The vandalism and thefts targeting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week sought to assail her position as one of the most powerful women in American politics.
Among the many dramatic images emerging from the Jan. 6 attacks on the U.S. Capitol, two in particular stand out to me as a scholar of gender and politics: a photo of Richard “Bigo” Barnett with his feet up on a desk in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, and a picture of Adam Johnson smiling and waving in the Capitol rotunda with the speaker’s lectern tucked under his arm.
Both images quickly went viral and attracted criticism from various political figures, including Barnett’s own member of Congress and the mayor of his small Arkansas town, who stressed the need to safeguard democratic values. Reactions online from many women, however, took a strikingly different tone, with various posts describing the Barnett photo as “disturbing and galling,” “violating and defiling,” and “triggering AF.”
As I argue in a recent book, violence against politically active women often has multiple meanings. The incidents targeting Pelosi last week did not revolve solely around her status as a Democratic politician and as speaker of the House. The vandalism and thefts—and especially the viral imagery around these acts—also sought to assail her position as one of the most powerful women in American politics.
Gender and Political Violence
Violence targeting political opponents has long been condemned as a threat to democracy. This frame was adopted by many political leaders in the U.S. President-Elect Joe Biden described the riots as an “unprecedented assault” on “our democracy,” while Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed that the Senate would “not be intimidated … [or] kept out of this chamber by thugs, mobs or threats.”
In the days since, a growing number of rioters have been identified and charged with criminal behaviors. Barnett was taken into custody in Arkansas for federal crimes of entering a restricted building, violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds, and theft of public property. Johnson was arrested in Florida by U.S. marshals and faces similar federal charges.
Emerging details indicate, however, that these incidents cannot simply be reduced to intimidation and vandalism. The sexist nature of the attacks on Pelosi’s office also sought to challenge her right as a woman to occupy an important position of political leadership—a dynamic that is increasingly recognized both globally and in the United States as a related but distinct form of political violence.
Misogyny and Gender-Based Disrespect
Extensive media attention to symbols of white supremacy at the riots—including Confederate flags and logos glorifying the Holocaust—bears out the notion that the riots were about more than simply an attack on democratic institutions. In the words of one commentator, such emblems express ideas about which groups should have an “unlimited hold on the levers of power in this country.”
According to prominent anti-hate organizations, white supremacy and male supremacy are closely intertwined ideologies, constructing a worldview organized along both race and gender hierarchies. Misogyny targets women who fail to live up to patriarchal standards, like those engaged in the supposedly “male world” of politics.
Actions directed at Pelosi paint a clear and troubling picture of efforts to remove her—literally and figuratively—from her position of as House Speaker. Evacuating her along with other top leaders to a secure location appears to have been a wise move. An ITV News video shows a man with zip-tie handcuffs—the subject of a chilling photograph on the House floor—entering and then exiting the Speaker’s office. The FBI also arrested a man who brought weapons and ammunition to Washington, D.C., with the specific intention of harming Pelosi.
As she sheltered for safety, rioters tore her wooden nameplate off the wall next to her office, stamping on it with contempt and holding it up like a trophy while others shouted “Not our speaker!” and “Get her out!”
Others, like Barnett, then appropriated the space for themselves, expressing what one columnist described as a sense of “gleeful entitlement.”
Holding up a piece of stolen mail, Barnett recounted that, after sitting down at one of the desks in Pelosi’s office: “I wrote her a nasty note, put my feet up on her desk, and scratched my balls.” The note, he divulged, read: “Nancy, Bigo [his nickname] was here you bitch.”
The rioters also removed two key symbols of her power: her gavel and her podium. In a viral video, local Texas politician Jenny Cudd shared that she helped break down the office door, after which “somebody stole her gavel and I took a picture sitting in the chair flipping off the camera.”
According to a press release from the Department of Justice, Johnson “removed the Speaker of the House’s lectern from where it had been stored on the House side of the Capitol building.” Wearing a Trump hat, he smiled and waved to the camera as he carried off the podium displaying the seal of the Speaker of the House.
What makes violence “bad,” according to philosopher Vittorio Buffachi, is not simply its direct injuries, but also the social meaning of being harmed. In a telling analysis, a Buzzfeed reporter characterized the “assault on the Capitol” as a “meme-making social media performance.” Taking selfies and posing for videos and photos, rioters enacted scenes of violence and contempt that, once posted on various media and social media platforms, played out in front of larger audiences.
In my book, I describe these dynamics as “semiotic violence,” or the use of words and images to injure, discipline and subjugate women and members of other marginalized groups. The aim is less to attack particular individuals than to shape public perceptions about the group.
From this perspective, demeaning Pelosi in sexist ways—and treating symbols of her power as trophies—seeks to communicate the message that women are illegitimate political actors. Indeed, the unsettling image of destroyed display cabinets that once held historical books on women in politics suggests the rioters aimed to symbolically erase women more broadly from the American political record.
Gendered violence in the U.S. Capitol attacks reveals that rioters did not simply wage an assault on democratic institutions. They also challenged the diversity of these institutions to reinforce traditional gender and race hierarchies—in turn, undermining both democracy and equality.
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