• Anna Hattig

Nevertheless, She Persisted

How female politicians experience and defy gender and sexual harassment.

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“You set of sickening fools. Why don’t you drown yourselves out of the way?”

These words were written on a postcard to British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst more than 100 years ago. The historical strive of women to enter democratic discourse and claim their rightful place on the political stage immediately gave rise to another movement: The strive to deter them from doing so, through discreditation, intimidation and violence.

Both struggles continue today.

Since the days of Emmeline Pankhurst and the suffragette movement, women’s participation in politics has increased rapidly. Today, around 23% of parliamentarians worldwide are women, and year by year more get involved as political activists, in political parties or by running for office.

Yet, currently, only 25 of all the world’s heads of state are female. What mechanisms deter women from taking positions of political power?

When entering politics, and thus the public domain, you automatically expose yourself to public opinion. Facing criticism, ridicule or scrutiny, is what many call “the natural price of politics”.

However, it is evident that women in politics are treated differently in public discourse than their male counterparts. While many politicians, regardless of gender, face threats of violence, hateful speech targeted at female politicians often carries a secret ingredient that male politicians seldomly experience: harassment on account of their gender. As a male British MP recognised

“Nobody would tweet me saying how terrible my suit was, or to tell me that I’m looking fat, or that I should dye my hair. It just wouldn’t happen. Women in public life are at a greater risk of being objectified”.
Coverage by the Daily Mail on female ministers in the UK (© The Independent)

Globally, two thirds of female MPs are regularly subjected to misogynistic remarks from male colleagues. These range from comments such as “you would be even better in a porn movie” to “she needs to be raped so that she knows what foreigners do”.

Threats of rape against female politicians are an especially present intimidation technique. One European MP reported that she had received over 500 rape threats over Twitter in four days.

The psychological toll that these sorts of threats can have is severe, and can range from undermining one’s self worth, to depression, anxiety, and a loss of sense of personal security and safety.

Women affected will often feel forced to remove themselves from the public sphere, and other women will feel discouraged to enter politics in the first place.

Social media has had a significant impact on how we conduct public discourse today. Despite the positive impact that the digital age has had on accessibility to political discussions, the anonymity of posting on Twitter, Facebook and other online platforms has also removed the exposure to direct repercussions, as well as the social pressure to abide by basic norms of conversation.

Speech against female politicians on social media rarely sticks to criticism of partisan affiliation or political decisions, but often falls into sexist stereotypes and discreditation. The word mostly associated with Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election campaign, for example, was “b*tch”, a slur also heaped on U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez by a male colleague on the steps of the Capitol.

 (© Daily Mail)
Daily Mail’s coverage of a meeting between Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon and former British PM Theresa May

Apart from the blatant calls to violence, both physical and sexual, against women in politics, language belittling women’s political engagement and attacking personal dignity forms a large part of social media discourse on female politicians.

From constantly commenting on their clothing and appearance, to calling into question their abilities and competences, and bringing up social and cultural expectations of a woman’s role as a mother and homemaker, large parts of public discourse on female politicians focuses on everything but the actual reason they have entered the public domain: to participate in politics.

Women of colour in politics are especially targeted by hate speech and sexual harassment (Cartoon by Ben Garrison)

Women of colour in politics find themselves especially targeted by online abuse. An Amnesty International Report conducted during the 2017 U.K. general election showed that nearly half of the abundance of abusive Tweets sent out to female PMs in a six-week period were directed at Diane Abbott, the longest serving black MP in the House of Commons.

This again shows how social media highlights and magnifies the exclusionary and discriminatory ideas deeply rooted in our societies about who should participate in politics. Violent speech and gender harassment against female politicians, in the media, from male colleagues, and the anonymous masses, has one clear aim: To intimidate and deter women from participating in politics.

It stems from the same idea that drove someone to write that hateful postcard to Emmeline Pankhurst in 1909. The idea that women, as a group, are not equipped to participate in politics, and that their role in society should be limited to the private, not the public domain.

Thankfully, brave women all over the world seek to defy those voices, and continue to enter the political sphere to take up the space that, as representatives of 50% of the world’s population, they deserve. This trend can give us hope, since only representation can bring change, into legislation, but also into society as a whole.


Written By: Anna Hattig, Research Ambassador at Metta Space

Edited By: Paula Koller-Alonso, Head of R&D at Metta Space

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