To Americans, from a Brit: No, we’re not fighting the same fight
June 23rd of 2016 was a beautiful day – unusual, for Britain. I walked to the tube station at 6.30am, with sun on my shoulders and nerves gurgling in my stomach. It was the day of the UK Referendum on leaving the EU. As I entered Kings Cross Station in London, a young woman wearing a ‘Remain’ t-shirt put a steaming croissant into my hands and smiled. She was one of a group of Parisians who had come over to London on the Eurostar hoping to ply the last few undecided voters with a butter-pastry. When I exited the tube forty minutes later at Wembley Park Station, groups of middle-aged women handed out not croissants, but their own stories as refugees fleeing civil war and poverty in Somalia.
Polling results indicated Britain wouldn’t leave the EU, just as they indicated Hillary would win. Of course, we were very wrong. We also weren’t the only ones seduced by what we believed to be the only possible result.
When November 8 came around and Americans were voting, I felt the same gurgles in my stomach. “It’s fine,” my American boyfriend kept telling me as we cooked together. “She’s going to win.” The outcome of the US election would only impact me mildly, only in the way that Trump’s erratic orders will impact world politics, foreign relations and Theresa May’s hand-holding. But for my boyfriend, a U.S. citizen, the results held far more weight. His certainty was, I now realize, like mine on the day of the Brexit vote: the certainty of not believing there could be another outcome, one that would force you to re-evaluate everything you hold true about the place you are from and the people you share it with. This held true right down to the false hope in the aftermath of both elections. In the days and weeks after the UK voted to exit the EU, Brits were perpetually rejuvenated by false hope: the EU referendum was unconstitutional, Parliament needed to vote on Article 50. For Americans, Jill Stein set out to raise money for voting recounts in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Since those fateful days, the rhetoric between our countries has been one of shared commiseration. We, Britains, look at you, Americans, and share a fleeting, compassionate look, a shrug of the shoulder, an acknowledgement of the grief that unites us. Brexit is our Trump; Trump is your Brexit. But these looks and murmurs are more of a liberal greeting card than an actual mode of recognition. They’re a sign – often used by the liberal intelligentsia – that we see each other, like the handshake for a secret club. It reduces each of our socio-political crises, with their separate issues, complexities and movements, to an affirmation of liberal elitedom.
Our fights are different, yours and mine. We could spend all day discussing their shared origins – how the EU vote was in response to xenophobia, just as Trump’s election was in response to Islamophobia. Or how the outcomes seem to correlate – the rise in hate crimes, the closing of borders. But that discussion is too simple. Our dilemmas have more differences than similarities.
Take women. Despite the emergence of Theresa May as Britain’s Prime Minister after the other candidates destroyed each other Battle Royale style, the Brexit debate was almost exclusively fought out in a male arena, or a place, as one woman put it in the Guardian, with ‘too many dicks on the dancefloor.’ This, at least to me, seems to stand in sharp opposition to the role women played in the U.S. Presidential election. For starters, it was Hillary’s name on the ballot. Her campaign slogan was ‘I’m with Her’, with unapologetic emphasis on the feminine pronoun. There were proliferate battle cries in the run-up to the election about women’s reproductive rights, funding for Planned Parenthood, how women need to sit at the table. Just hours after Trump’s victory, I was invited to attend the Women’s March on Facebook.
Feminist rhetoric was absent from the Brexit debate, mostly because women’s rights were not “at risk.” Brexit was about the free movement of people, about immigration, control, European politics, and an ideal. It wasn’t about access to abortions, maternity leave, contraception, equal pay. But, because of this, the threat Brexit poses to women is invisibly dangerous: the women who will suffer from Brexit are not going to be the educated, the wealthy, the liberal intelligentsia who share that commiserating look with Americans; it will not be me, my mother, my cousins, or most of my friends. It will be impoverished working class women; it will be the mothers who can’t afford to pay for childcare.
In 1974, the UK introduced the Equal Pay Act, which meant that women could demand the same wage as men for a similar job. However, this act wasn’t forcefully implemented until 1984 when the UK was obliged to include the EU’s equal pay for equal work directive, which essentially recognized that lower-income jobs typically classed as ‘women’s work’ were comparable to lower-income jobs classed as ‘men’s work.’
This is just one example of an EU directive that has forced the UK to equalize women and men – specifically, lower-income women. Other directives include mandating paid maternity leave, demanding equal wages for part-time workers as full-time workers (the majority of part-time workers are mothers or single mothers), and protections for Agency workers. Although leaving the EU doesn’t necessarily mean these protections will be thrown out with the bathwater, it does leave them, at least for the time being, in limbo.
What about the big, green mammoth in the room? That’s the UK economy. Despite reports that the UK economy has grown marginally since Brexit (wages have supposedly grown by 3% since the June vote), we are, all of us, still in the dark as to what will happen post-exit. As Theresa May begins preliminary negotiations with the EU, it seems as if any hope of a beneficial EU trade deal will be close to impossible – at least according to the European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator. I can only surmise our economy is going to take a beating. And, as always, the real losers will be the lower middle-class, the part-time workers, the temporarily employed. In a nutshell: lower middle-class women and working mothers.
These issues won’t draw the likes of America Ferrera and Ashley Judd. This is not to undermine the extraordinary and empowering reach of the Women’s March, but to say that at least on your side of the pond, people are talking about women, even if only about women of a certain demographic. The issues raised and advocated for by the women’s march are important ones: funding for planned parenthood, ensuring contraceptives remain covered by health insurance, the right to have an abortion. The march was, in part, about reclaiming the right for us, women, to make decisions about our own bodies, rather than having politicians make them on our behalf. This is something of concern to us all, to all women. Hence, the millions who turned out on Sunday 20th January, the celebrities who stood on stage to a cacophony of applause and cheers. It’s sexy because all women, including the wealthy and the elite and Scarlet Johannsen, have a stake in it. It’s sexy even though specific sets of voices—those of people of colour and LGBTQ+ women—have largely been ignored.
For the likes of Brexit, there are no voices being heard. Not even wealthy elite women are voicing their concerns, because ultimately, the issues at stake in Britain don’t in any way affect how they choose to live their lives. This is, perhaps, the one point of intersection worth noting: the role of power and influence in what issues we seek to ultimately fix. In both cases, the issues affecting the elite determine what gets the spotlight. It’s those who are less empowered that don’t get the spotlight turned on them, whose issues are ignored.