Violence Against Jacinda Ardern and Other Women Political Leaders Is an Attack on Democracy Itself

New Zealand Prime Minster Jacinda Ardern speaks at a joint press conference with Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin on Nov. 30, 2022. (Dave Rowland / Getty Images)

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s surprise announcement that she was stepping down this month because she “no longer had enough in the tank” to do the job prompted a global outpouring of commentary and debate about the special challenges faced by women political leaders.

Pundits observed that politicians of all genders face increased personal scrutiny and pressure from a rising tide of right-wing populist anger directed toward governing elites, but women in politics are especially vulnerable—especially women who deviate from gender norms or are explicitly feminist.

One of the special threats these women face is violence from men—whether expressed in hostile and abusive comments online, or in more specific and credible threats that attract the attention of law enforcement. 

Gendered threats are often motivated by an intent to “attack and undermine” women as political actors,” according to political scientist Mona Lena Krook, author of Violence Against Women in Politics. “Its central motivation is thus not to gain the upper hand in a game of partisan competition, but rather to exclude women as a group from public life.”  

Because men commit the vast majority of violence directed at women in politics, men who reject misogyny and violence have a special responsibility to call it out.

New Zealand’s new prime minister Chris Hipkins did just that when he urged men to denounce misogyny and the abuse of women when they see it. Speaking at a press conference in Wellington, Hipkins said the way his predecessor Ardern was treated by some was “utterly abhorrent.”

“Jacinda’s leadership has been an inspiration to women and girls everywhere,” he said. “But it’s also been a reminder that we’ve got a way to go when it comes to ensuring that women in leadership receive the same respect as their male counterparts.”

Hipkins added, “I think we often leave it to women to say, ‘This isn’t okay,’ and, ‘I don’t feel okay about that,’ and many women don’t feel comfortable talking in that way. So I think we as men have a responsibility to call it out when we see it.”

Gendered threats’ central motivation is not to gain the upper hand in a game of partisan competition, but rather to exclude women as a group from public life.

Mona Lena Krook
Jacinda Ardern and partner Clarke Gayford with new baby Neve Te Aroha Ardern Gayford on June 24, 2018, in Auckland. Ardern was the second world leader to give birth in office, and the first elected leader to take maternity leave. Arden took six weeks of leave, with Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters assuming the role of acting prime minister. (Fiona Goodall / Getty Images)

Threats against Ardern tripled in recent years. Authorities attribute the increase to right-wing conspiracy theories and a backlash against vaccinations and other COVID policies. 

Since 2019, police recorded 100 instances of threats to the country’s third female prime minister; eight people were charged with threatening to kill her. Leading up to Ardern’s resignation, online extremism researcher Sanjana Hattotuwa said that his team had captured a significant increase in “violent, vulgar, vicious, venomous” commentary against the former PM. “The vocabulary,” he said, “has migrated from implicit and elusive references to her murder, assassination and rape, to explicit calls for it.”

Hattotuwa said researchers have seen “an explosion” in violent, misogynistic and extreme rhetoric in New Zealand’s online spaces and social media networks.

After Ardern’s resignation, according to a report in The Guardian, a research team at the University of Auckland conducted a quantitative study of online discourse directed at the prime minister. They compared comments about her with those aimed at other prominent political figures, and concluded that Ardern faced online vitriol at a rate between 50 and 90 times higher than any other high-profile figure.

Of the posts classified as negative, hateful, sexually explicit or toxic, a full 93 percent mentioned Ardern. Research director Chris Wilson reported that many of the posts targeted her family and daughter, with “a lot of language referencing sexual violence.”

One man served more than a year in jail for issuing a series of threats against Ardern by email and a YouTube video that included his statement that he had every right to “walk up to Wellington and shoot her in the face.”

Since she’s stepped down, Ardern has been provided with increased security and police protection, according to press reports.

Ardern has handled the appalling amount of misogynous violence directed toward her with characteristic displays of diplomatic skill and grace. After an incident in which her car was chased by anti-vaccine protesters, she said that being subject to these kinds of incidents was part of the job. “I see that as just being a reflection of the fact that we are the decision-makers,” she said. “And if people don’t like the decisions that are being made, then it’s us that of course will hear the feedback about that.”

When she announced her decision to resign, Ardern denied that violence directed toward her was the reason she left office. “I don’t want to leave the impression that the adversity you face in politics is the reason that people exit,” she said. “Yes, it does have an impact. We are humans after all, but that was not the basis of my decision.”

