Last week on International Women’s Day, I read an article about two campaign groups, one for each side of the EU debate. The first thing I noticed* was the comment about how the debate has been ‘quite male dominated’. So far, so inoffensive. I think few would argue that representation is an important facet of democracy, after all, and surely in an important referendum the campaigns should represent British society, women included. And I have no problem with people setting up campaigns on either side to argue the EU helps or hinders women’s rights, any more than I have a problem with people setting up similar campaigns on the environment or technological innovation.
*This article appears to be an updated version of the one I originally read, with greater emphasis on Priti Patel’s suffragette comments and Helen Pankhurst’s response. The article I originally read had a byline referencing Andrea Leadsom’s comment on how the campaign has been ‘quite male dominated’.
However, the way the campaigns discuss women’s votes is troubling. I’ll start with the Leave group, Women for Britain, because the comparison to the suffragettes really can’t be overlooked. After all, I’ve yet to see Nigel Farage force-fed on a hunger strike. Treating the EU as the same as patriarchal oppression is, frankly, insulting to the women who fought and died so Patel can make these claims.
Aside from the appropriation of the suffragettes’ struggles, however (which I really can’t say any better than Emmeline Pankhurst’s great-granddaughter herself in the article), there’s the fact that I’m simply left confused by Andrea Leadsom’s idea of what women care about:
She said women cared about issues such as the cost of living, the cost of the UK’s EU membership and future prospects for themselves and their children
As a female voter, I can tell you right now that absolutely none of those things on the list is a high priority for me. Cost of living? Well, sure, I’ve thought about it, but who hasn’t? Yes, it’s a greater issue for women, because of the gender pay gap and the fact women are more likely to be single parents, but to say all women care about it is a gross generalization.
The same goes for caring about the future for themselves and their children. I can guarantee you that most of the men I work with care more about the next generation’s prospects than I do. Why? Because they’re parents, and I’m not. The notion that ‘women care about … their children’ is the same kind of sexism that brought us that horrendous – and much parodied – ‘The woman who made up her mind’ video in our last referendum.
Likewise, I’ve certainly thought about future prospects but, again, so have the men I know. As for the cost of the UK’s EU membership, well, that one has literally never crossed my mind.
If Women for Britain has a problem with ascribing a universality to female-coded concerns, then the Remain campaign has a problem with assuming feminist issues are only of concern to female voters. To quote Nicky Morgan:
From safeguarding parental leave to tackling discrimination in the workplace and bringing an end to violence against women and girls, our EU membership is critical in helping protect and further the rights of women around Britain.
These are much more universal issues for women (even, arguably, shared parental leave, as it can help reduce employer discrimination against young women). But, again, I don’t understand why they’re ‘trying to target women voters’. Male voters, after all, have sisters, daughters, mothers, wives and girlfriends whom these issues personally affect, and in many ways these are all improvements that help men themselves, too. Ending discrimination in the workplace helps male business-owners who get the benefit of the best minds, not the best of half. Parental leave helps men who want to spend time with their children. Moreover, people don’t always vote just for what affects themselves and their loved ones, but for what they think is right. Plenty of men care about ending workplace discrimination because it’s the right thing to do. Treating these things as issues for female voters reinforces the sexist concept that things that affect women are of women’s concern only.
The most insidious part of all of this, however, is the implication that all those other issues that may affect how people vote in the referendum are ‘men’s issues’. The very idea of targetting campaigns to the women’s vote implies that there are certain issues women care about that men don’t care about, and that, for women, these issues supersede all those other issues men care about. As a voter, I care about the EU’s animal rights legislation, I care about its response to things like encryption and internet piracy, I care about measures it might implement to protect the environment, and I care about its treatment of refugees. None of these has anything to do with my gender.
Yes, it is absolutely worthwhile to campaign for or against the EU through the lens of women’s rights, but that should be a campaign that targets all voters who care about dismantling the patriarchy. Likewise, rather than trying to break into the ‘women’s vote’ because more women than men are undecided, perhaps campaigns should also consider if perhaps they’ve made women feel unwelcome; I remembe reading a piece in Private Eye a few years back about a British woman of South Asian descent who had left UKIP because of its sexism and racism (it might have been this woman, but I’m sure that sexism was mentioned in the Eye article, as well, and Nigel Farage responded by mansplaining what the party was really about). Both sides, however, would benefit from treating women not as a homogenous group, where they can win over 50% of the vote by touching on a few key buzzwords, but as a diverse group of millions of individuals whose priorities may or may not align with either the campaign’s priorities or those that society assumes women care about.
So, yes, by all means, consider how staying or leaving will affect women. Argue that staying gives us the protections of the ECHR or that leaving allows us greater freedom to enact laws that benefit women. But don’t pretend that by doing so you can secure the ‘women’s vote’. You can’t, because it doesn’t exist.