The call for gender equality within the new Scottish parliament opens up a political world denied to many by Westminster's quirks, foibles, and distance. Marian Pallister has been talking to the monstrous regiment of talented and dedicated women who are already poised in the wings of Scottish politics, ready to march Scotland into the new century on an equal footing. Beginning a three-day series, she looks at those who are in line to carry forward the Labour banner.

IT has long been recognised that the Palace of Westminster is not female-friendly. Indeed, many men who are not card-carrying members of the Drones, or even of less Wodehousian gentlemen's clubs, also feel marginalised in the corridors of power. It is not, however, merely anticipation of the lack of sufficient ladies' powder rooms and the whiff of deeply ingrained sexism served up with the muffins in the Members' tearoom which has excluded women from our current parliamentary system.

Nor is it only because it is a long way to Westminster if you are the mother of three children, the daughter of an elderly Alzheimer's victim, or the wife of a man who values his own career higher than rubies. That very basic fact applies whether you live in Perth or Penzance. There are other factors at play, too. It is a far cry from the normality of nine-to-five employment, for instance, to experiencing the sharp sting of the Whip at 20 minutes to midnight. Most women prefer to distance themselves from aggression: the adversarial mindset is not traditionally a female orientation. Women generally do not want to dive into the green leather-lined cesspit of drawling, sneering pomposity. Many have failed to see the correlation between the cigars-and-bars syndrome and the efficient, effective, and compassionate running of a country.

Things, it has been promised, will be different in a Scottish parliament, which should mean no difficulty in meeting the 50-50 gender equality criterion for which Labour and the Liberal Democrats in particular have fought so fiercely. The new century should see a shift in Scottish politics, taking more women into power roles as more women access the new system. Who will those women be? Some will already have braved Westminster, but others are also being tipped as shapers of the new Scotland. Some have been playing a major role in the devolution process; all represent the many facets of women's lives in Scotland today.

To reach the stage of uneasy agreement that there should be gender equality within the new parliament has been a long, hard struggle. Some of those women who will hope to stand as members have been instrumental in pushing for gender equality and fair ethnic minority representation through the various stages of the campaign for a Scottish parliament since the 1970s. Each party maintains a smiling, united front on the gender issue, but women of all political hues maintain a basic realism about this promised Utopian state.

On the Labour front, Rosina McCrae, a founder of the Scottish Women's Caucus, was saying only in March of this year that she had been ''made to feel like an enemy'' within her own party, and she questioned Labour's commitment to gender equality. McCrae, who before the General Election was ousted from the Labour Scottish Executive as being Old Labour, has spearheaded Zero Tolerance in Scotland. In the west end Edinburgh headquarters of the campaign against violence to women, she now evaluates what she believes she and other women could and should bring to the Scottish parliament.

She was raised in Kilmarnock, one of three sisters who were the daughters of a railway signalman and a part-time cleaner. She left school with O-grades, narrowly escaped marriage at 18, going to London, Manchester, and around Europe, temping and doing hotel work ''to catch the sun and see a bit of life.'' Back in Kilmarnock, she settled down to raise a family of two girls and a boy. She did part-time waitressing, ''funerals and weddings,'' and started to cut her political teeth campaigning for child care on a housing scheme built without facilities. She recalls being nervous meeting local officials, but says: ''I started to interact with them and realised that I did have a skill. I think some people have natural leadership skills and we shouldn't be afraid to say that.'' Women, she believes, are too reticent in proclaiming their talents, while many men will all too readily present as leaders.

She had seen that women could be marginalised by an elected representative who did not value women's needs highly, and joined the Labour Party because she saw it as the only party seeking social change. There was, however, marginalisation within the party, too. ''The boys went to conference, women leafleted the schemes,'' she says.

Rising through the ranks to chair both branch and constituency, after eight years she finally made it to conference. Her Road to Damascus was a fringe meeting organised by the newly formed Labour Women's Action Committee and addressed by Dora Russell, then in her eighties. ''She was inspirational,'' says McCrae. ''I remember saying I had found my political home.'' As a working-class child of the sixties, feminism had passed her by. Now she avidly caught up with the issues and, in reaction to the legendary Cathy Come Home programme, lobbied the local housing department about homeless women and helped set up the Kilmarnock Women's Aid group.

''Since then I have straddled two movements, the Labour movement and the women's movement,'' she says. In her ideal world, the two would be one, but she says: ''I think the Labour Party is deeply misogynist, and while it is easy to be a woman in the Labour Party, it is very difficult to be a feminist. If you pursue the feminist path, you are marginalised.''

