Although significant gains have been made in terms of gender equality for women across Europe, progress appears to have stalled in many areas and trends such as austerity and nationalism threaten those achievements that have been made. In this context, there can be no complacency among progressive citizens, politicians and parties. There is an urgent need to recognise and respond decisively to the gender dimension of turmoil resulting from Brexit, rising populism, rising inequality, and economic recession.

An Interview with Joanna Maycock, Secretary-General of the European Women’s Lobby.

Green European Journal: The European Women’s Lobby brings together women’s rights organisations from all around Europe – what is the significance of creating a European space for dialogue and action for women? Why organise at a European level?

Joanna Maycock: The European Women’s Lobby was founded just over 25 years ago, specifically to bring together national coalitions of women’s associations from Member States with transnational women’s organisations to collectively lobby for women’s rights and gender equality at the EU level. At that time, its focus was very much centred on European legislation, on social issues, and on women in the labour market in particular – maternity leave, rights for part-time workers, and so on. This was very much why it was significant to work together at EU level in the beginning, and why it is has remained so.

It’s important to know that the Treaty of Rome contained reference to equal pay for work of equal value. That was 60 years ago and yet we are still very far from achieving this, but it shows how this idea has been around in the EU since the beginning. These days, Article 2 of the Treaty of the EU commits the EU to actions to reach full equality between women and men. There’s also a commitment to gender mainstreaming, and it is actually obligatory for EU Member States and the Commission to take account of the gender differential impact of any policy programme or budgets. We know that this is not being achieved, but it’s in the Treaty. So those are two reasons why it is vitally important that we work together at the European level.

In addition, for us it is imperative to build a transnational women’s movement. Movements for women’s rights, like all campaigns for social justice, have always worked across borders. For us, it’s essential that going beyond the legislation there is a strong women’s movement, across the whole of the EU; that there is actually solidarity across borders. So that we can work together, learn from one another, be inspired by one another, hold our governments to account collectively about things they commit to at a European level, reinforce each other through learning and capacity building, solidarity and skills building… All these aspects are really important to build as diverse and inclusive a women’s movement as possible, and in order to make it sustainable, resilient, and able to withstand the kind of attacks that we are always faced with.

Movements for women’s rights, like all campaigns for social justice, have always worked across borders.

What are the main challenges of trying to organise at the EU level?

If you look at what the core issues are, you find that they are actually the same from Afghanistan to Sweden, to different degrees. As women, we are all fighting for our voices to be heard, fighting to live as equals in terms of our economic participation, struggling to ensure that our participation is valued, that we are living life free of violence. It is remarkable that regardless of economic system, religion, or culture, women are always second-class citizens in every single society and in every aspect of life. So there are universal issues of inequality and power that have to be addressed.

The European Institute for Gender Equality produces the Gender Equality Index every two years which tracks progress on gender equality in Europe. The latest report in 2015 showed that we have basically stopped progressing and are stagnating in Europe. Of course, the situation varies across different countries in Europe, in terms of the issues and the political context – you have governments that are more likely to be favourable towards passing legislation on gender equality than others. Which is sometimes surprising. For example, the new government in Portugal has been really supportive of and is funding women’s movements and considering new legislation for women’s rights, which is good news!

It is remarkable that regardless of economic system, religion, or culture, women are always second-class citizens in every single society and in every aspect of life.

There is also significant variation in terms of culture and history of the women’s movement between countries – how it relates to the political classes, how central or marginalised it is, historically, but also currently. In the Balkans, you tend to have a very strong, vocal, embedded, women’s movement. Historically, in Yugoslavia, there was a strong and vocal anti-fascist women’s league. Then, during the Balkan wars, the women’s movement was very strong in fighting for peace. In some other parts of Europe, there is a less strong tradition of women’s movements and activism, or it has been increasingly starved of funding and silenced. For EWL, we don’t see this diversity as a challenge, but more of a richness that we have to learn from each other and to learn that the struggles are different, in terms of time, techniques, and approaches.

You mention that progress is stagnating, yet we often hear about new waves of feminism. On the other hand, we also hear that there is currently a backlash against women’s rights. What’s going on here?

I think we are moving forward, but we have a long way to go. A backlash is something you’d always expect to have when you’re progressing. And progress is never a straight line. It’s a rollercoaster, with ups and downs, highs and lows. A hopeful interpretation is that the kind of backlash that we’re seeing now is precisely because of our success, and precisely because those who are holding power are scared because they see it shifting.

