Violence and Harassment Against Women in Politics Must End 

As women take on more leadership roles, break down barriers across sectors and run for office at unprecedented rates, their power increases but so does the threat against them. Violence and harassment of women - both on social media and in real life - is raging and it must be stopped. 

Women have always fought for a seat at the table, and since 2016, they are fighting even harder. It’s become clear that women of all backgrounds are ready to steer our country in the right direction. In the 2018 midterm election voters elected the highest number of women to ever serve in Congress and ushered in the first-ever majority-woman state legislature in Nevada and majority woman state house in Colorado. This year, the New Mexico State House became majority-woman and we saw several women become the first in their own right across the country.  

But among the moments of celebration, there have also been stories of harassment and threats that women candidates had to navigate while leading their communities. In the last election cycle, harassment hit new levels. Several women who ran in San Diego reported being stalked, threatened and harassed while they campaigned, with one woman even reporting that she had to file a restraining order. In October, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer declared that she would not be intimidated after law enforcement officials foiled a plot by militia groups to kidnap her and overthrow the state government. While these stories have now largely disappeared from the news cycle, these cases are a reminder that there are still dangers out there for women who seek and who are in positions of power. 

On the campaign trail, women have reported that they did not feel safe. And this cannot be seen as a weakness; we know women are strong, but they should not have to use their strength to counter horrible threats and attacks from our society. They should be given the opportunity to use their strength to better our communities, like they so often do.

Abuse against women in the political sphere is certainly nothing new, but with the advent of social media, the issue has become particularly insidious and hard to combat. As more women run to reach parity at every level of government, there has never been greater urgency to step up and support them by eradicating these threats. In a time of heightened political fear and violent rhetoric toward women, and especially women of color, we must call out offenses, take action against threats, and work hard to elect more women.  

The day before the Vice Presidential debate of the 2020 election, TIME’S UP released a report showing that a quarter of the coverage of then-Senator Kamala Harris included “racist and sexist stereotyping and tropes.” These vicious and dehumanizing attacks are unacceptable and have no place in our political discourse.

Further, researchers recently found that mentions of elected women leaders on Twitter “contained abuse between 15% and 39% of the time,” which is markedly higher than the numbers seen for men; and often, the abuse directed towards women was more personal and gender-focused. A separate study also showed that the chances of a woman being on the receiving end of ‘psychological electoral violence’ was three times greater than for a man. Many of these attacks against women are often sexualized, and they undoubtedly take a toll on the mental health of women who have to endure them. 

The problem is even worse for women of color who sometimes face both racialized and sexualized abuse. Amnesty International, which considers targeted abuse and harassment against women a human rights issue, conducted a crowdsourced study to analyze the abuse of women on Twitter. They found that Black and Latinx women were targeted more than any other group. Women of color were 30 percent more likely to experience harassment and the numbers were especially staggering for Black women, who were more than 80% more likely to be targeted. 

The abuse and harassment are also not limited to social media. During the 2020 election cycle, Congresswoman Jahana Hayes shared that a Zoom call hosted by her office was hijacked by trolls who carried out a coordinated racist attack. Unfortunately, what Representative Hayes experienced happens all too often. For some women, the risk to their lives becomes imminent and they are forced to choose between their passion for public service and personal safety. 

In 2018, Oregon House Representative Janelle Bynum had the police called on her while knocking doors and canvassing in her own community. 

Former Vermont State Representative Kiah Morris had to step down following a barrage of racism and sexism during her campaign that escalated into a break-in at her home. Others don’t make it through the campaign and must drop out before election day. This must end if we ever plan to create a more inclusive democracy. 

Being in the public eye and running for political office does leave candidates, both men and women, open to scrutiny. There is a place for disagreement, civil discourse and passionate debate, but we cannot normalize this type of abuse and harassment against women and we all have a role to play in stopping it.

At Emerge, we provide one part of the solution: training and preparing more women to run for office. But we must all do more to encourage and support women during their campaigns. Women have made incredible progress up and down the ballot but continue to remain underrepresented. We must elect more women to normalize their presence in places of power, but we all need to play a role in this by standing up with the women who are victimized. 

That starts with responding to and intervening when harassment happens, whether that’s online or in-person. Organizations, like Hollaback!, offer training so that bystanders are prepared to act, intervene and de-escalate - real steps to end the culture of harassment. It’s not enough to stand with women, we have to stand up for women, who we know will stand up for others when they are elected to office.

When women like Vice President Kamala Harris and others serve in office, it gives them more influence to shape policies that address problems like online abuse, sexual assault, and more. Evidence shows that women legislators are highly effective at passing critical legislation on issues that previously failed to gain traction. While we still need men to step up, if more women are at the table, they can do more to protect all women across the country.

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