Tuesday’s election of an unprecedented number of women, gender non-conforming and minority candidates was a powerful renunciation of the ugly rhetoric of Donald Trump’s campaign and misbegotten critiques of “identity politics.” Exactly one year after Donald Trump’s election, voters demonstrated support for a powerful coalition that represents the Democratic party’s greatest strength and potential.
These victories were the result of hard work and perseverance, but they were also the result of bravery. Many of the people who won this week, transgender candidates, ethnic minority candidates and women who no prior electoral experience, belong to marginalized groups that are routinely targeted, online and off, with hostility and hatred. In 2016, an Inter-Parliamentary Union study of women in legislatures around the world found that:
41.8 percent report wide distribution of “extremely humiliating or sexually charged images;
44.4 percent receive death, rape, beating and abduction threats; and
32.7 percent harassed through exposure to persistent unwanted and intimidating messages.
Almost two-thirds of the women, 61.5 percent, believe that the primary objective of the harassment they face is to intimidate women and dissuade them from pursuing political leadership position.
Women’s harassment, whether they are in politics or not, tends to be more sustained and sexualized, often including the pornification of women as a political weapon. It also often includes explicit threats against their families and children. Studies show that online harassment is more emotionally resonant for women who, offline, have to be more vigilant about their safety.
Women legislators are often barraged with hate and threats for behaving in identical ways as male politicians who, on the other hand, are lauded for their bravery. Earlier this year, for example, Senator John McCain was showered with accolades when he voted against his party’s attempt to repeal Obamacare and urged his peers to espouse cross-party conciliation. Two other Republican Senators, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, had already consistently stood firm in their intra-party opposition.
As Marya Stark and I wrote earlier this week, for their efforts, the women were attacked as traitors, online and off. Members of their own party made comments about beating them for their insolence, and threatened other violence and political retaliation. “I’m tellin’ ya,” Georgia GOP Representative Buddy Carter, announced on national television, “Somebody needs to go over to that Senate and snatch a knot in their ass,” a colloquial reference to beating, as punishment. Texas GOP representative Blake Farenthold claimed that if Murkowski and other women GOP senators were men he would challenge them to duels. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke sent what Alaska GOP senator Dan Sullivan called a “threatening message,” suggesting that his department would penalize Murkowski’s home state of Alaska in response to her vote. Online, the women were, among the milder examples, “old hags” and “lying feminazi’s (sic).” President Donald Trump, taking a moment out of a day in which he graphically described the violent mutilation of girls and told a sexually suggestive story to a crowd of more than 40,000 people at a Boy Scout Jamboree, took time to tweet about Murkowski, in a depressingly familiar dog-whistle tactic that can cause a cascade of online vitriol.
In March, 2016, the National Democratic Institute launched a global initiative, #NotTheCost, to raise awareness of what violence against women in politics means. At the launch of their campaign, women politicians from dozens of countries talked about their experiences with violence, sextortion, non-consensual pornography, threats and abuse. Often, the women describe harassment perpetrated across borders, overwhelmingly by men, and men not even remotely directly affected by their political positions and policies. British Labour Party MP Jess Phillips, for example, explained that most of the violent threats she’s received came from men’s rights activists in the U.S., thousands of miles from her constituency.
Women running for office in the United States are no strangers to these forms of intimidation and harassment. The women in the video above agreed to talk to my co-producers, Kelly West, Marya Stark and Patrice Stanley, and I, about their experiences. They come from across the political spectrum and include Rep. Katherine Clark, a Democrat from Massachusetts; Rina Shah Bharara, who serves as an inaugural member of the U.S. House of Representatives Republican Conference’s Indian American Advisory Council; Angela Angel, a Democrat representing District 25 in the Maryland House of Delegates; Stephanie Roman, a former high school student in Dallas; Rep Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican U.S. Representative from Florida; Marilyn Mosby, State’s Attorney for Baltimore; and Kim Weaver, who ran as a Democrat for the Iowa Congress before dropping out of her race as the direct result of online threats, shared remarkably similar stories.
“Online harassment” sounds toothless and anodyne, but, as these women show, it’s anything but. We can’t afford for women to drop out of political races. We rank 104th in the world for women’s political representation and efficacy. This number masks a meaningful distortion, however. If women in Congress tracked with the Democratic party, the U.S. would rank 38th in the world, right after Switzerland, but, if the percent of women in Congress tracked with the Republican party, the U.S. would rank 165th in the world out of 193, right alongside Congo and Mali, countries that are authoritarian or hybrid regimes. To be sure, Democrats are hardly innocent of hostility to women as leaders, but there is no comparison between the cultures of these two parties when it comes to electing women. Gerrymandering, as Marya Stark, a cofounder of Emerge America, has explained, will exacerbate the divide, creating, as she puts it, an effective gendermandering.
The Women’s Media Center and Deeds Not Words, sponsors of the video above, are working to ensure that more women run for office and more women win when they do. A good first step, socially, is better public understanding the role that the online harassment of women and other marginalized groups plays in degrading our democracy.