• MySTV

Ponsonby: The women who've made their mark on Holyrood

How the likes of Margo MacDonald and Nicola Sturgeon have shaped Scottish politics since 1999.

Margo MacDonald was 'dusted with magic'.
Margo MacDonald was 'dusted with magic'. STV

On Saturday, September 7, 400 women from across Scotland will gather in the parliament's debating chamber to discuss the gender imbalance in Scottish politics.

Our special correspondent Bernard Ponsonby takes a look at some of the women who have played a key part in Holyrood's first 20 years.

On the day of her death I said this of Margo MacDonald: "Charismatic is an overused word in politics and it doesn't begin to capture the presence and appeal of a politician who connects with the public more than any other MSP."

She genuinely was a one off. "Dusted with magic" was the judgement of her husband Jim Sillars. Margo - she was always known by her first name - was no saint. She infuriated colleagues in the SNP who lost patience with her stubbornness. They believed that she allowed single mindedness to masquerade as principle and all for essentially self-indulgent ends. They had a point,  but only up to a point.

MacDonald's contribution as an independent MSP on issues such as the Holyrood building project, tolerance zones for prostitution and legislation on the right to die mark her out as the most outstanding backbench parliamentarian of Holyrood's first two decades.

Susan Deacon: Found herself frustrated at parliament.
Susan Deacon: Found herself frustrated at parliament. STV

She was, of course, a national figure from the 1970s when she was a breath of fresh air in a world dominated by male politicians, many of whom were decidedly tenth rate.

Towards the end of her life she was closest to female Labour politicians. Many of whom she admired, particularly those who were non-tribal.

Susan Deacon was one Labour politician who left parliament in part because of a frustration with the Labour-SNP bun fight which sought to polarise honest policy differences, defining the discourse as a clash of the irreconcilables.

She hated the fact that two left-of-centre parties could not agree on an agenda defining a social floor below which no citizen should fall. After all, was the search for consensus not what the post-1999 politics was supposed to be all about?

Wendy Alexander: Can look back with pride.
Wendy Alexander: Can look back with pride.

Deacon was on the receiving end of briefings mostly organised and executed by men and some of whom no doubt felt threatened that she might eventually torpedo their leadership hopes. She decided to forsake politics for wider public service which is a pity for Scottish Labour, who in recent years would have benefited from her counsel.

Her colleague Wendy Alexander was always a policy wonk rather than a politician. Any journalist or indeed opponent who has watched her in action as she drills down into the detail of policy could not fail to be impressed. As the minister who piloted the repeal of section 28, she can look back with pride that she helped make Scotland a more tolerant place.

Her career, however, serves as a warning to those who come into politics for change based on high principle. Alexander would grow weary of the back-biting and pettiness of internal politics. I hate to depress idealistic younger readers but this is a culture to be found in all parties. Like Deacon, Alexander now undertakes her public service in another field.

Annabel Goldie brought wit and charm to the chamber.
Annabel Goldie brought wit and charm to the chamber. © STV

Many women politicians have made great contributions over the years. The Liberal Democrat Alison McInnes was an outstanding advocate of her party's justice agenda both in committee and in the chamber. Her reward was effectively to be deselected by her party in favour of a man.

Within the old SNP group, Christine Grahame and Dorothy-Grace Elder were damned by the ultimate promotion-threatening judgement; they were mavericks. Both these women have great attributes to be found in any steely parliamentarian. They see flattery for what it is, they care little for overbearing whips and they are happy to be prisoners of their own conscience.

Grahame's long campaign on Lockerbie is a necessary part of the status quo being challenged. Elder's campaign for those suffering from chronic pain has transcended her time in parliament and is testament to 'the political agitator who is most effective is the one with the greatest staying power'. DGE has it in spades.

Annabel Goldie brought a wit and charm to the Holyrood chamber. One commentator described her as "Chic Murray in a frock". With a twinkle in the eye, and a dedicated line in self-deprecation, she was the antithesis of what the Tories were supposed to be all about.

Nicola Sturgeon has reached the summit of Scottish politics.
Nicola Sturgeon has reached the summit of Scottish politics. ITV News

By dint of opposition caricature they were humourless, hard-nosed, uncaring. And those are just the adjectives I can print. The charge was difficult to pin on the Baroness, who would feign outrage at the attacks with a simple utterance of "what? Moi?".