The 1980s were deeply traumatic on a personal level for her and other feminists in the party, and she says: ''I certainly was damaged personally. I began not to trust my judgment. Like any human being, if you are getting a negative reaction all the time, it sinks in. I could link that to the abuse of women. It isn't just the physical, it is that emotional stuff which is destroyed. In many ways, the Labour Party emotionally abuses its feminist activists. It is a very confusing position for us to be in.''

While one faction of the party devalued her, another, the Women's Committee, valued her so highly they made her their British representative on the National Executive Committee. She claims to have spearheaded some strands of New Labour, but has been given an Old Labour label because of her stance on a variety of issues, including the reality of open government. Carrying this baggage, it is little wonder that McCrae welcomes the new Scottish parliament with open arms as an exciting new start. ''Any form of government which brings power closer to people gets my support,'' she says. ''It has the opportunity not to have that confrontational approach which Westminster does. It will be much more committee-based and consultative.'' She expects a greater engagement with the Scottish people, particularly with Scottish women. ''I know there is a very vibrant women's movement which has never really

connected with the political scene and I think they have huge potential in being a very serious lobby of that parliament, which will strengthen it because it will need to respond to the women

of Scotland in whichever way they come to the parliament.''

McCrae says: ''I would like to be a member of the Scottish parliament. I would see my main remit as making links with the women's movement and bringing their concerns into the parliament. I would also like to bring my creativity and my skills to the parliament. Having worked in the voluntary sector in a hostile Government over the past 18 years, we have gained a lot of knowledge and skills. The party will need creative people to make a difference within the existing resources and I think I am one of those people who have a wide knowledge of social issues and a knowledge of how the voluntary and statutory sectors work.''

While McCrae wants to run on a feminist ticket, Rhona Brankin, a former chair of the Labour Party's Scottish Executive, is more likely to enter the Scottish parliament on a New Labour-approved ticket. She is co-chairwoman of Network, the New Labour organisation which claims it will bring new ideas for the new millennium, and the group which challenged Old Labourites such as McCrae back in March. Brankin would have braved Westminster - she was on the controversial women-only shortlist for selection for the Cumbernauld and Kilsyth seat in the spring and was tipped for selection in Paisley before Douglas Alexander was chosen as Labour's candidate in the by-election created by the death of Gordon McMaster. The Scottish parliament holds more appeal, however, and she honestly lists domestic factors among those which make it a preferable goal to London.

Brankin was born and brought up in Glasgow, moved to the north of Scotland after she married, and now lives in Edinburgh where she is a lecturer at Moray House teacher-training college. She became involved in politics during her 25 years in the Highlands and, although she may not see totally eye to eye with McCrae on some political issues, she shares one biographical detail in that she helped set up a women's aid refuge in Dingwall.

She had been involved in student politics at Glasgow University, and after her marriage did a mature degree at Aberdeen. Involved with what she calls politics with a small ''p'', she saw social issues ranging from unemployment to bad housing in rural and urban settings, and dealt with their after-effects. She says: ''Having my own children made me think about a lot of issues I hadn't thought about as a young woman.'' Her younger daughter, now about to go to university, has experienced ill health all her life, and this brought Brankin in touch with other women with a range of problems which needed community responses. Teaching in areas like Invergordon and Alness meant she saw the effects of unemployment first hand. She stood for the local council on a Labour ticket and entered politics with a capital ''P''.

Her involvement with the Labour Party grew. Elected to the Scottish Women's Committee, then on to the Scottish Executive, she, like McCrae, found it to be a ''very, very male-dominated Labour Party''. Pressures from the women's organisations pushed change through until now, 15 years on, she sees gender parity. She has been chairwoman of the Scottish Executive and with the culture of the party changed, she wants the Scottish parliament to move away from the culture which exists at Westminster which she says is ''alien'' to so many women.

She says she could not have gone to Westminster when she had two young daughters. ''A lot of women coming into politics at Westminster are either older women or younger women without the commitments. A Scottish parliament is a much more attractive proposition, it is a lot more manageable for women. It is really important that the structures of the Scottish parliament allow women with young children to participate. Otherwise you are excluding vast numbers of women.'' Brankin says that professionally, politically, and through her work with Women's Aid, she has come across an army of women with the talent to represent their country. She warns, however, that Scottish culture means that it will take time to change. ''That is one of the reasons the political parties have had to take positive action to encourage women to take part in politics. There are undoubtedly still barriers in the way of women

becoming involved. An awful lot of women, men as well but mainly women, are alienated by the Westminster system, and once the Scottish parliament is set up and is working in a different way and is more accessible, it will hopefully continue the process of breaking down barriers for women.''

