Ever since the former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab sparked outrage by declaring that he was "probably not" a feminist (and defended his old claim that feminists were "obnoxious bigots"), his fellow Tory leadership contenders have been falling over each other to showboat their distaste and tell us that, unlike their colleague, they absolutely – most definitely – are.
Sajid Javid’s official campaign (@TeamSaj) tweeted a picture of the clay TV character Morph (who Javid has reportedly set as his WhatsApp profile picture), waving at us with the caption 'This is what a feminist looks like'. Andrea Leadsom helpfully reminded us of the fact that "fifty percent of the world’s population are women", and Matt Hancock plumped for the age-old "I have three children…" line to yet again further the myth that men should only arrive at feminist enlightenment when they have a daughter of their own to worry about.
Aside from leaving a sour taste in the mouth of anyone who cares about feminism, there is a far more threatening problem with these candidates who are so quick to jump on the feminist buzzword. They know that identifying as feminist is the 'right' answer to the question posed in 2019 – at least to avoid getting relentlessly slated on Twitter, if not to reach out to a younger electorate. But the leading candidates for the Tory leadership (and thus our country’s prime minister) not only hold some of the most shocking records on women’s rights, but are actively pursuing a radical Brexit policy which will be catastrophic for women.
On the right of the Conservative party, it is likely that the leadership race could come down to a choice between Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab and Michael Gove (who, you may remember, joked about Harvey Weinstein at the height of the #MeToo movement), all of whom have refused to rule out a no-deal Brexit. When considering the threat that these men pose to women’s rights in the UK, then, we need to go far beyond mocking the idiocy of Raab’s most recent statements (or even his claim that "from the cradle to the grave, men are getting a raw deal"). Just last week, he confirmed that he believes there are "double standards" when it comes to equality, and defended previous comments that white, male, middle-class MPs are the victims of "racism and classism".
As chief of staff to David Davis before he became an MP himself back in August 2007, Raab entered into a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) with a female member of Davis' staff which, according to court documents, brought an end to her employment and a claim she had made at an employment tribunal. There is no suggestion of wrongdoing. But we are living in the age of #MeToo, when campaigners across the world have called for an end to confidentiality clauses which have oiled the wheels of sexual harassment – which 53% of women experience at work. Any prime minister should be actively fighting against the silencing mechanisms that have kept victims quiet and left the rich and powerful untouchable, not utilising them.
Far worse was his infamous Telegraph column two years ago in which he compared veiled Muslim women to letterboxes and bank robbers. With far-right movements on the rise in the UK, who are primarily using Islamophobia to tap into the political rage felt by many in society (according to a recent report by Hope Not Hate), it is no exaggeration to suggest that Johnson’s 'satirical' comments pose a significant threat to Muslim women, who are disproportionately affected by Islamophobic hate crimes. Johnson does not write this 'satire' for his own benefit. He loves an audience, and he knows comments like these will get one. With 49% of those who voted Conservative in the 2017 general election believing Islam was generally "a threat to the British way of life", it should be a serious concern that Johnson could play to this crowd to further engender anti-Muslim prejudice that will hit women hardest.
There are countless reasons why a no-deal Brexit will have a disastrous material impact on women.
Even forgetting these disturbing precedents, Raab and Johnson are pushing for a no-deal exit from the EU. Rory Stewart and Sam Gyimah are the only candidates who have ruled out the prospect entirely. To underestimate the disproportionate impact the fallout of a no-deal Brexit would have on women would be foolish.
The nostalgia invoked by countless Brexiters to 'get back to how things used to be' is felt only by those whose futures do not depend on the forward march of social progression. There are countless reasons why a no-deal Brexit will have a disastrous material impact on women. Seventy-seven percent of NHS staff are women. Tens of thousands of professional care staff have already left the UK and will continue to do so. Women will bear the brunt of an impending care crisis. Contraceptive pills such as Microgynon are manufactured in Germany and France. The list goes on. In periods of economic downturn, women, and in particular ethnic minority women, bear the brunt of austerity.
It is not just that the EU provides one of the strongest protections for women’s rights in the world. It also provides the opportunity for women, and marginalised groups across the spectrum, to lobby together. Voices of women across different countries in the EU are most audible when combined as a bloc, unifying their strength to fight for lasting legal and social change at a supra-national level that may not be possible when fighting on their own.
Make no mistake that we in the UK, as well as for the sake of our allies across the EU, need that strength. Even the self-styled moderate, emphatically declared "feminist" Tory leadership contender Jeremy Hunt fought and won a case against a young Northern Irish woman for her right to use abortion services in England and Wales for free. He was seemingly unmoved by her story of how, aged 15, she had to find £900 to pay for an abortion in England. Just this weekend, he reiterated his belief that the abortion limit should be halved to 12 weeks. He said his personal belief would not lead to a change of the law. Maybe not, but this attitude certainly won’t help change the law in Northern Ireland either.
Women will bear the brunt of any form of Brexit. What we are seeing in this leadership contest goes far beyond a harmless co-option of the feminist label: we are witnessing an age-old anti-feminist tactic. The privileged few are radically pushing forward an agenda to maintain structures of oppression that prevent women from fighting for the change they need. We must not just shake off their false, self-congratulatory use of the term "feminist", but fight against their anti-feminist agendas with all we can muster.