It was career day at my daughter’s school, and she chose to hang out with a photographer. This seemed like an impossibly glamorous leap from my own career-pondering days, when an exhausted guidance counsellor would hand out quizzes to scientifically determine whether you should be an air-traffic controller or a gym teacher.
There were no politicians on offer at my daughter’s school, and I’m not sure I would have advised her to shadow one even if there had been. I’d like her to have a nice, satisfying professional life that does not involve panic alarms, death threats, abuse and harassment. And that, unfortunately, is the dire lot of women in politics these days, around the world.
I wish it were not the case. As regular readers know, I’ve written a lot about the need for young women to feel encouraged to seek a life in public office, and about the barriers women in politics face, which increasingly takes the form of abuse. “Yeah,” some of you might be thinking, “you write about it too much.” But I’d stop writing about it if it stopped happening. Believe me, I’d rather be discussing Helena Bonham Carter and Olivia Colman’s excellent frocks in the third season of The Crown.
The only way to draw attention to this vileness is to keep writing about it, wherever it occurs. To note that Environment Minister Catherine McKenna’s campaign poster was defaced with the grossest possible slur, not long after it was revealed she was getting extra security because she’d been confronted on the street with her kids. Or to draw attention to a recent CBC story that revealed Elizabeth May also had extra security, and NDP MP Jenny Kwan, after lengthy racist abuse, had panic buttons installed in her constituency office to protect her staff. “To be attacked just because you’re a woman over and over again … It’s a constant stream of abuse and it’s gotten much worse," Ms. May told the CBC’s Ashley Burke.
You know who else has a panic button? Probably a lot of female politicians, but they don’t like talking about it for fear of drawing attention to themselves and seeming whiny. The British Labour MP Jess Phillips, the subject of a torrent of rape and death threats, writes that she’s worried she’ll accidentally hit her bedside panic button when she wakes up in the morning. Maybe you think it’s a bit dramatic, this business of panic buttons, until you consider that Ms. Phillips’s friend and colleague, Labour MP Jo Cox, was murdered by a right-wing extremist, and that another colleague, MP Rosie Cooper, was the subject of a murder plot (the Neo-Nazi who hatched the plot has been sentenced to life in prison).
Are things getting worse for women politicians in an age of polarization, social-media disinhibition and various idiocies that end in “exit”? Jo Cox’s sister certainly thinks so. So do a number of female British MPs who have decided not to run again in the current general election, citing the toxic onslaught they’ve faced (a number of male MPs are also not seeking re-election, but they tended to be older and further along in their careers). The British police have told female candidates to take precautions such as campaigning in pairs. Some have said they won’t campaign at night, a small problem in the run up to a December election. In Canada’s federal election, a Green Party volunteer was assaulted in London, Ont., while door-knocking.
It’s true that many jobs involve physical danger; that alone would not be enough to deter young women. But a job that offers both physical threats and the prospect of being called a bitch every day – now, there’s an offer you can refuse. In addition, young women might be choosing whether to run for office at a time when their very youth and digital-world choices could be weaponized against them.
That’s what happened to first-time Congresswoman Katie Hill, 32, who ran an inspiring campaign to steal a seat from a Republican incumbent in California. Last month, intimate photos of Ms. Hill were spread without her knowledge or consent across right-wing websites and The Daily Mail. Ms. Hill blamed her ex-husband for sharing the photos, and for revealing that she had an inappropriate relationship with an aide on her campaign team (Ms. Hill denies an allegation that she had a relationship with a second congressional staffer).
Ms. Hill’s resignation speech was apologetic, yet defiant. She pointed out that male politicians accused of far worse improprieties – including one in the Oval Office – kept their seats. She pledged to fight for other victims of revenge porn. She was sorry that she’d let down young women, whom she’d hoped to inspire. But she wanted to leave behind a message of resilience: “I refuse to let this experience scare off other women who dare to take risks, who dare to step into the light, who dare to be powerful … We will not stand down, we will not be broken and we will not be silenced. We will rise and we will make tomorrow better than today.”
This perhaps is the best message to resonate with young women: defiance can be invigorating, if you don’t mind a bit of a fight on the way to changing things. In fact, that’s what you hear from many women who stay in politics despite the grimness. They know their presence is essential. To give in and give up would be an admission of defeat. It would mean there was silence where their voices should be. Invaluable work would not get done. In a recent Inter-Parliamentary Union survey of women serving in European parliaments, half said they’d received death threats – but 80 per cent said they had every intention of running again.
The rest of us can speak up on their behalf, and point out abuse when we see it happening. We can call out social-media platforms that don’t enforce their own rules, and political parties that don’t shut down harmful practices. And we can encourage our daughters to change the system from within.
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