Feminism Around the World: Women Respond to “Brexit”

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Welcome to Feminism Around the World, a new regular feature here at TMS where we’ll focus on women’s lives and feminist concerns…around the world. TMS is a US-based website, but we think it’s important to connect with women all over the globe to applaud successes, report injustices, and amplify the conversation around solutions to gender-based inequality. We’ve written about women in other countries before, but we’d now like to make it a more consistent priority. Because “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” – Teresa  

The United Kingdom: Women Respond to “Brexit”

The United Kingdom recently held a vote, the results of which will change not only the lives of those in the UK, but will also affect the rest of the world. The UK has voted, by a small majority, to leave the European Union, and while the process will take a couple of years, there are already fears about the social, political, and economic ramifications the decision will have worldwide, and for decades to come.

But how will the decision to “brexit” affect the lives of women specifically? That’s an important question…but also a difficult one to answer, not only because the issues are complex, but because women have largely been left out of the conversation to begin with.

Right from the get-go, a female Labour MP, Jo Cox, was tragically killed by a man who screamed “Britain first,” apparently targeting her because of her liberal stance on immigration and her desire for the UK to remain a part of the EU.

Throughout the entire lead-up to the historic vote, the voices and concerns of women were either silenced or ignored entirely. In an article that gathered the opinions of average female citizens in Britain, The Guardian’s Helen Lewis said that “[I]f you were feeling waspish, you might conclude that women’s major contribution to the EU debate so far has been to say that more women should contribute to the EU debate,” highlighting the fact that most of the debate surrounding the decision was dominated by white men in grey suits. Or, “self-important Eurosceptic male backbenchers huffing about sovereignty, migration or Project Fear.”

Sophie Walker, current leader of the UK’s Women’s Equality Party, wrote a piece for The Telegraph about how women need to be a part of the post-Brexit conversation. She says that issues like childcare, closing the pay gap, and the UK ratifying the pan-European Istanbul Convention to end violence against women and girls have to be a part of the conversation moving forward, and expresses concern about legislation that came about because of the EU to improve the lives of women:

Every recession that this country has endured has prompted the same response from government: to slash spending on women’s jobs – the public service workers – and throw panicky pots of money at big infrastructure developments, construction, building – jobs for the boys.

Let’s do it differently this time. I want a conversation that considers how we can grow this country using the talents of the whole population. What does a caring economy look like, for example?

Alongside that conversation I want to be clear: there can be no reneging on the legislation prompted by membership of the EU that – while creaky in places – has done much to enhance the lives of women workers.

However, as we know, women are not a monolith, and the “Leave” side had female support. You can check out the Women for Brexit site to check out their rationale. However, related specifically to Walker’s concerns about legislation for female workers that she cites as the result of the UK’s partnership with the EU, the Women for Brexit camp seems to believe that everything is honky-dory with regard to Women’s Rights, as they point out on the Women’s Rights section of their website:

Britain has long been the champion of women’s rights.

  • Gained the vote in 1918
  • Equal Pay Act 1970
  • Sex Discrimination Act – 1975
  • Employment Protection Act – 1975
  • First Female Prime Minister – 1979
  • Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act – 2004

All of these pieces of law have helped advance women rights in the UK, however none of them are as a result of the EU. They are British-made laws and they will still be there after we leave the EU.

However, the site makes no mention of the laws that were a result of the EU. Things like  protections that keep women from being fired for being pregnant, paid parental leave for all parents, equal pay for equal work as a “fundamental right,” and protections from discrimination “on the grounds of religion, sexuality, gender reassignment status, belief, and age.” Apparently, before the EU created rules around this, the UK only had laws for race and gender discrimination.

So sure, the UK is capable of learning how to act right, but the decision to leave the EU means that all the protections that were fought for so hard to improve the lives of women in the workplace are now up in the air, forcing women in the UK to now be dependent on the whims of their own lawmakers. Lawmakers who are now embroiled in a political clusterfudgcicle steeped in racism and sexism. (“Clusterfudgcicle,” Trademark pending)

In a piece over at Refinery 29, Dr Roberta Guerrina, Reader in Politics at Surrey University brought up the point that moves towards equality are always the most in danger at times of economic crisis, which is exactly what this move to leave the EU will be bringing to the UK. She says, “Equality is something that governments promote in times of economic prosperity, but seems to be acceptable collateral damage at points of crises. Social justice, gender equality and equal pay have taken a significant set back due to austerity.”

And lastly, British political writer, Laurie Penny, wrote about her fears for the most marginalized among the UK’s citizens in a piece for Time Magazine called “The British People Have Been Suckered,” as she warns us in the U.S. about not letting the same mistake happen to us in our upcoming Presidential election. She says:

No, not everyone who voted “leave” is a swivel-eyed bigot. But the people who are largely voted that way, and the many gentler citizens who did the same now have to live with the fact that they’ve helped to empower the worst impulses of the angriest, most desperate people in this country at a time when racism is the only recognized outlet for working-class rage. As in America, the “voice of the people” is never paid any attention unless and until it is redirected into violent neo-nationalism, and that’s an formula which overlooks a good many of the actual, living, human people struggling to survive under neoliberalism today. That includes young people, queer people, disabled people, migrants, people of color and a great many ordinary citizens who were not taken in by hollow promises that Brexit would lead to better public services and free cake for everyone.

Basically, this vote has ushered in a very uncertain time for women, and if history is anything to go by, the progress made toward gender equality is likely to regress a lot before it can advance again. As the Brexit drama continues to unfold, here’s hoping that women in the UK find a way to join together and make their needs known across all their intersections. May they be able to maintain the energy to fight for their needs to be met, and may women throughout the international community lend their support. Yes, even the women of the EU.

If you have a story you think should be included in a future Feminism Around the World column, please email it to [email protected] with “Feminism Around the World” in the subject line. Please note that this column is exclusively reserved for stories related to women in countries outside the U.S. 

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Teresa Jusino
Teresa Jusino (she/her) is a native New Yorker and a proud Puerto Rican, Jewish, bisexual woman with ADHD. She's been writing professionally since 2010 and was a former TMS assistant editor from 2015-18. Now, she's back as a contributing writer. When not writing about pop culture, she's writing screenplays and is the creator of your future favorite genre show. Teresa lives in L.A. with her brilliant wife. Her other great loves include: Star Trek, The Last of Us, anything by Brian K. Vaughan, and her Level 5 android Paladin named Lal.