Vote Leave campaigner Priti Patel has drawn comparisons between herself and Emmeline Pankhurst, claiming that the suffragettes didn’t fight for the right to vote only to see “those decisions surrendered to the EU’s undemocratic institutions and political elite”. She also claimed that exiting the EU would “enhance our democracy and empower women in this country”.
But since joining the EU in 1973, British working women have benefitted from immense support from the European Court of Justice, who’ve aided victorious campaigns for: equal pay, maternity and paternity leave, holiday pay, the 48hr working week, improving harassment and sex discrimination laws, protection against being subject to dismissal for getting pregnant, equal rights for part-time and contract personnel (a workforce largely dominated by women).
The TUC has warned that Brexit could result in the loss of these benefits. The potential uncertainty for women-workers in a post-Brexit economy could lead to further austerity and accelerated corrosion of women’s rights.
And the Chancellor has warned of a recession costing up to 800,000 jobs. One might assume Brexit leaders Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are counting on that being the number of Poles, Bulgarians and Lithuanians returning home. Certainly, the 25% of doctors who make up the pillars of our National Health Service have come from Europe and other countries. So even if “Remain” campaigners David Cameron and George Osborne lose, they still stand to gain ground on another front: their crusade to dismantle the NHS. One influential woman Brexiteer defected to the Remain camp only last week, citing fears for the future of the NHS. Conservative MP Dr. Sarah Wollaston revealed that she has abandoned her faith in Vote Leave and will instead be encouraging voters to remain inside the European Union.
By coming out of Europe, many say we are effectively championing a new leadership succession in Boris Johnson. Former London Mayor and mouthpiece for Brexit, Johnson’s politics are evermore synonymous in the media with those of the esteemed US Republican candidate and notorious misogynist, Donald Trump.
Both men stand to wield an inordinate amount of power if democratically elected in the coming months. But neither Trump nor Johnson are a freak coincidence; their presence is a reflection of the tide of right wing populism, lapping with increased momentum across Europe and the US. We have to question how much confidence we can have in a right-wing government whose track record is tarred with such abominations as deep cuts to services for victims of domestic violence. MP Harriet Harman recently stated she wouldn’t trust the Vote Leave crew Johnson, Farage or Gove “as far as she could throw them” on gender equality.
It’s important to note that last year several Tory MEPs voted against a piece of EU legislation which would force large companies to disclose details of their gender pay-gaps. Fortunately, legislation was passed by the European Parliament due to come into effect in April 2017.
A win for women, equality and social justice definitely. But with women in the UK still earning roughly 20% less than men for comparable roles – despite the equal pay act of 1970 – and with 54,000 British women losing their jobs last year to maternity discrimination, the protection of EU membership is crucially important against further corrosion of equal rights.
In a debate that has the power to impact women’s lives so dramatically, it’s important to tune out the empty rhetoric. In response to Priti Patel’s assertions, Helen Pankhurst, great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, stated:
“My great-grandmother fought tirelessly for women’s rights and dedicated her life to making sure women could live their lives free from discrimination. It is unacceptable to use her achievements to argue for something that is so out of line with the spirit of international solidarity that defined the suffragette movement. To the contrary, I believe that my great-grandmother would have been the first to champion what the EU has meant for women, including equal pay and anti-discrimination laws.”
By coming out of Europe and handing increased power back to Westminster, we’ll be living in a Tory playground. With Scotland dominated by an SNP majority, Britain is likely to remain a Tory stronghold for the foreseeable future.
We have to ask ourselves: how much more faith are we willing to put in this Conservative government? Who will look out for the rights of women and families? The cuts to women’s services has been extensive; we can most certainly expect more in a post-Brexit Britain.