In 1558, a clergyman called John Knox published a polemical tract called The First Blast of the Trumpet Against The Monstrous Regiment of Women. Knox thunders against the unnaturalness of female power. Women are “blind”, “weak”, “foolish”, “mad”, and “frenetic”. Best to keep them away from the levers of power, he concludes.
In 1895, a psychologist called Gustave Le Bon published his seminal work, La Psychologie des Foules, or The Crowd. Le Bon does not have much time for the crowd. He considers it to be impulsive, cruel, amoral, and above all, like a woman. “Crowds are everywhere distinguished by feminine characteristics,” he wrote, arguing that crowds exhibit “simplicity and exaggeration” of sentiments. “Like women,” he concludes, a crowd “goes at once to extremes.”
Imagine the horror, then, of not only a crowd, not only a female crowd, but a female crowd with political power. Le Bon and Knox must surely be rolling in their graves about now, because that is exactly what is about to hit the UK in the upcoming EU referendum, where a million more women are eligible to vote than men. And although Le Bon characterised crowds, like women, as knowing “neither doubt nor uncertainty,” women are twice as likely as men to still be undecided on which way to vote.
Deborah Mattinson, founder of research and strategy consultancy BritainThinks, argues that this is in part because women are generally more disengaged from politics, and less quick to make up their minds anyway. But it is also because of the “abstract level” at which the debate has so far taken place. “Men are more willing to play that game,” she says, with women more interested in practical, tangible effects. “Most politicians are not taking much trouble to think about what matters to women, despite women dominating undecided votes,” she says.
Gloria de Piero, Labour MP for Ashfield and Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Registration, argues that this lack of trouble simply “reflects our politics. It is too male, too posh and too white, and the campaigns reflect that reality.” Whether or not this is the reason for the campaigns ignoring women, it is certainly the case that women do not feel engaged: only 19% of women agree either campaign has helped them to decide which way to vote, according to a recent ICM poll.
From the Remain camp in particular, this does women a huge disservice, because no matter what rhetoric the Leave campaign spouts about the legacy of the suffragettes, there is only one obvious choice for women in this referendum, and that is to vote to stay in the EU.
For women workers there is no question that the EU has been A Good Thing. Pro-Brexiters might argue that the UK has done very well on protecting women on its own, thank you very much: after all, we passed the Equal Pay Act in 1970, three years before we joined what was then the EEC; we passed the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act without any pushing from the EU; and we made paid maternity leave statutory a full 17 years before the EU finally passed a directive on it.
But the EU has forced us to be more progressive on all three counts. We had maternity leave, but only for a select bunch of women — the EU forced us to extend that to all working women in 1993. The 1975 Sex Discrimination Act prohibited the firing of pregnant women — but again, the law was narrowly applied, leaving thousands of women unprotected. Women in the armed forces were still being fired as standard when they got pregnant up until the 90s, and the EU was still closing loopholes in UK legislation on pregnant workers as late as 1994.
As for equal pay, it wasn’t until the European Commission took the UK to court in 1982 for breaching article 119 of the Treaty of Rome that our laws were broadened to mean that women not only had to be paid the same as men for the same work — but they had to be paid the same as men for work of equal value. It was because of this European Court of Justice ruling that in the UK it was no longer legal to pay men more for picking up rubbish in the street than women were paid for emptying bins in offices. Dinah Rose QC characterises Thatcher’s government as having to be “dragged kicking and screaming” to implement equal value regulations. “They hated doing it,” she says. But resistance was futile, and women have been making use of this ruling as recently as 2010.
The EU also forced the UK in 1993 to give its anti-discrimination law teeth, by requiring us to remove the cap on the compensation that can be paid to workers who have been discriminated against. From this point on, it was no longer cheaper to discriminate against women and pay the fine, than it was to simply treat women fairly and legally. In 1990, married women started to be taxed separately from their husbands — in large part because of a European Commission report. It was because of the EU, in 1998, that the UK was forced to award part-time workers (who are mainly women) the same pay and entitlements as full-time workers (they ruled that failure to do so amounted to indirect discrimination against women). And in 2002, as a result of an EU directive, the prohibition of sexual harassment at work was finally made part of UK legislation — previously it had only existed in case law.
Still, Brexiters will argue, this is all in the past. Now we have the legislation in place, what do we need the EU for? Well, for a start, as Minister for Women and Equalities, Nicky Morgan points out, “we still have a long way to go.” And she believes that “staying in Europe is crucial for continuing that progress.”
But it’s not simply a case of ensuring progress. It’s also a matter of not going backwards. Brexiters rubbish these concerns, pointing out that we will still be signatories to international treaties like the European Social Charter of 1961, and the International Labour Charter. But while this is true these treaties are simply not legally enforceable in the same way as EU law. And in any case, they are not nearly as exacting. It is not for nothing that, as de Piero points out, “the vast majority of trade unions” are advising their members to vote to remain.
While we cannot know for sure what a post-Brexit UK will look like, we can make an educated guess, based on “long-standing opposition of some past UK governments to many EU rights”, says Michael Ford QC in a legal opinion he prepared for the TUC. He highlights the compensation cap as “one plausible target,” pointing to the coalition government’s proposal for a cap. The cap seems only to have been abandoned because, during consultation, the government realised that it would be illegal under EU law. Ford also suggests that protection for pregnant women may be a target “given business objection to cases such as Webb [vs EMO Air Cargo]” — the famous case that in 1994 finally put a stop to pregnant women being fired.
Ultimately, Ford warns, “[t]he whole legal edifice is vulnerable to challenge: instead of complaining about progressive decisions of the ECJ, or the expensive consequences to business of discrimination law, if a domestic court arrived at a decision to which the government objected, the Government could simply change the law, and quickly.” And if we want an example of where we might end up were this edifice to crumble, we only need look to the US, where women are entitled to no paid statutory maternity leave at all, and where workers are legally entitled to not a single paid day off.
Deborah Mattinson tells me that women are not less likely to vote than men — but Remain voters are less likely to vote than Leave voters (Leave voters tend to be older). With the two campaigns polling neck and neck and all the momentum, according to Mattinson, behind the Leave campaign, it is therefore absolutely crucial that if you want to stay in the EU — and if you are a woman who likes her legal rights that is exactly what you should want — that you turn out. Women have the power to determine the outcome of this referendum. Let’s unleash the monstrous regiment on the 23rd June and vote to remain.