Brankin's own two daughters are now aged 21 and 19, and she lives with her partner, Peter Jones, in Edinburgh. She still sees the need for a Scottish parliament which offers hours, child care facilities, and a language and procedure which makes the whole system user friendly, and especially woman-user friendly. She finds any suggestion that Scotland could not raise enough women of the right calibre for a gender-equal parliament deeply insulting, and having got that gender balance, finds it insulting that anyone could think, as a radio commentator suggested earlier this month, that having so many women about the place would turn the Scottish parliament into a domestic talking shop. ''What do they mean by domestic education,'' she demands. ''Health? These are men's and women's issues.''

Brankin, 47, sees equal representation ensuring that the choices women seek in their lives are actually put into motion. She'd like to see a women's unit within the parliament which oversees the work of the various departments, and views the parliament as an important step towards women's equality throughout society. ''In terms of women's representation, before the election Britain was fiftieth in the world league although we always regard ourselves as being in the forefront of democracy. Overnight, getting the 120 women into parliament through positive selection, we went to twenty-fourth. Scotland could be top of the league. I think there has been a sea change in attitudes. We have a long way to go but people are recognising that taking action to ensure women are involved is something which all political parties have to do now. Women won't put up with being marginalised any more.''

A woman of confidence with a colourful background, it is hard to imagine anyone even trying to marginalise Jackie Baillie. She is another possible Labour candidate for the Scottish parliament who has not been controversy free. Chairman of the Scottish Executive, she was challenged by Network earlier this year when she held the vice-chair. When her job as a social strategy co-ordinator at East Dunbartonshire Council was retained after budget cuts, albeit at a lower salary, Tories demanded whether it was because she held a senior post with the Labour Party. She does not appear fazed, and awaits the selection process with what seems to be a masochistic joyful anticipation. What Jackie Baillie wants to be is a Scottish Member of Parliament, and no messing.

Born in Hong Kong of a Scottish mother and Portuguese father, she went to boarding school in the English Lake District and spent holidays with her grandmother in Scotland. When she left school, she settled in Scotland, seeing it as the place of her roots. She married Glaswegian Stephen Baillie, who she says is a self-confessed typical West of Scotland male, lives in Kirkintilloch, and at 33 has a five-year-old daughter called Laura. She is also juggling a part-time post-graduate course in economic development.

Exposed to social injustice from an early age - she scorns Chris Patten's eulogy on the end of democracy in the British protectorate, claiming little democracy was evident in the Hong Kong she knew - and then to gender injustice in the form of a seven-week stint in a bottle-top factory, when she saw women subjected to abysmal working conditions, Baillie's political conscience was alive and kicking by the time she had left school.

She joined the Labour Party at 18 in 1982. ''I wanted a say,'' she says. Having intended to go to university, she was thwarted by Thatcher's change in funding. She was considered a foreign student and fees would have been #8000. There were few paid jobs to be had in the early 1980s, so Baillie did voluntary work in her local community before securing a contract with the social work department to set up a hypothermia-prevention scheme. She remained in the public sector in a variety of social work jobs, and is now in the reduced salary post which caused such a furore after the budget cuts.

Politically, Baillie has slogged through branch, constituency, and Scottish national posts. She has also been a long-term member of Scottish Labour Action, the Labour Party's home rule pressure group, which has had a fairly rough ride in pushing for an assembly and even now has a hard job convincing people it is not all about getting a Labour-dominated parliament.

She says she would never have stood for Westminster. ''It is too far removed from ordinary people. The Scottish parliament is much closer to people. On a practical level, there are issues of child care, and I would not want to spend mid-weeks away from my daughter or from my family in its wider context. Living normally is important. I also think the whole atmosphere which Westminster conjures up for me is just totally inappropriate for running a democracy.'' The adversarial style and the bully-boy tactics have never been inviting to Baillie, and she believes the more consensual style women follow will be a major influence in the Scottish parliament.

More than two decades after equality legislation, it should have been superfluous to initiate measures for gender equality in the new Scottish parliament. That Brankin can quote a senior Tory spokesman suggesting that as a replacement for Piers Merchant, constituents might want a bright young man with an attractive wife and two children rather than a Tory grandee such as Chris Patten, and that Baillie could attend a meeting where the sound of a drill was greeted with the cry: ''Tell him to turn that off,'' and the noise of a vacuum cleaner by: ''Tell her to switch it off'' proves something. ''We may have come a long way,'' says Baillie, ''but we are still not reversing deep-seated feelings about equality.''

Baillie says she has put a lot of work into gaining both the parliament and its gender equality. She hopes to have a seat there because: ''I think I have something to offer: a very ordinary, everyday, practical point of view and a lot of life experience.'' She wants to help close the gap between rich and poor and the Scottish parliament is where she believes she can do it.

Tomorrow: Three to raise the SNP standard.