Being a Woman in Politics Shouldn’t Come with Death Threats

The abuse faced by women in the public eye sends a distinctive message to all women and girls: Beware what happens when you step outside the roles prescribed for you. 

Being a Woman in Politics Shouldn't Come with Death Threats
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer with the Michigan Army National Guard in October 2019. (Wikimedia Commons)

Domestic extremists planned to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer in October. State and local public health officers have received harassing messages and death threats, to the point where some required bodyguards. COVID-19 has inflamed partisan passions—but there’s another dimension to these attacks: Many officials targeted are women. 

Abusing women leaders did not start with the pandemic. It’s a longstanding phenomenon recognized by researchers and policymakers. From the hateful language tweeted at the four congresswomen known as “The Squad”—Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Talib—to the 18 British women who left Parliament because of rape and death threats, violence against women politicians is everywhere. 

November 25 kicked off the Global 16 Days Campaign—sixteen days of activism to end gender-based violence. The start date commemorates the murder of the Dominican Republic’s Mirabal sisters, pro-democracy activists who challenged dictator Rafael Trujillo’s regime. On Nov. 25, 1960, government forces trapped the sisters’ car on a mountain road. They forced Patria, Minerva and María Teresa from the vehicle and clubbed them to death. 

Sixty years later, the story hasn’t changed.

Being a Woman in Politics Shouldn't Come with Death Threats
The mausoleum containing the remnants of the Mirabal Sisters—Minerva, Patria and Maria Teresa—as well as Minerva’s husband Manolo, in Salcedo, Dominican Republic, in the yard of the Mirabal Museum. (Wikimedia Commons)

Women in Politics Are “Space Invaders”

Across the globe, female activists are harassed and killed at alarming rates. Among 283 U.S. mayors, women were yelled at, had their property damaged, had objects thrown at them and experienced other forms of physical violence more than men. One study of 152 leading British women in politics, business, entertainment, journalism and sports estimated that each could receive about 200 sexually-explicit tweets a day.

The 16 Days Campaign isn’t just focused on women in public life. Countless women and girls suffer gender-based violence in silence, with rates increasing as COVID-19 shutdowns keep more women and girls at home, trapping them with their abusers. 

But the abuse of prominent women is particularly insidious, because it targets women as symbols of the changing political and social order. Women in politics—or in other male-dominated fields, like journalism and business—are space invaders, entering places historically not designed for them. Misogynists use violence to remind women they don’t belong.  

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A Democratic Deficit

The statistics about women’s underrepresentation are familiar. A record number of women ran for the U.S. Congress in November, and Kamala Harris shattered one glass ceiling—but women will still only hold about 27 percent of seats in the next Congress. Women comprise just 25 percent of executives in the 1,000 largest U.S. Companies. Sixty-three percent of television prime-time news anchors are men. 

There’s no shortage of efforts to boost these numbers. Women are told to lean in: to show more confidence, to ask for that promotion or to run for office. From business to politics, training programs aim to give women the skills they need for success. But power posing and networking acumen won’t keep women safe from abuse. 

That’s because circulating fake nude photos of women politicians or defacing constituent offices with vulgar words isn’t just part of the rough-and-tumble of public life. The abuse faced by women in the public eye sends a distinctive message to all women and girls: Beware what happens when you step outside the roles prescribed for you. 

These attacks aren’t just gender-based—they amount to political violence. Attackers quite literally impede the day-to-day functioning of democracy.

Even before the kidnapping plot, threats against Whitmer led to the Michigan capitol building closing for business. Public health officials have resigned during the pandemic, leaving state and local governments without those voices most likely to urge more community-minded and care-oriented responses. And when violence means that women and women of color decline to seek reelection, their unique perspectives disappear from policymaking. 

Fighting Back

Prominent women may have the resources to confront abuse that everyday women do not—like hiring private security and delivering impassioned speeches in Congress—but that doesn’t lessen the harm. Victims experience stress and trauma, diminished self-esteem, inability to work and fear for their safety. They also fear for their families and staff. Children hear the insults hurled at their moms. Daughters receive rape threats and staff members are harmed

Many of these incidents draw media attention. Awareness has increased. The National Democratic Institute, with former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, launched the #notthecost campaign on social media.

In September, Representative Jackie Speier joined The Squad in introducing a House resolution recognizing violence against women in politics as a global phenomenon. The gesture is significant, but House resolutions are symbolic statements that carry no legal weight. 

Beyond Awareness

What’s needed are concrete actions. The 16 Days Campaign will end December 10—likely with more awareness raised and much ink spilled (including this op-ed), but few real changes. Social media companies have shown little appetite for holding misogynists accountable. When Ocasio-Cortez blocked an account for harassment, she was sued for violating the abuser’s free speech. Some charged with the Whitmer kidnapping plot are out on bail. Most of the time, no one is arrested at all. 

The U.S. might look to other countries for ideas. Recently, Mexico’s election authorities issued rules preventing perpetrators of sexual harassment and violence against women from running for elected office. Mexico and Bolivia also have laws recognizing violence against women in politics as crimes, enumerating penalties and empowering authorities to detain and prosecute offenders. 

Without actual punishments, abusers will continue making public life a hostile place for women. And as feminists have reminded voters in the United States and across the globe, without women, there is no democracy.   

Get caught up on the Ms. 16 Days of Activism collection.

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Jennifer M. Piscopo is professor of gender and politics at Royal Holloway University of London.