Although women comprise the majority of voters in the UK, they were noticeably absent in the debates and discussions surrounding the potential “Brexit” — Britain’s proposal to leave the European Union. For the duration of the Brexit battle, middle-aged white men — surprise — remained the public faces of both the “Leave” and the “Remain” sides. In the end, of course, the “Leave” campaign won the day on June 23, 2016.
Even as millions of Britons were at the polls on the day of the election, the Independent published an article claiming that women in particular should vote to stay in the EU. The European Union, it argued, offered women a commitment to funding for gender equality, generous attitudes toward maternity and paternity leave, anti-discrimination policies, attempts to document and eradicate violence against women, a promise to guarantee equal pay for equal work, and its consistent focus on women’s economic independence and autonomous decision-making.
Now that the die has been cast, what will the Brexit mean for women? How is their status likely to change as Britain leaves the European Union? Will the UK now transform its policies on funding public services, maternity leave, and migrant women’s access to health care?
While we cannot be sure what course of action Britain will follow once it leaves the EU, we do know that, overall, the European Union was good for British women in many ways. The EU claims gender equality as one of its “founding values” and consistently highlights issues including decreasing the gender pay gap, eradicating violence against women, and legislating equal rights. As Linda Yang writes, “it took a legally-binding 1982 ruling from the European Court of Justice for Britain to ensure that ‘women’s work’ was judged equally as ‘men’s work’ of a similar level of skill, effort, or responsibility — and paid equally, too.”
While some, including UKIP spokesperson Susanne Evans, have argued that British women will have more decision-making authority without EU membership, leading female politicians including Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton, and Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon expressed their disappointment in the vote outcome. According to Slate, “women will bear a disproportionate share of the burden of change as their rights and protections hinge on a U.K. untethered from a progressive, stabilizing force.” The 2015 Gender Equality Index, published by the EU’s European Institute for Gender Equality, claimed that the UK ranked 18th out of 28 European countries in terms of the percentage of women holding ministerial positions. Britain, therefore, already lags behind other European countries when it comes to women represented in public office; how will the UK address this issue now that it has left the EU?
Some populations in Britain face particular uncertainties. Migrant and refugee women may have particular cause for concern. Comprising the vast majority of migrants, women and children must wait to wonder what a Britain untethered from Europe will offer them — or deny them. EU member states were required by law to assist refugees, but the success of anti-immigrant campaigners and rhetoric suggest that a post-Europe UK may have very different policies indeed. Racist harassment of Muslim women since the Brexit vote does not bode well for the future of migrant women and women of color in Britain.
Northern Ireland, like Scotland, voted to remain in the European Union. Ever since the vote, some have called for NI’s independence from the UK and even reunification with the rest of Ireland. There are other ramifications of the vote for Northern Ireland, however. Abortion remains criminalized in most cases there, but in recent years, rulings and pressure from the European Convention on Human Rights provided some hope that abortion laws would be overturned. With no Europe, what will happen to the abortion rights campaign in Northern Ireland?
As Britain decides how to navigate its future, it would do well to abandon the “old boys’ club” that so characterized the public Brexit debate. Will the recent appointment of Theresa May as Prime Minister serve as a turning point? Let’s hope so: for British women, there’s a lot at stake.