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

          At first glance, gender was not a key predictor of the Brexit vote. Feminist studies emphasise how Brexit is a gendered phenomenon, but no empirical evidence supports that this impacted on people’s vote. Prevalent theories of the ‘left-behind’ or the ‘crisis of masculinity’ tend to account for why a majority of men voted to leave,  but they do not explain why 49 percent of women did soand even less why nearly 20 percent of young, educated women, for whom gender identities are often central to their self-images, supported Brexit. Who, then, are these 20 percent of young, educated women? In a study relying on questionnaires and qualitative interviews, I tried to investigate how an, admittedly small, sample of 11 young educated British women saw and made sense of themselves in the political world, to explore how their identities were mobilized in the Brexit context and to explore the role that gender identity played, if any, in their support for Leave or Remain. Although the sample size cannot provide definitive conclusions, it allowed me to get a detailed insight into the cognitive and emotional motivations of the respondents and, as a result, the responses collected provide some interesting clues as to the ways in which gender featured in the decision to vote for or against Brexit.

 Individuals’ memberships to social groups – or identities – have long been recognised as shaping their political thinking and behaviour. While ways of understanding support for Brexit are complex and diverse, some scholars stressed the importance of identity politics during the campaign, especially for Brexiters whose stance seemed to be more related to issues of identity than economic calculations. Although not everybody’s political decisions directly hinge on their social identification, the latter circumscribes the construction of our subjectivities and how we view the social and the political. If one looks at the media coverage of the Brexit campaign, it becomes obvious that their extensive focus on issues of immigration and Euroscepticism (Steve Corbett; Jean Seaton; Lani Watson) is strongly related to national and cultural identities. The campaign’s abundant informational cues likely influenced voters’ identities and reading and hearing news reports related to specific groups’ political preferences served to prime individuals’ own identities and interests, making them more salient. Indeed, although several studies such as those of Jonathan Hearn; Sara Hobolt; Ian Manners; Lindsay Richards, Anthony Heath and Noah Carl, to mention but a few, have already established the centrality of national identities in the course of the Brexit debate, how gender identities may be related to Brexit support has not been investigated as extensively.

The invisibility of gender as an axis of identity relevant to the decision in favour of Leave or Remain in the EU did not mean that gender identities did not play a role in the vote, but that 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 other interacting identities. The few studies conducted found that there were important gendered dimensions to Brexit going deeper than who voted for what. Roberta Guerrina and Annick Masselot demonstrated how gender and equality issues were nearly absent from the campaign and subsequent negotiations despite the particular consequences of leaving the EU for women. This added to women’s underrepresentation during the entire process and reinforced the prevalence of discourses fuelled by toxic masculinity.
In my research, I sought to empirically unpack the gendered dimensions of Brexit, first by investigating women’s broad identity framework and its content in the course of the Brexit debate, and second by exploring whether gender identities mattered, and, if they did, by examining the gender identity content that propelled women towards supporting Leave or Remain. This article focuses mainly on gender identities and their relationship to the vote of my informants in the 2016 referendum – a snapshot of the broader network of their identifications and their content can be seen in Figures 1 and 2.

Figure 1. Broad network of political and politicized (Brexit) identities for Brexit and Remain supporters.
Note: Blue categories refer to remain supporters, yellow ones to leave supporters and categories with a gradation of colour indicate identities mentioned by both groups (proportionally). Horizontal dashed lines link identities present both at the general political level and in relation to Brexit. Finally, the more frequently an identity was mentioned as salient, the thicker the contour of this category.


Figure 2. World cloud representations of the most frequently used words and concepts by remain (blue) and leave (orange) supporters in the content of their political and politicized identities excluding gender identities.

Gender identities: did they matter?

Eight Remainers and three Brexiters were interviewed, asked how they politically defined themselves, namely which identifications were important to them when taking political decisions in general, and then specifically in their support for, or against Brexit, in order to assess their salient political and politicised identities. The analysis indicated that Remainers’ gender identifications were more salient as political identities than those of Brexiters. Having said that, even though gender informed their political identities neither Remainers’ nor Brexiters’ gender identifications explicitly mattered during the Brexit debate. This was so, even for young educated women for whom gender is often central to their self-identification. Out of the five women whose responses indicated gender was a factor informing their political identities, none considered it relevant to the Brexit debate, suggesting that identity politicisation is context-dependent. In other words, if grievances were not primed by the media or if the campaign did not make gender salient, the latter, even when politicised (through feminism and activism), did not matter. 

