The latest in a long line of Brexit-related panics is the idea that triggering Article 50 will bring an end to women’s rights in the UK. The Women’s Equality Party (WEP), with the backing of politicians from Labour, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the SDLP and the Liberal Democrats, is calling for an amendment to the Article 50 bill, which is currently going through the House of Lords, to ‘protect women’s employment rights’ against the supposed threat of ‘Hard Brexit’.
‘Women have had to rely on the EU regulatory framework and the European Court of Justice to safeguard equal rights at work’, said WEP leader Sophie Walker. Professor Charlotte O’Brien, a supporter of the WEP amendment, added that Hard Brexit would allow our own government to hold a ‘bonfire of rights’. Meanwhile, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas called on fellow MPs to ensure that the ‘Brexit process doesn’t mean that the clock is turned back on gender equality’.
Let’s get a couple of things straight. First, the EU did not invent women’s rights. The Equal Pay Act was enacted in 1970, three years before the UK joined the European Economic Community in 1973. Second, the EU has actually done very little to extend the limited rights we have. The Employment Protection Act in 1975 only protected some workers, and after a European Commission directive in 1993 this was only slightly extended. Women today still face pay inequality after childbirth and provision of childcare is still poor, despite our decades of EU membership.
To suggest that we have the EU to thank for women’s rights undermines the struggle of women throughout history. Long before the EU, women fought for the freedom to leave the confines of the home and strike out in the world as equal participants. How did they do that without the protection of Brussels bureaucrats? How did striking women throughout history fare without the back up of EU directives?
The idea that Brexit will eliminate women’s rights is not only patronising, it’s historically illiterate. What the WEP and other political parties are unwilling to recognise is that women’s rights and women’s freedom have always been won through struggle, on the street and by the public, far away from the boardrooms and shady chambers of the elite.