starting the campaign. I have also worked for a politician for the past two years and saw campaign materials coming in and that really inspired me. Things like the period poverty campaign, which was really similar to our campaign – a group of young women at university creating real positive change for other women and girls. I also think the power of social media to create change is unprecedented and has been hugely instrumental to our campaign.
So while everyone else made banana bread in lockdown you started making huge changes to the structure of our society?
[Laughs] It’s a team effort! But it’s also scary putting yourself out there, but once I got over the initial shock of my name being in the paper about such a polarising topic I realised it was a positive thing. I’ve had a lot of people contacting me to say they were approached by the protesters when going into a clinic for an abortion, and thanking me for challenging that harassment. We often get messages on our Facebook page saying the same. Because I’ve never had an abortion I felt a kind of imposter syndrome when people began reaching out to me. But talking to Lily and Alice from the campaign who have been public about their experiences made me realise that it’s totally valid for me to challenge the legality of the way pro-lifers protest in Scotland – I’m a woman and could one day need to use these services and be affected. I can also empathise with women in this situation and choose to act to protect them from harassment.
What have you learned from taking on this challenge?
If you have an idea, the worst thing that someone can say to you is “no” so there’s no real risk in asking! That relates to what I’ve learned about leadership as well – if I present an idea to the campaign and it’s totally outlandish, the worst people can say is “no”. It’s the same with taking risks and taking on challenges that seem impossible – you may as well try because if it works, it’s going to be great, and if it doesn’t, you tried. Our campaign also showed me the power of community in building and backing a movement. It’s the community that’s formed around us that means we’ve moved from being a campaign nobody had heard of, to where we are now, in the space of just a few months.
Who are your leadership and change inspirations?
There are so many amazing women that I could mention that it makes it hard to single out one or two heroes. But if I had to, then of course Emmeline Pankhurst would be there. It’s just over a hundred years since women got the vote. That’s crazy, it’s within my grandmother’s lifetime. Also, Sarah Weddington who was one of the Roe vs Wade attorneys and instrumental to the success of the case. She was the youngest person to ever defend a case in the American Supreme Court (she was 26), and it was a very conservative Republican court. I’m also inspired by my friends. I have a group of very supportive friends, and I learn so many different things from them and the way they live their lives.
Do you have any advice for girls and young women who want to choose to challenge?
There’s going to be stumbling blocks but just follow through. Don’t get caught up in your opponent’s arguments. That’s something we’ve been very careful with in our campaign. Access to abortion is a medical issue, so we refuse to get caught up in the moral and ethical arguments about abortion. Back Off Scotland’s stance is pro-choice but we’re not going to engage in an argument about why we’re pro-choice, we’re going to advocate for removing barriers to vital healthcare.
Thanks Lucy, it’s been a pleasure talking to you!
You’re welcome. And thank you to Humanist Society Scotland and your members and supporters for being so supportive of the campaign.
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