'What do we want? Gender equality. When do we want it? Before Brexit.'
On January 21st I was on my way home from the Women’s March in London. I was carrying my 11-month-old daughter in a sling, and clutching the miniature placard my husband and I had made for her, which was covered in gold love hearts and read ‘Baby of Today, Woman of Tomorrow’. It had been a fun, friendly, inclusive event. We had got through it without needing an emergency nappy change. We got on the tube in good spirits.
Then a woman beside us looked at me, smiled at the baby, read the placard, and started to cry. She looked bereft, but rallied enough to say in perfect French-accented English: ‘I never thought her generation would have to march for this.’
This year’s International Women’s Day feels more vital than ever. Feminism has had a surge of adrenaline caused by the realisation that suddenly we’re not only fighting for progress – we’re fighting simply to keep the rights that have already been hard won over decades of global activism. Yes the UK government says it intends to retain all of the UK’s equality laws after Brexit, but I for one will feel a whole lot better when they take actual steps to ensure that. Let’s have it stated right there in the Great Repeal Bill, as recommended by the Women and Equalities Select Committee, that there will be no turning back the clock on the fundamental commitment to women’s rights and equality.
Many of the rights we thought settled are in question across the world. People are banned from travel because of their religion; there is talk of hard borders and high walls, not all of them thousands of miles away. To my dismay it occurred to me later that the chic Parisian I met on the tube is herself now part of a vulnerable minority with rights under threat: EU migrants. The spectre of mass deportations from the UK in the 21st century looms large across politics.
If rights we thought unassailable are being taken away then rights that were only granted more recently – such as same-sex marriage and protection for LGBT people - feel even less secure. It’s no wonder the situation feels a bit bleak for those who align themselves within the umbrella of progressive principles.
But this moment also represents a huge opportunity. The situation has become critical for so many groups so quickly that it has acted as a call to action: what we really have to fear is complacency. The march in January felt like the launch party for a renewed sense of collective responsibility to stand up and speak up for each other.
We are where we are. Brexit is going to happen. If we are to make a success of it, the UK will have to be as productive, creative and innovative as possible, and this has to involve addressing some inconvenient facts: the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe at 9%; fewer than 10% of the most senior roles in FTSE 100 firms are held by women; the average working woman in the UK only started earning her year’s salary this week thanks to the 18% gender pay gap; and someone somewhere seems to think the northern powerhouse can be built without women even being invited along to talk about it! If the UK is serious about making this country a global player in science, technology and industry post-Brexit, then there is work to be done.
I joined More United because it focuses on shared values that transcend traditional political loyalties and tribalism. With fundamental rights under threat it is important to build a swifter and more disruptive way of engaging with politics than waiting a generation for your party’s turn at power to come back around. If, together, we invested our time and effort in getting more women elected to Parliament, as well as more candidates from underrepresented minority groups, and as well as more men who believe in equality, then we could ensure Parliament really speaks for the people.
Women aren’t a minority—we are half the population. On International Women’s Day we should remember there’s very little we can’t achieve with numbers like that.
What gives me hope is that the current climate, no matter how gloomy it feels for many, is actually motivating people to work together in this way. 2016 was a reminder that progress needs to be consolidated to ensure it doesn’t start going backwards. I won’t be throwing out my daughter’s placard just yet as I think it will have more outings before we are back on track, but perhaps 2016’s legacy will be a positive one after all.