And that’s why threats against them have soared
America and the world face great challenges, and women are stepping up.
The past decade has seen a rise in the number and effectiveness of women political leaders, both in and out of government. Research is growing that shows women perform better in leadership roles than men. The 117th U.S. Congress has a record number of women representatives.
Other examples of women’s growing influence in politics:
- In his recent State of the Union address, President Biden was framed by Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The #2 and #3 most powerful leaders in the U.S. government are women.
- Democratic activist Stacey Abrams is believed largely responsible for voter registration and mobilization efforts in Georgia that secured a Democratic presidential win, and Senate majority, in 2020.
- Moms Demand Action has enjoyed success in lobbying for gun safety legislation and other reforms in several U.S. states.
- Internationally, more nations are electing women leaders, who are proving themselves in crises — like Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, widely praised for her handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With rising influence comes more criticism, but something is different
Facing criticism is part of politics right? It’s a dynamic as old as the republic. Free speech — the bedrock of our democracy — enables citizens to speak their minds to those in power. However, when does free speech end and threats begin? When does criticism become harassment? And most importantly, why have threats against women leaders, in particular, increased in recent years?
First, let’s look at data reported by the Associated Press (AP) to try to separate fact from belief.
“Researchers for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue measured online abuse of congressional candidates in the 2020 election, including direct or indirect threats and promoting violence or demeaning a person based on identity such as race or gender. They found female Democrats received 10 times more abusive comments on Facebook than their male peers, while Republican women received twice as many as their male counterparts.” (Bold emphasis mine)
“A State and Local Government Review survey of mayors in communities with over 30,000 residents found 79% of mayors reported being a victim of harassment, threats or other psychological abuse, and 13% reported instances of physical violence. Gender was the biggest predictor of whether mayors would be victims, with female mayors more than twice as likely as male mayors to face psychological abuse, and nearly three times as likely to experience physical violence.” (Bold emphasis mine)
Research shows not only are women targeted more than men; the nature of the criticism is also different. Criticism of male politicians typically uses more general language, while female politicians receive more personal attacks using gendered language. Threats often focus on physical appearance and can include sexual violence and imagery.
Women’s traditional cultural roles help and hurt
Women’s traditional roles as nurturers, and perceived qualities of being more relational and empathetic may contribute to their success in politics. However, traditional roles may also work against them. Political and social scientists describe a concept called gender role theory which suggests that attributes of politicians such as ambition and assertiveness are “coded male.” Women who pursue elected office are perceived as violating traditional norms. The backlash against this perceived violation may be driving some of the threatening behavior.
Rutgers University Professor, Mona Lena Krook, who authored a 2020 book on global violence against women in politics, captures the sentiment:
“It’s like ‘Who does she think she is trying to tell us what to do?’…There is a sense they’re trying to delegitimize her because they don’t feel like she has the right, that she’s allowed to be there because she’s a woman … I think they take it very personally.”
It’s important to note, in our polarized times, that threats against women leaders occur on both sides of the aisle and are unacceptable no matter who is targeted. I suspect it’s more prevalent on the right as more traditional gender roles and greater xenophobia are features of the extreme right. Threats against women leaders are even more likely if they are also from a racial, ethnic or religious minority group.
The vitriol suffered by our female leaders, both in the U.S. and elsewhere, reflects misogynistic and xenophobic threads in our society going back decades. What’s new is the rapid acceleration of this violent rhetoric caused by the rising influence of women, social media and the lowering of standards of acceptable political discourse by extremist politicians and media figures.
We need to make reversing the threats against women leaders an urgent priority— right now. Some steps that might help:
- Social media crackdown — Like COVID disinformation control efforts, greater emphasis should be placed on threatening behavior on social media (against all genders). One simple change, that seems obvious, would be to force social media account holders to use their true names.
- Report threatening behavior on social media platforms.
- Hold elected officials accountable not only for their own behavior, but to strengthen laws against threats and violence towards women.
Perhaps it’s appropriate that I’m writing this on International Women’s Day. It’s a time to celebrate women in the many roles they play in our lives and society. However, it’s also a time to have a clear-eyed focus on the continued threats against women in political leadership and fight against them. The continued positive influence of women in our politics depends on it.