Of course, the current First Minister is the stand out of all of the women of the last 20 years not least because she has made it all the way to the top. My memory might be playing tricks but I can't recall Nicola Sturgeon pursuing a feminist agenda during her early years in the SNP.

Since taking the top job, however, she has sought to promote an equality agenda for women at home and abroad, helping to reshape the agenda and encouraging young women to believe that all is possible. That's not a bad contribution.

When I first started reporting politics all of Scotland's leaders were men. Until recently three of the four leaders of our main parties were women. The sky did not fall in with change but nor did the temperature of our politics lessen.

The stuffed, mostly overstuffed grey suits of the past are gone. Scotland's Parliament has done reasonably well in the gender-balance stakes. It will have done even better when we no longer talk about it.

Politics is ultimately a battle about ideas. There is no gender-based analysis around that, nor should there be.

Download: The STV News app is Scotland's favourite and is available for iPhone from the App store and for Android from Google Play. Download it today and continue to enjoy STV News wherever you are.

One account. All of STV.

This field is required. That doesn't look like a valid e-mail format, please check. That e-mail's already in our system. Please try again.
Forgot password?
This field is required. This must be at least 6 characters long. Did you enter your details correctly?
If you've forgotten your details then use the 'Forgot password?' link.
Need to reset your password?

We'll send a link to reset your password to

We've sent you details on how to reset your password

Please check your email and follow the instructions.

Forgotten your email address?

Have you forgotten the email address that you previously joined with? Don't worry, by emailing enquiries@stv.tv we can help.

One account. All of STV.

This field is required. Please enter at least 2 characters
This field is required. Please enter at least 2 characters
This must be at least 6 characters long.
This field is required. This must be at least 6 characters long.
You must be over 16 to join STV.
This field is required. This doesn't appear to be a valid date
We need this to check that you live in an STV region.
This field is required. This doesn't appear to be a valid postcode
Would you like us to email you about our great shows and services from time to time?
We'll only send emails we think you'll like (see example) based on information you have supplied and shows you have watched on STV Player. For details on emails and advertising, see our STV & You page.
Would you like to receive emails from the Scottish Children's Lottery about draws, instant games and competitions?
We support the Scottish Children's Lottery (SCL), which is managed by our colleagues at STV ELM Ltd. You can find out more about the SCL on its website, including its Privacy Policy.

By continuing you agree to our Terms of Use, and understand our Privacy and Cookie Policies.

Upload Profile Picture

Please make sure your image is under 2mb in size and a valid JPG, PNG or GIF.

Are you sure?

Unfortunately, you'll be unable to access our premium content. We’ll be sorry to see you go, but if you change your mind you can rejoin us at any time.

Please verify your STV account

Please verify your STV account using the email we sent you. If you have lost the email, we can send you another one, just click the button below.


We've sent you a new verification email.
Please check your email and follow the instructions to verify your account.

Welcome to STV
Thanks for joining us.


Sorry, you must be at least 12 years old to place a vote for your Real Hero.

Please review our Voting Terms of Use for more information.


Sorry! It seems that you are using a browser that is incompatible with our voting service.

To register your vote please copy the below URL in to your regular mobile browser. We recommend Google Chrome, or Safari.



Sorry, you seem to have already voted in this category.

Thanks for voting

Now share your vote with friends on your social network

Share on twitter Share on facebook

Cast your vote

Please register or sign in to continue.

Cast your vote

This field is required. This doesn't appear to be a valid date

Cast your vote

Please fill out this form to cast your vote. As you are under 16 years old you will not create an STV account. Why do we need these details?

This field is required. Please enter at least 2 characters
This field is required. Please enter at least 2 characters
This field is required. That doesn't look like a valid e-mail format, please check.
Location This field is required.
Parental Consent This field is required.

That's you. All that's left is to click the 'Submit Vote' button below. By doing so, you confirm that you and your parent or guardian have read and accept our Voting Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Cookie policy, and that the details you have entered are correct. We'll look after them as carefully as if they were our own.