Gender yes, but not only… Mapping women’s network of political and politicised identities in the Brexit context

By Anaëlle Gonzalez (KU Leuven)

The European Referendum led to extensive press and academic coverage attempting to understand who voted for what, and for which reasons. Income, education and generation were found to be strong lines of division (Swales, 2016) but not so much gender which appeared as irrelevant in the polls with 49 percent of women voting to Leave (Ipsos-Mori, 2016). However, the invisibility of gender as an axis of identity relevant to the support for or against Brexit does not mean that gender identities did not play a role. Rather, research should conceptualize it not only as simple self-categorization but as a more complex, socially constructed unit of analysis whose internal characteristics differ depending on the individual’s history and interacting identities. This research draws from such a conceptualization to explore how gender identities played a role in shaping support for Leave or Remain.

A few studies found that there were important gendered dimensions to Brexit. For example, Guerrina and Masselot (2018) demonstrated how gender and equality issues were nearly absent from the campaign despite the particular consequences of Brexit for women. This added to women’s underrepresentation during the entire process (Achilleos-Sarll, 2017), and reinforced the prevalence of discourses fueled by toxic masculinity (Achilleos-Sarl and Martill, 2019). Young, educated women have intersecting identities which were altogether making them more likely to vote to Remain, but no investigation has explained why nearly 20 percent of them supported Brexit before this study (Ipsos-Mori, 2016).

Today, we know that our identities shape our political thinking and behaviour (Jackson, 2011). They do so by circumscribing the construction of our subjectivities and experiences. While ways of understanding support for Brexit are complex, the campaign’s abundant informational cues likely influenced voters’ identities. The environment in times of political campaigns contains informational identity cues shaping the way people think about themselves at a given moment (Turner et al., 1987), these cues serve to prime individuals’ identities and interests, making them salient (Jackson, 2011). Several studies have demonstrated based on this argument, the centrality of national identities in the Brexit debate (Hobolt, 2016; Manners, 2018) but how gender identities may be related to Brexit support has not been investigated as extensively.

I relied on questionnaires and interviews to explore how the identities of how eight Remainers and three Brexiters — all young educated British women –were mobilized in the Brexit context and whether gender identities mattered, by examining the gender identity content that propelled them — or not — towards supporting Leave or Remain. With a gender role preferences scale (Becker and Wagner, 2008) (preferences for progressive or traditional gender roles), I explored patterns of gender identities across groups, and during the interviews, I asked how they politically defined themselves (which identifications were important to them when taking political decisions and specifically in their Brexit support) and what these identities meant for them (the subjective content). A snapshot of the broader network of their identifications and their content can be seen in Figures 1 and 2.

Did gender identities matter?

The analysis indicated that Remainers’ gender identities were more salient as general political identities than those of Brexiters. However, neither Remainers’ nor Brexiters’ gender identifications explicitly mattered during the Brexit debate. Out of the five women whose responses indicated gender was a factor informing their political identities, none considered it relevant to the Brexit debate. This suggests that, even if politicized, gender did not matter if the campaign did not make it salient.

The content and meaning of their gender identities were evaluated using both a quantitative scale mentioned above and qualitative open-ended questions (e.g., what does it mean to be a woman for you?). Scores at the questionnaires revealed that Remainers preferred more progressive gender roles than Brexiters who were slightly more traditional.

When interviewed on the perceived nature and meaning of being a woman, Remainers were more likely to see it as a subjective matter of identification, while Brexiters saw it as something more biological, identical to sex.

Women’s gender identities content were classified into three components: emotional, motivational and cognitive. The content analysis of the interviews revealed that no strong differences could be observed between the two groups, although small patterns emerged. The results were so rich and varied that it is impossible to mention everything in this article. This illustrates how interviews constitute a particular constructed social reality where people negotiate and make sense of their experiences and beliefs.

The results of the emotional and motivational components of gender identities can be found in figures 3 and 4. Regarding the cognitive component: Brexiters associated women (and family) to be central elements of the nation, revealing some overlap between gender and their national identification. Remainers mentioned concepts related to solidarity in addition to oppression and societal pressure. Regarding roles, Brexiters stressed motherhood and caregiver while Remainers stated that being a woman was ‘not only being the caregiver.’

Differences were observed in terms of group-specific traits: although Brexiters preferred progressive gender roles, they stated that women were fragile, vulnerable and traditional. Conversely, for Remainers’ women were strong, independent, fluid, expressive, career-oriented, compassionate, insecure or resilient. Remainers demonstrated the concurrent presence of both masculine and feminine traits within their gender identities, making it hard to link traits and political support contrary to Coffé’s suggestions (2018). This also revealed the complexity of one single identity and the meanings individuals associated with it. Identities contain antithetical and contradicting elements which are activated in different contexts. Conducting interviews allowed for accounting for the diversity of experiences and the complexity of womanhood.

To summarize…

Although this research was preliminary, group differences in the gender identity properties were observed, supporting that gender identity may have played a latent role in propelling women towards supporting Leave or Remain, as Feather (1984) suggested that gender identity had real political consequences. It matters because politicising gender identities during the campaign by stressing the EU’s role regarding gender equality could have mobilised more women as Goodwin, Hix and Pickup (2018) found that new pro-EU arguments were more likely to positively influence the Remain vote. For example, four participants said it would have impacted their support for Remain had they known about the risks of Brexit for gender equality.

Analysing identities content demonstrated how cognitions, emotions and values intertwine. Some elements within identities align, fuse and conflict with each other, and the participants make sense of them during interviews. Moreover, there was extensive variation between the participants regarding their gender identities, although some differences were found between the groups. Most women, especially Remainers, stressed the multiplicity of womanhood and how there was not one type of women but an infinite variation and being a woman means many things. What mattered for them was the choice for women to be whatever they wanted to be even if this meant embracing traditional roles. The intersections with the participants’ other personal, social and political identities rendered their experiences unique and the content of their identities extremely rich, making it hard to reduce it to variables without losing this narrative of complexity.

About the Author

Anaëlle Gonzalez is a PhD candidate in the School for Mass Communication Research at KU Leuven (Belgium), investigating the role of the media on adolescents’ political socialization and social media activism. This paper is part of her master’s thesis in Political Psychology of International Relations at the University of Birmingham.

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