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Imagine, for a second, that you’re walking down the street with your kids or your dog and someone who doesn’t like the way you do your job decides to hurl abuse at you. This probably seems inconceivable, if you’re a teacher or a lawyer or a baker or a construction worker.
However, if you are a politician – a female politician, specifically – it could be part of your life. This week we learned that Catherine McKenna, the Liberal Environment Minister, is sometimes accompanied by security, after the constant abuse she suffers online spilled over into real life (while she was with her kids going to see a movie in Ottawa, a man hurled an expletive at her and called her “Climate Barbie.”) The incident made international headlines – not the kind we usually associate with our friendly country. It was, perhaps, the wake-up call people needed to understand the situation that many women in politics face.
I’m Elizabeth Renzetti, a columnist and feature writer with The Globe and Mail, and I’ve long been interested in the ways that women are discouraged from seeking a life in politics. Over the years I’ve interviewed politicians and aspiring politicians and academics who study politics, and one thing is clear – the abuse that women take, online and increasingly offline, is getting worse.
It’s not an issue that follows partisan lines, either: the abuse cuts across party politics. The former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose wrote that she had been “mocked, dismissed, insulted, threatened (including with sexual violence), underestimated, cyber-bullied, sexually harassed, disrespected and ignored” because of her gender. Women in politics tend to have hides thicker than suitcase leather, but we cannot and should not become inured to threats that require them to have security guards by their sides, which happened with both Alberta MLA Sandra Jansen and former Alberta premier Rachel Notley.
If you’ve had one eye open in the past few years, you’ll know this is not a problem only in Canada. Divisive politics have spilled into the real world wherever women hold office. In the U.K., the bitterness over Brexit has seen a spike in threats against female and minority politicians, according to British police. Former Conservative MP Anna Soubry says she can’t go home to her constituency for fear of violence; one man who verbally abused her has been banned from the area around Parliament. Another Tory MP, Caroline Spelman, says the death threats she’s received are so bad that she won’t run again. This is not something that British MPs can afford to take lightly: their colleague, the Labour MP Jo Cox, was murdered by a right-wing extremist in 2016.
In the United States, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who’s become an object of hatred for the right, wrote on Twitter that her morning ritual includes coffee, and reviewing “photos of the men (it’s always men) who want to kill me.” Her fellow congresswomen, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, both Muslim, have been subject to death threats from the public and a suggestion from the U.S. President that they should “go back” to their home countries – although they’re American.
This trend is horrifying, and horrifyingly widespread. A 2016 survey of 55 female legislators in 39 countries revealed that 44 per cent of them had been subject to threats of violence or kidnapping.
It should be obvious why this is an enormous, non-partisan problem, but in case it’s not: this kind of abuse is intended to keep women from taking their place at the leadership table. All politicians must be free to concentrate on their jobs – already stressful enough – without having to worry about threats of physical violence. The threat itself is psychological violence, and could deter young women from seeking a life in politics. I mean, who needs that kind of grief?
Fortunately, the support for Ms. McKenna has shown that condemnation of this rancid behaviour comes from across the political spectrum. It’s not enough, though: tech companies have to do more to police these threats online, and those of us who vote, and who might run for office one day, have to call out this behaviour whenever and wherever we see it.
What else we’re thinking about:
Sometimes when the world seems like it’s full of randos screaming at each across an abyss empty of meaning, you need to seek the solace of growly-voiced philosopher and murder-ballad legend Nick Cave on the big subjects of the day: What is the nature of forgiveness? What purpose does God serve? Why did he break up with PJ Harvey? Cave’s Red Hand Files is an oasis of wisdom in a dark world. You can ask him any questions, and his answers will make your head explode – in the best possible way.
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