Brexit is going to screw over women. To be fair, it’s going to screw us all, but let’s focus on women for a while.
According to a headline in today’s Telegraph, “women will have to give up work to look after parents unless EU care workers are given priority after Brexit”. This is in response to a Department of Health dossier which warns of that a failure to meet social care needs will lead to “a decrease in labour market participation levels, especially among women, as greater numbers undertake informal care”.
Whether we like it or not, this may well happen. Women have been pointing out for decades that we are not all born with a nappy wipe in one hand, a sick bucket in the other, yet the majority of unpaid care work is still performed by us. One day we might get beyond chicken-and-egg debates about what came first – the low wages that led us spending more time in the home, the time spent in the home that led to us being offered lower wages – but that day is not today. For the time being, this burden is ours and it’s likely to get heavier once Britain has left the EU.
It’s tempting to see this as yet another unexpected down side to the June 2016 vote. After all, who could have predicted this? (I mean, apart from anyone who’s bothered to think seriously about the relationship between workplace equality and the European Union.)
In truth, though, I think Brexit and the desire for a return to traditional gender roles have always gone hand in hand. The repression of female advancement is not a side-effect, but a fundamental part of what was longed for as part of the Brexit package. And now we’re getting it.
Many of the sentiments that formed a backdrop the Leave vote – misty-eyed visions of colonial dominance, lazy fantasies of Blitz spirit pluck – betray a yearning for a time before paid maternity leave, childcare vouchers, the Equal Pay Act, workplace equality targets and all-women shortlists. It’s a time when life was simpler and everyone knew their place – men in the factory, women in the home. A time before identity politics, marital rape laws and crises of working-class white masculinity.
Clearly such nostalgia wasn’t the only factor that drove people to vote Leave. There’s frustration at feeling ignored by a distant political class, hunger for any form of change, the promise of that extra £350m for the NHS, a decades-long diet of racism and immigrant-blaming from the right-wing press. Even so, while it’s difficult to pinpoint a single reason behind any individual vote, much of the continued support for Brexit coalesces around the idea of kicking back against an elite who are taking away your rights – your jobs, your choices, your money – while using the twin evils of red tape and human rights legislation to position an undeserving other (women, ethnic minorities) as the real victims. Race is undoubtedly a factor. So, too, is gender.
We know that over 65s were twice as likely to vote Leave as under 25s. It’s also the case that in every age group apart from the over 65s, a higher proportion of women than men voted Remain. If one of the outcomes of Britain exiting the EU is that young and middle-aged women have to make sacrifices on behalf of the elderly – sacrifices that their more Leave-leaning male counterparts are far less likely to have to make – then this seems a double injustice.
We live in a society that still hasn’t got its head around the fact that care for old and young has an economic value. As Katrine Marçal puts it, to take care of others is seen as “something one did because one was a good person – that is, female. Not because one wanted to have a career and earn a living”. However individualistic their politics may be, Brexiteers will always have this to fall back on. Look, we’re maintaining a belief in interdependency and co-operation; it’s just that instead of nations co-operating with one another, individual women must behave in a co-operative manner and respond to the human dependencies that surround them. Now what could be the problem with that?
If women are hoping for an opposition party to step in and save them from years of Tory-endorsed domestic servitude, they may be waiting a long time. Not only has Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn done little to slow the Tories’ rush towards the cliff edge, but his own nostalgia-fuelled vision for economic regeneration seems to be rooted in the belief that real work is male-dominated manufacturing work. True, he may wish to spread jobs for the boys more widely than the likes of Victorian time-traveller Jacob Rees-Mogg, but where women fit into this is unclear.
For all its vaunted feminist credentials, the left has never had a great deal of sympathy for women who shirk “their” duties and palm them off on others. As female-coded labour, commercial care work tends to be low-paid, leading the women who access it for their children and parents to be dismissed as selfish and privileged. By contrast, the unpaid care work we perform for those closest to us may be characterised as noble and dignified. Kinder, gentler politics to the left of us; Big Society to the right; here we are, stuck in the middle with young, old, sick and needy all demanding our unpaid labour because hey, isn’t that just what women are meant be giving?
As the middle-aged mother of small children, with parents and a disabled brother who all voted Leave, this hits me on a very personal level. I know my parents don’t believe their vote was harmful to women of my generation, nor would they have wished it to be. From their perspective, EU-endorsed feminist ideology and uncontrolled immigration robbed their only daughter of the traditional stay-at-home role I was born to have. It doesn’t matter whether or not this is objectively true, nor whether it tallies with my own desires. I cannot counteract the narrative their newspapers have fed them year in, year out, just as they cannot do the same with me.
For all but the super-rich disaster capitalists, the cost of Brexit will be high. The particular price paid by women may ultimately go unnoticed, at least provided it gets done. In the rhetoric of right-wing press, mixed in with dismissals of the worst no-deal predictions, there’s even a building excitement at the idea of times getting tough. We’ll all muck in! It’ll be like the war! Only we won’t be sending men to the front line, just women back to the kitchen! I can’t wait!
It’s time for women to raise their voices against this. Why must we be the ones who absorb the mistakes of others while meeting their physical and emotional needs? When do we ever, truly get the opportunity to vote no? Is there a chance that one day we will reject the deal patriarchy is offering? “They need us more that we need them,” opined one of my Leave-voting relatives the day after the vote. But whom is that true of most?