Gender identity properties

First, regarding the strength of their identity, Remainers were found to more strongly identify themselves in terms of their gender, but while both groups had a strong gender identification, the nature of this identification differed between Remainers and Brexiters. When interviewed, two out of three Brexiters understood gender as a matter of objective categorisation rather than one of subjective internalisation. For them, sex and gender were one and the same concept: 


“I guess if you’re going to, like physically describe someone, yes, I’m a woman. So, 10. I don’t… know these questions are weird… I don’t know, I mean, what does it mean to be a woman… I don’t know how to answer… I don’t know, female! (participant 11).”

I don’t see myself as any different from a man because I don’t really think that as a woman that makes me different… I’m not sure because I don’t think that I’m a typical woman. I think it describes me because I am a woman but other than that I don’t think I fit the stereotype of being a woman… Umm, for me personally to be a woman, I think this is probably the physical thing, about the woman’s body of anything else” (participant 5).

With regard to the politicisation of their gender identity (conceptualised as feminist identity), participants’ responses to the quantitative questionnaire showed that Remainers considered themselves on average to be feminist more than Brexiters did although both groups scored high in this respect. When it came to politicisation understood in terms of feminist activism specifically, Brexiters scored higher than Remainers, mainly due to one Brexiter interviewee scoring really high in this respect. Given the size of the sample, adding or removing one participant would have a significant impact on the data generated. This participant, rather than being considered an outlier, demonstrated the diversity and heterogeneity of women, the complexity of their gender identities, and the limits of generalization.
The content and meaning of their gender identities were evaluated using both a quantitative Gender Role Preference measurement scale modelled on Julia Becker and Ulrich Wagner’s study of differences in women’s endorsement of sexist beliefs(from preferences for progressive to preferences for traditional gender roles) and qualitative open-ended questions (e.g., what does it mean to be a woman for you? What does it exclude? What emotions do you experience regarding your gender?). Means comparison revealed that Remainers preferred more progressive gender roles than Brexiters who were slightly more traditional, although still on the progressive end of the spectrum, which might be explained by their age (18-34 years old). The analysis of the qualitative data provided some additional evidence that the two groups differed based on the emotional, motivational and cognitive component of their identities. Concerning 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. Two Remainers relied on biology to draw the boundaries of womanhood although, upon reflection, finally stated that what matters was people’s identification as being a woman. Conversely, one Brexiter gave ambiguous responses too, combining biology and subjective identification.

This illustrated how interviews constitute a particular constructed social reality where people negotiate and make sense of their experiences and beliefs while they are speaking. 

Gender identities’ emotional component

Both Remainers and Brexiters’ gender identities contained positive and negative emotions. For both groups, being a woman was associated with pride, determination (both about Women’s history and accomplishments), fear, anger and resentment (all about discrimination, oppression and behavioural expectations). Some emotions were group-specific: satisfaction, frustration, excitement and anxiety for Remainers and love and resentment for Brexiters. Although both groups felt resentful, the object of this resentment differed. Remainers were resentful towards men, oppression and control over women’s bodies, whereas, for Brexiters, resentment demonstrated hostile sexism and was directed to a subset of women who were perceived as making illegitimate claims of discrimination and ‘using the woman card to get what they want’ (participant 11). Interestingly, in a study by
Erin Cassese and Tiffany Barneshostile sexism was associated with voting for Trump among white women. Although the contexts are distinct, the presence of toxic masculinity and masculinised discourses during the campaign might have appealed to specific femininities such as women holding sexist beliefs, requiring further investigation.     

Motivational component

Self-direction, universalism, achievement and benevolence strongly associated with Remainers while tradition solely associated with Brexiters. ‘Choice’ was the most important element for Remainers who also mentioned development, awareness, unity, respect, acceptance and diversity (interacting with their national identities content) while ‘family’ was only mentioned by Brexiters. The values associated with different identities across groups seemed to be coherent, with tradition and universalism being the main values respectively for Brexiters and Remainers.