It is nonetheless worth noting that, as Krook points out, women leaders who recognize threats of violence against them as deeply misogynous often remain quiet about them because they want to avoid reinforcing stereotypes of women as “weak” and “unsuited” to the rough world of politics. 

Krook cites Hillary Clinton’s experience at a 2016 presidential debate, in which Donald Trump hovered menacingly behind her on stage. As Clinton recounted in her memoir, she had to weigh whether or not to call out his obvious attempts to intimidate her. She ultimately chose not to, she said, aided by “a lifetime of dealing with difficult men trying to throw me off.”

In retrospect, Clinton wondered whether she should have confronted him. If she had, she wrote, “he surely would have capitalized on it gleefully,” and she would have exposed herself to the ancient misogynous slur that women face when they fight back—that they are “angry” or “hysterical” in a way that undermines their credibility as political actors.

To the extent that violent intimidation discourages women from running for office, it provides an unfair advantage to men. 

Jackso Katz

The rise of Trump and his brand of right-wing populism has contributed to an increase over the past few years in threats of violence toward women in American political life. In 2020, the FBI arrested 14 men and charged them with plotting to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. More recently, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband Paul was struck in the head with a hammer by a man who broke into his residence, looking for the speaker.

Most of the violence and threats have emanated from men, but in some notorious instances, women have been the instigators.

In 2021, when the Democrats controlled the U.S. House of Representatives, Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) was removed from committee assignments because she liked a number of social media posts that endorsed political violence, including one that said the quickest way to remove then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi would be a “bullet to the head.”

Greene’s campaign page also featured a Facebook ad with a picture of her holding a semi-automatic rifle next to photos of Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) with the caption: “Squad’s Worst Nightmare.”

But the vast majority of violence against women—inside or outside of politics—comes from men. This means that men who not only abhor violence, but also believe in “playing by the rules” need to find a stronger voice on this issue. Why? Because to the extent that violent intimidation discourages women from running for office, it provides an unfair advantage to men. 

What can men who believe in elementary fairness and other basic democratic values do? They can start by pushing back against the idea that violent rhetoric in politics is normal, and that the problem is not gendered because male political leaders are also sometimes targeted.

As New Zealand disinformation researcher Kate Hannah said, “Male leaders need to stand up and say this is happening, it’s real and it’s unacceptable, instead of dithering about whether it is real and that it’s just part of the job.”

In addition, all men who have public leadership roles (e.g. in education, business, religion) can make it clear that acts of violence against women in politics—which includes threats of violence—are totally unwelcome and unacceptable, regardless of political ideology.

Male leaders need to stand up and say this is happening, it’s real and it’s unacceptable, instead of dithering about whether it is real and that it’s just part of the job.

Kate Hannah

Male politicians have a special responsibility to disavow misogynous violence directed at female political leaders: One of the most effective ways to counteract political violence is for leaders to renounce the use of violence by their supporters, as the political scientists Lilliana Mason and Nathan Kalmoe found in their study on radical partisanship and violence.

In the case of misogynous violence, it is also important for political leaders—especially, but not exclusively men—to support sanctions against people who engage in it. This sends a clear message of social disapproval and a warning that transgressors will suffer social—and not just legal—consequences.

The alternative is that men’s violence against women in politics—along with other forms of political violence—will become increasingly normalized. As a result, smart, talented women from all ethnic and racial backgrounds will be discouraged from entering politics. This will greatly diminish our ability to solve a myriad of social problems, which will harm not only girls and women—but also boys and men, and everyone.

Even worse, democratic norms will continue to erode. Violence and intimidation of people in public life are not only harmful to individuals—they are overt manifestations of authoritarianism and creeping fascism, and thus threats to democracy itself. 

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Jackson Katz, Ph.D., is internationally renowned for his pioneering scholarship and activism on issues of gender, race and violence. He is the creator and co-producer of the documentary The Man Card: White Male Identity Politics from Nixon to Trump, which is streaming free through the end of December 2022. Katz has long been a major figure and thought leader in the growing global movement of men working to promote gender equality and prevent gender violence. He is co-founder of Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP), one of the longest-running and most widely influential gender violence prevention programs in North America and beyond. He is the author of two acclaimed books and creator of the award-winning Tough Guise educational documentary series. His TEDx talk, "Violence Against Women Is a Men's Issue," has over 5 million total views.