In 2018 a monumental anniversary will take place – Britain will celebrate a century of voting rights for women. Admittedly, they didn’t initially apply to those under 30 but, ten years later, British women gained full suffrage.
Now 100 years down the line there is undeniably still a lot of room for improvement when it comes to gender equality in our country and across the globe. Even so, some truly phenomenal feminist movements and icons are to thank for narrowing the gap. Through their battle to level the playing field they also transformed governmental institutions, making them more progressive.
The European Union is an example of that. Currently, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) plays an important role in protecting women’s rights in Britain. Progressive decisions made by the court mean that, for example, women’s maternity rights are now protected. It also means that in Britain we receive equal pay for work of equal value and that we have the right to protection from discrimination on grounds of pregnancy.
Under the European protection order, women who have been victims of abuse at the hands of their partners don’t only benefit from protection in Britain, but also in every other member state as they move or travel across Europe. This is absolutely vital for a country ridden with domestic violence like ours, where the harrowing reality is that on average two women are killed by their current or former partner every week.
In the north east of England, the constituency which I represent in the European Parliament, women are three times more likely to be in part-time work than men. Thankfully, the EU guarantees their access to the same rights as full-time workers. The employment rate for women in this region is below the national average and this figure could fall further once we leave the EU, but we cannot afford for north east women to become even worse off from an already weak position.
Upon leaving the European Union, Britain will no longer be part of the common benchmark for settling any differences of interpretation of this equality legislation, arbitrated by the ECJ. It is therefore important that we not only adopt the legislation, but also find a way to avoid it being undermined by different interpretations of it.
It’s also important to point out that post-Brexit Britain will be driven by a need for greater economic competitiveness against much bigger economies. This could lead to measures such as the exemption of businesses from equality legislation. Without the protection of the ECJ, the government can do this at will.
So what now? What can women in Britain expect once Brexit is done and dusted and we only have our government as a safety net? When equality legislation, once defended by impartial judges, will be subject to the whim of ministers?
On Saturday, Labour conference kicks off with its women’s conference and hopefully these subjects will be talking points. Brexit will bring unprecedented change in every single aspect of life and work in Britain, but we should not lose sight of the fact the intrinsic rights that many of us have been born with are the result of centuries of struggle. Put simply: this government must ensure that leaving the European Union will not mean leaving women behind.
In the words of suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett, whose statue will soon be the first statue of a woman created by a female artist for Parliament Square, “courage calls to courage everywhere, and its voice cannot be denied” and it took a lot of it to get to where we are today. Brexit mustn’t undo any of this groundwork.
Jude Kirton-Darling is Labour MEP for the north east of England.