Cognitive component

As far as definitions of womanhood were concerned, no significant difference was found between the two groups. The words used differed, but the tone of reference was similar: being a woman is problematic, advantageous, dangerous and linked to sacrifices for Brexiters, and problematic, unrecognised, hard, linked to belittlement, sexism, inadequacy, inferiority, unfairness and rejection (of males’ expectations) for Remainers. Similar relational concepts between the two groups included expectations, discrimination and behavioural restrictions. Regarding group-specific content, Brexiters associated women (and family) to be central elements of the nation, revealing some overlap between gender and their (politicised) national identification. This sign of gendered nationalism did not relate to immigration contrary to Nicola Montagna’s argument in her study of ‘The British Nationalist Right and the Gendering of Anti-migration Politics’ that women participate in nationalist politics because they consider themselves being in competition with immigrants over resources, although this possibility should be explored across the larger female population with diverse levels of education and age. Remainers mentioned concepts related to solidarity such as sisterhood, cooperation, common experience, additionally to concepts with negative connotations associated with men and society (i.e., oppression and societal pressure). Regarding roles, Brexiters stressed motherhood, women as homemakers and caregiver while Remainers repeatedly stated that being a woman was ‘not only being the caregiver.’

Traits were heavily relied upon for the gender identities’ content. Heterogeneity (mainly Remainers used it to explain how being a woman had multiple dimensions), similarity (among and cross genders), beauty and controlling (with the last three mainly used by Brexiters) were mentioned by both groups. Significant 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, emotional/expressive, progressive, career-oriented, compassionate, empathetic, insecure and resilient. My analysis pointed towards the opposite direction of Hilde Coffé’s findingsstating that women with masculine personality traits were more likely to support the Populist Radical Right (here I consider Brexit to be a Right-Wing Populist event) or Monika McDermott’s findingsconnecting “masculine” traits such as independence with supporting Republicans and feminine traits such as compassion with Democrats. However, Remainers also associated feminine traits with their gender, demonstrating the concurrent presence of both masculine and feminine traits within individuals and making it hard to link traits and political support. 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, richness of experiences and complexity of womanhood.

[1] Here Brexit is understood as a Right-Wing Populist event.

Figure 3. Diagram representing the motivational and emotional components of the content of gender identities for Remainers and Brexiters.
Note: Blue categories refer to Remainers, yellow ones to Brexiters and categories with a gradation of colour indicate concepts mentioned by both groups (proportionally). Horizontal lines link concepts with the emotions mentioned concurrently. The thickness of the contour represents the prevalence of the concepts, with concepts mentioned more often having a thicker contour.
Figure 4. Diagram representing the cognitive component of the content of gender identities for Remainers and Brexiters.
Note. Blue categories refer to remain supporters, yellow ones to leave supporters and categories with a gradation of colour indicate concepts mentioned by both groups (proportionally). The thickness of the contour represents the prevalence of the concepts, with concepts mentioned more often having a thicker contour.



Based on the qualitative analysis of the interview data, Remainers and Brexiters associated different traits, values and roles with their gender identity, providing sufficient confidence to support my claim that Remainers and Brexiters had different gender identity content which might have played an underlying role during the campaign. 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 suggestedthat gender identity had real political consequences, mediated by identity strength, the adoption of gendered personality traits and endorsement of diffuse gender roles. It matters because politicising gender identities during the campaign by stressing the EU’s role regarding gender equality could have mobilised more women as Matthew Goodwin, Simon Hix and Mark Pickup foundthat new pro-EU frames and arguments were more likely to positively influence the Remain vote. For example, five participants were aware of the potential risks of Brexit for gender equality but did not politicise their gender identities after deciding that there was no real risk as this was absent from the campaign, while four participants said it would have impacted their support had they known about these risks.
Analysing identities content demonstrated how cognitions, emotions and values closely intertwine. Some elements within the 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 systematic 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 did not mean one thing. 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.





Article based on my MSc Political Psychology of International Relations original dissertation
September 2019
Author: Anaëlle Gonzalez

Dissertation accepted for presentation at the International Society of Political Psychology Annual Meeting 2020, to be held in Berlin. Thanks to Tereza Capelos and Daniele Albertazzi for their supervisions, and to Spyros Sofos for his insights on the reformulation.

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