WMC Speech Project

What women politicians’ online harassment tells us about degraded democracy

Senator Murkowski Senator Collins
Senators Murkowski and Collins

Earlier this year, in a little remarked upon episode, the nation was exposed to how differently men and women politicians are treated in media. In September, Senator John McCain was showered with accolades after he voted against his party’s attempt to repeal Obamacare and urged his peers to espouse cross-party conciliation. McCain’s Johnny-Come-Lately stake in the ground came, however, in the wake of the consistent, longer-standing, and defiant intra-party opposition of two other Republican Senators, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, who were motivated, in part by their pro-choice stance.  

For their efforts, the women were viciously attacked online and off as traitors to their party. Members of their own party made comments about beating them for their insolence, and threatened other violence and political retaliation. "I'm tellin' ya,” Georgia GOP Representative Buddy Carter, announced on national television, “Somebody needs to go over to that Senate and snatch a knot in their ass," a colloquial reference to beating, as punishment.  Texas GOP representative Blake Farenthold claimed that if Murkowski and other women GOP senators were men he would challenge them to duels. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke sent what Alaska GOP senator Dan Sullivan called a “threatening message,” suggesting that his department would penalize Murkowski’s home state of Alaska in response to her vote. Online, the women were, among the milder examples, “old hags” and “lying feminazi's (sic).” President Donald Trump, taking a moment out of a day in which he graphically described the violent mutilation of girls and told a sexually suggestive story to a crowd of more than 40,000 people at a Boy Scout Jamboree, took time to tweet about Murkowski, in a depressingly familiar dog-whistle tactic for generating a cascade of online vitriol.

Collins and Murkowski are, quite literally, among some of the last Republican women standing in Congress and treatment like this, at the hands of their own party, does little to encourage women to join the GOP fold. The harassment that they faced is typical for women in politics, regardless of their political affiliations. A 2016 Inter-Parliamentary Union survey of women in legislatures around the world found that:

· 41.8% report wide distribution of “extremely humiliating or sexually charged images”

· 44.4% receive death, rape, beating and abduction threats

· 32.7% harassed through exposure to persistent unwanted and intimidating messages

· 61.5% believe that the primary objective of the harassment they face is to dissuade women from pursuing political leadership positions

The treatment of these two Senators illustrates this hostility, but it also illuminates two problems rarely clearly linked to hostility towards women: political polarization and degraded democracy.

First, our deepening political divide is inseparable from a profound gender divide. According to an annual study of first-year college students conducted by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute this year, political polarization is at its highest point in the 51-years that the survey has been conducted. Thirty-five point five percent of students identify as “liberal or far left”, 22.2% as “conservative or far right.” Only 42.3 percent of first years labeled themselves “middle of the road.”  The study also revealed a less frequently cited fact: the starkest political gender gap reported in a half century.  Only 28.9% percent of men identify as “liberal or far left” compared to 41.1% of women. On the left, 85% of the opposition to the current Administration is driven by women, according to many measures, including the percent of those making calls to Members of Congress and new registrations at sites for political activism.

Second, the gender divide is directly a result of conservative hostility, the kind evidenced in the treatment of Collins and Murkowski, to women asserting public power. Despite the GOP’s public claims of supporting women and women leaders, the facts, for what they are worth, clearly show that the party doesn’t come close to providing the support required to encourage women to run or voters to support them.   In our conversations with Republicans, it is clear that there is very little awareness of exactly how far apart our two parties are when it comes to the representation of women in government, a powerful indicator of deep-seated ideas about women’s equality. Since the mid-2000s Republican women have made almost no gains as elected officials, and, indeed, even during a cycle of Republican gains, recently lost a woman in the Senate. Today, there are three times more Democratic women in Congress than there are Republican women. In addition, Republican women in Congress have lost, not gained, leadership opportunities.  In 2014, when the Senate was under Democratic control, women led an unprecedented nine committees, including the powerful Appropriations Committee.  The current administration likes to trot out women who work in the White House or point a finger at tokenized cabinet members, but neither example includes elected officials with lawmaking power.  As of today, only Senators Collins and Murkowski chair committees.

Third, a lack of elected Republican women is why, today, the US ranks so poorly, globally, for women’s political representation and efficacy. If the percent of women in Congress tracked with the Republican party, the US would rank 165th in the world out of 193, right alongside Congo and Mali, countries that are authoritarian or hybrid regimes.  If women in Congress tracked with the Democratic party, the US  would would rank 38th in the world, right after Switzerland.  To be sure, Democrats are hardly innocent of hostility to women as leaders, but there is no comparison between the cultures of these two parties when it comes to electing women.  Conservatives who claim that American women are the most politically “empowered” in the world are woefully mistaken and, to the degree that they attempt to, can only do so only by riding on the coattails of Democrats, whose willingness to promote women and the policies that they pursue the GOP consistently and aggressively undermines.

We are progressive democrats whose political beliefs are extraordinarily different from those of Senators Collins and Murkowski. Their standing up to their party did not, overnight, turn them into liberal feminist champions. However, we recognize that their treatment by members of their own party and administration hurts us all. We worry about the growing gap between the parties in terms of the number of elected women serving as Members of Congress.  If Republicans think more broadly about the process that led to their recent defeats - for example, the health care vote, they’d realize that excluding women all along did not result in a bill crafted to succeed.  We need more Republican women to make the Republican party more functional and also to work across the aisle with Democrats to have a functioning democracy.  Closing the gender gap might be the fastest route to closing the polarization gap. One good first step is to take the online harassment of women politicians seriously and develop party cultures that are designed to attract and retain women leaders.

Watch the video: Women in politics discuss online harassment

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Soraya Chemaly
Director, WMC Speech Project, Activist, Writer
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