One of the other reasons we are stagnating is because of neoliberal economics and the rollback of the state, and the individualisation of care and responsibility for welfare – which have been a disaster for Europe, especially for women and particularly bad for women of colour, disabled women, young women, and older, retired women as well. In the UK, it has been calculated that at least 75 per cent of austerity cuts came directly from women’s incomes, so this has been a direct attack.

One of the other reasons we are stagnating is because of neoliberal economics and the rollback of the state, the individualisation of care and responsibility for welfare

It’s a kind of tipping point, and we’re going to have backlash. Simone de Beauvoir said : “N’oubliez jamais qu’il suffira d’une crise politique, économique ou religieuse pour que les droits des femmes soient remis en question.” Basically, at any point of social, economic or political crisis, there will be an attack on women’s rights and especially our bodies, and you have to remain vigilant your whole life, and it will never be over.

These days we are talking a lot about the future of the European project and the difficulties it is currently facing. What is the gender dimension of this? Is it too simplistic to say that broadly, more European integration has been good for women?

I think it’s fair to say that much of what has been happening at the EU level has been a kind of beacon for some countries in terms of driving equality legislation forward, that is clear. Everything from legislation to outlaw sexual harassment to advancing the rights of part-time workers, tackling the pay gap and provision of compulsory paid maternity leave… It has also been very important in measuring and tracking progress. All those things are really significant and they’ve also invested in programmes to combat violence against women and to prevent trafficking and so on. You could also add lots of other things, like environmental protection and ecosystems, and many other things that impact on women. These are things we would certainly not want to lose.

Then you could have a discussion about the fundamental system of neoliberal capitalism; whether that’s good for women – which it certainly has not been, at least not for all women. While I acknowledge that, at the same time the disintegration of the EU around nationalist, populist, right-wing politics is not going to be good for women. If you listen to the discussions linked to Brexit – they’re already talking about which of those rights or protections – what they’re calling ‘red tape’ – can be done away with. So it will be things like throwing into question the necessity of paid maternity leave if you run a small business, for example. There will be no protection at the international level for that. You’re not supposed to get away with those things because the EU is there to stop you from doing that, acting as a brake. It’s not a straightforward yes or no answer, but I think the disintegration of the European project within the current political climate will be disastrous for women on the whole –  and especially those women who are already poor and marginalised.

On the topic of Brexit, young women were the largest demographic voting for the UK to remain in the EU – what does this tell us?

Young women and younger people definitely voted much more to remain in the EU and it is interesting that older women didn’t see the benefits of it. That’s also a simplistic thing that people feel, in various ways, angry, and that they are losing out and afraid, and they are lashing out on the EU rather than blaming their own government. I think that we’re in a tricky phase in Europe but I think that’s because there’s systemic crisis that’s not unique to Europe. There’s a global crisis at multiple levels : climate, work, technology, employment, inequality, migration, violence, and it is ultimately a crisis in the economic system.

At a more fundamental level it is also a political crisis as well. People are feeling like they are losing out and not feeling the benefits of the system, they feel afraid, and political systems are fragmenting. That creates opportunities for the far-right, and the far-right are much better at capitalising on people’s discontent than the progressives are on the whole, with a few exceptions. Guess what? The far-right don’t only hate minorities, they hate women as well! Even the women in those parties! Then you get attacks on women’s sexual health and reproductive rights. Why would Spain, in the middle of massive stagnation and austerity, suddenly introduce a bill to restrict abortion rights? It doesn’t make any sense. It triggered an entire additional political crisis for them, with women and men across Spain mobilising. Why would they do that? It goes back to a very deep structure of patriarchy and discrimination against women and the role of women. They didn’t get away with it, thankfully, and women are mobilising. The same in Poland and Italy. In 2016 there was a bill proposed about restricting access to the morning after pill, the same in Malta. So in all those countries that already have a quite conservative, Catholic base, it comes back to the fore.

It’s been said that the feminisation of politics is not just about getting more women in positions of power – and we’ve seen how female leaders can sometimes appear to hinder rather than help gender equality progress. How do you see this process?

Firstly, I would rather that we have women in power than they are excluded from power, which they used to be. There is a certain element of a numbers game to this because if there are fewer women in general, the political culture and class is still dominated by a certain masculine approach to leadership. So for the women to succeed there, you have to get past all the sexism and sexual harassment and work twice as hard. I spoke to Caroline Lucas about this recently, because she is now in the British parliament. She said the dynamics in the European Parliament are so much better from a women’s perspective, because it is more modern and there is a significantly higher proportion of women (37 per cent as compared to just 27 per cent women in the UK parliament). So if there are more women, there are probably more feminists. There’s also the fact that you will never be the only woman in the room, and that matters. It’s not just about keeping the old systems and institutions and having more women. The system in which we make decisions needs to change, and democracy needs that to happen as a matter of urgency. There’s simply no reason why we shouldn’t have just as many women and men in all political parties, systems, structures, and governments! To be truly democratic, parliaments, governments, and political parties should reflect the diversity of the voting population.

