Caught in a Brexit bromance

The referendum on British membership of the EU has important implications for gender equality, but despite attempts at 'suffragette-washing' the debate, women's voices are failing to break through.

Heather McRobie
5 April 2016

“The worst thing about the Brexit debate is that I have to see Boris Johnson’s face in the newspaper every day,” a family member joked to me last week.  The comment evoked a wider problem in both the political and media spheres since the referendum on Britain’s future relationship with the EU was announced earlier this year. As Rachel Shabi and Josiah Mortimer have recently pointed out, the Brexit debate has been significantly male-dominated, from the framing of the debate as a ‘Cameron vs Johnson’ clash (pick which former Etonian white man will decide your future) to the disproportionately ‘pale and male’ nature of much media commentary on the issue, which has replicated in microcosm the widely-documented imbalances of representation in the British media. 

 This is not only a ‘politics of representation’ issue, but impacts on a wider gender divide that manifests amongst would-be voters as a whole. Josiah Mortimer of the Electoral Reform Society recently pointed to the striking gender gap in BMG polling on how well-informed British people feel about the referendum. The figures are pretty paltry across the board, with only 12 per cent of the public claiming they feel ‘well-informed’ and only four per cent ‘very well informed’. Mortimer highlights that the gender gap within this is a cause for alarm: men are twice as likely to feel well-informed compared to women (at 21 per cent versus 10 per cent of women), and argues that this “suggests the campaigns – and the media coverage of those campaigns – aren’t reaching out of the Westminster bubble or targetting groups outside of middle-aged to elderly men”.  

This gender imbalance is part of a wider chasm in levels of engagement with the Brexit debate – the older and richer you are, the more well-informed you are likely to feel – indicating a wider alienation of more marginalised groups from the whole debate. This will almost certainly affect the outcome of the referendum itself, as the more well-informed a person perceives themselves to be, the more likely they are to vote.

Suffragette-washing the Brexit debate

It’s pretty clear that the whole issue of Brexit has a gender imbalance problem.  The Stay and Leave campaigns have both caught on to this criticism in recent weeks, and have warped the situation further by drawing upon the discourse of ‘encouraging women’ to participate – but, of course, primarily to the end of promoting either the Stay or Leave campaigns.  Women are thus both sidelined and instrumentalised in the Brexit debate, with the ‘gender sensitive’ statements from each campaign on International Women’s Day last month ringing hollow in the wider climate of a referendum campaign that has neglected gender issues. 

As Rachel Shabi recently described, employment minister Priti Patel’s evocation of the suffragettes in encouraging British women to vote to leave the EU was, at best, a tone-deaf note to strike on International Women’s Day. No mention was made of the fact that it is only through EU law that the UK has important feminist-orientated provisions like parental leave.  There is nothing in the Leave campaign that is actually for gender equality, or women qua women – apparently the best that ‘Women for Britain’ can come up with is the idea that voting to leave will somehow empower women as citizens, because it will win back some kind of ‘national sovereignty’. The wider tone of the Leave campaign – and Boris Johnson’s blending of xenophobia and fetishisation of the free market – will never be an ideological climate in which gender equality or human dignity can flourish.

The Stay campaign is faring little better.  Like the Leave campaign, it launched a women’s group on International Women’s Day (‘Women In’, a counterpart to the Leave campaign’s ‘Women for Britain’), but its statement that staying in the EU “outweighed the costs” for women was hardly a convincing endorsement.  The obvious argument that has been made is that the EU has at least provided some legal tools and institutional mechanisms to protect and promote gender equality, sorely needed at a time when the current UK government is committed to cutting rights across the board and entrenching inequalities. Engaging with this argument would mean weighing up whether those tools and mechanisms would be threatened by a Leave vote, or whether they might be kept or improved upon. This in turn means acknowledging that a vote to remain in Europe is not an endorsement of the EU itself, less still an endorsement of Cameron’s own conservative and neoliberal reasoning for why Britain should stay.


June Sarpong supporting 'Britain Stronger in Europe'. Image: Britain Stronger In Europe

Like the recent commentary in the American Presidential primary elections over ‘Bernie bros’ versus the ‘1% feminism’ of Hillary Clinton, the Brexit debate has combined neglect for women’s voices and concerns with opportunistic attempts to use the language of gender equality to score points over the opposite ‘side’. It’s hard to see this as little more than the gender equivalent of pinkwashing, with little genuine concern for gender equality, or for women’s realities and potential fates beyond scoring some votes.

The Women's Equality Party

The Brexit referendum is coming a year after Britain’s own political landscape has been rearranged, not so much by the 2015 election of a Tory majority as by the aftermath of the Scottish referendum campaigns and the rise of Corbyn as the leader of Labour.  The old rules on which voices, and which parties, deserve to be heard, and for how long, are under strain.

Last year also saw the emergence of the Women’s Equality Party, created in part, in the words of the party’s leader Sophie Walker, to “amplify the voices of women in Britain.” Since its launch last year the Women’s Equality Party has been rightly criticised for its own blind spots and false binaries, not least for its failure to critique austerity policies from a gendered perspective and insufficiently intersectional approach to social marginalisation and gendered poverty.   But at least the party isn’t instrumentalising women in the Brexit debate, and as such its call, on International Women’s Day, to use the referendum as an “opportunity to build a vision for a more gender equal society” is a striking contrast to the posturing of the Leave and Stay campaigns.


Promotion for the launch of the WEP. Credit: WEP

Party leader Walker argued that, if the UK decides to adopt a British Bill of Rights and leave the EU, there will be an urgent need to ensure that “equalities guaranteed by Europe are not rolled back”, itself an implicit argument that gender equality is better protected under the EU than under Johnson’s vision of Britain. But any support for the Stay campaign must not lose sight of the myriad ways in which the EU is an active agent in perpetuating inequalities and injustices, including gender. As the Women’s Equality Party pointed out, the EU “does little to address women’s disproportionate risk of poverty and inequality in much of the European continent – including the rights of migrant, asylum-seeking and refugee women.”

The Women’s Equality Party has largely been treated as a novelty by the British media, focusing on its celebrity founding members and supporters, and there has been little critical engagement with the fact that the party that claims to represent gender equality does not challenge austerity and other structural factors that contribute to women’s continued disproportionate poverty and marginalisation, or how this marginalisation intersects with other structural inequalities.  The main argument in defence of the WEP is that it placed gender equality on the political agenda in a manner akin to the Green Party’s longstanding role in making environmental issues an integral component political landscape.  There was thus an opportunity for the British media, particularly public service broadcasters, to use the (somewhat surprising, even in the politically surprising 2015) rise of the WEP to address and assess the commitment of the main political parties on gender equality.  Yet this opportunity was largely passed over in favour of ‘personality politics’ coverage of the Labour party leadership election, and then by coverage of Brexit that has foregrounded the voices of men.   The demands of the WEP – as limited as they are by their lack of critical engagement with inequality and its causes – could also have been taken as an opportunity for the BBC and other British media to assess the role they play in contributing to the continued elevation of male voices over female voices in British political life. 

Brexit would have profound implications in all of our lives – and will have specific implications for issues of gender equality.  Yet the debate over Brexit is being dominated by male voices, with ‘gender equality’ only ever disingenuously instrumentalised by each side to win points.  It is on the media to make the Brexit debate itself more representative of all those who will be affected by the outcome of the referendum, rather than the pale, male figures with strikingly similar ideological positions who have dominated the discussion to date.

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