Sophie Walker: Why Brexit Presents an Opportunity for Women

Women Equality Party Brexit
Sandi Toksvig, Sophie Walker, Catherine Mayer at the Women's Equality Party policy launch on October 20, 2015 in London, England. Chris Ratcliffe/Getty Images

Yesterday, I got up early to vote in the EU referendum. Then I went to speak at a conference about women's wellbeing and resilience. One of the audience asked me afterwards for advice on how she could engage in debate about feminism with those who thought it irrelevant. I thought at first that she was referring to the national debate about Europe. But she was referring to her immediate family.

When women still have to gird themselves to talk about equal rights with their nearest and dearest we should not be surprised by the woman-shaped hole in national politics. If it is hard to talk to your father, brother or boyfriend about the structural inequalities you face as a woman, then it is even harder to do as a public figure when politics is played out on social media and the trolls no longer stay under bridges but fight hand-to-hand combat.

But today the ground is shaking beneath all of us in Britain. Our decision to leave the EU has flattened the political landscape. And if there is one good thing about this seismic shift it is this: when the dust settles—and we must act while it still hangs in the air—all those who care about equality have a chance in this new environment to be part of the rebuilding.

The referendum campaign that led to this result will be scrutinized for years to come. But one conclusion was evident well before June 23: the lack of women's representation in national debates and the failure to consider the impact of Brexit on our lives undermined our democratic participation in this poll.

The Remain and Leave camps conducted this campaign like war. There were thoughtful voices on both sides but they were drowned out by the sound of cannons. I sought discussion across all parties about the rights of women—human rights, civil rights, equal opportunities. I sought consensus on the need to protect women—always more affected by cuts to benefits—should Brexit prompt a financial fall-out. But the battle went on, and the media was more interested in tallying the score than calling the generals to account.

Today must mark the start of a different kind of politics. This referendum has shown us that political movements can trump political parties. As leader of the Women's Equality Party I am more convinced than ever that the only way for Britain to thrive is to work across divides and put the intersectional experiences of all women at the heart of our new plans for growth.

The old political parties are fractured, the electorate divided and while many voters are celebrating having finally been heard, an almost equal number feel more disenfranchised than ever. There will be a rush to throw out the old. But bringing in the new means a lot of hard work and consideration. It means having women at the table. It means having the bravery for positive collaboration to understand and embrace our diversity.

Sophie Walker is the leader of the U.K.'s Women's Equality Party.