There are definitely ways in which women are more likely to collaborate. Cross-party collaboration is much more likely amongst women than amongst men, for example. There are great examples of that from the US and the EU. Women are much more likely to seek collective decision-making and problem-solving. They’re more likely to practice collaborative leadership styles in general. Not all of them, but I think certainly when they operate in a climate where there are more women.

Cross-party collaboration is much more likely amongst women than amongst men; women are more likely to seek collective decision-making and problem-solving.

The parties have a lot to answer for. I know that the Greens have done a lot, with schemes such as co-leadership and parity and so on, but if you look at the leadership of parties in general across Europe, there aren’t that many women. You can pull out the names of Theresa May and Angela Merkel, but they’re still exceptional. Theresa May is a good example of someone who has been involved with politics for quite a while and has been successful in her own space and on her own terms. But she is essentially there to clean up an absolutely impossible situation. We call it ‘the glass cliff’ which is a term that describes the phenomenon of women in leadership roles, such as executives in the corporate world and women political election candidates, being likelier than men to be put in leadership roles during periods of crisis or downturn, when the chance of failure is highest. In that way you’re taking over at a point where the role has been absolutely devalued by the men running it – a bit like May and Brexit. It’s an impossible situation. Even if she was the most brilliant person on earth, it would be impossible to make anything good out of it.

Theresa May is essentially there to clean up an absolutely impossible situation: we call this the ‘glass cliff’

So numbers do matter, but more than that it’s about getting more feminists, more young women, more diverse women involved. It’s about shaking up the political parties and influencing their policies, and it’s really interesting that across Europe, feminist and women’s parties are emerging. In Sweden they have been relatively successful – though are still very small. In the UK, there’s a new women’s equality party which is mobilising, again through conversations, through listening, engaging with people, grassroots organisation about what women want and what we should be lobbying and campaigning for. It’s a different kind of politics. There is a new feminist party in Poland, and France had a feminist list as well in the last European elections. It’s a long way off from women’s parties being in government at the moment but there comes a point where you can’t get your message across in the mainstream parties anymore, and it’s not the Left or Green parties that are always able to take on a feminist agenda, either.

Recently we’ve seen quite a lot of mobilisation of women – for example Irish and Polish women campaigning for abortion rights. Do you think there is the capacity for these struggles to reinforce one another and show solidarity at the European level? If so, is this a reason to feel optimistic about the future despite the obstacles?

Definitely. We can also take inspiration from the Icelandic women who walked out of their offices at 14:38 on Monday 24 October in protest about the pay gap. Women’s mobilising happens in many forms. It can be about taking to the streets, or being an artist or comedian. It can be about writing letters to those in power in politics and corporate worlds and it can be about getting coverage on all the front page articles. There are many different ways to be active in this struggle, and it’s a massive one, so it needs all of us to be part of it in our different ways!

How do you mobilise people? You can mobilise people around anger to a certain extent, but you have to mobilise them around hope for change, as well. I’m really hopeful. I think young women and men are much more conscious and aware about issues to do with their rights and they’re more aware about speaking out about sexism, rape, and their own rights to equality… I think they’re more prepared to stand up for those things, because there’s an expectation of equality, which perhaps was not quite there when I was in my twenties. The young women that I meet in particular are so smart and committed and have a much more sophisticated understanding of the struggle than I did when I was young, and I am really impressed. We just need to give as much space and air to that as possible, and continue to support and build women’s movements and feminists within other movements, which is also an important job for us.

Is it hard to have progress, to really imagine a world where women and men are truly equal, and that we’re going to get there? It’s very, very hard, and I don’t think it’s going to be easy. But it doesn’t mean you can’t feel hopeful and be engaged in imagining new ways to live our lives. For me, hope is absolutely essential. If we lose hope, the forces of oppression and violence have won. Raymond Williams said, “to be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair inevitable.” I think that is absolutely spot on. It’s our job as activists and radicals to keep imagining a better society. That’s not blind optimism but you’ve got to work towards it; it inspires you, and it inspires your mobilisation.

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