When asked about the January 6th Capitol insurrection, New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez vocalized, “I did not know if I was going to make it to the end of that day alive.” Rep. Ocasio-Cortez is just one of many female politicians that have faced the real danger that await women who dare to enter the political arena. Of course, all members of Congress were threatened by rioters who broke into the Capitol and went searching for members that they could capture and, in the case of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), were threatening to kill.
This experience points out a special threat to women as elected officials when misogynistic and violent protesters organize. We heard about the plans of a Michigan group unhappy about the pandemic closures to kidnap and kill Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Fortunately, this gang was apprehended, 13 were charged and 6 have received federal indictments and will go to trial soon. Few who threaten women in politics and government are identified and prosecuted. Historically, women have been under-represented in all aspects of governments across the world, and accounts like that of Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and Gov. Whitmer are all too common.
A study by the Inter-Parlimentary Union (IPU), a Swiss based organization surveying 179 parliaments, found that female members of parliament disproportionately experienced violent threats, psychological trauma, and incidents of physical violence. 88.8% of female members of parliament reported experiencing psychological violence while 44.4% received threats of death, beatings, kidnapping, and rape. Even with the under-representation of women in all aspects of government, marginal gains are met with extreme threats of violence and trauma.
As a young undergraduate student, I was excited at the prospect of serving for a powerful and successful woman. I ecstatically accepted an internship in the Congressional Office of Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Given the contentiousness of politics during the Trump Administration, and the high authority of her position, I expected a fair amount of angry phone calls. What I was unprepared for, however, was the immense sexism and violence I was exposed to. For eight hours a day, twice per week, I listened to repeated phone calls threating rape, kidnapping, and murder. When the phone calls were not violent threats, they were sexist comments about her appearance, her age, or how her gender somehow made her “unfit” for the position in which she held. I recall coming home at the end of those long days feeling absolutely defeated, realizing that no woman, no matter how much she achieved in government, could escape the pervasiveness of sexism and the threat of violence.
These experiences and threats are not only morally repugnant but have severe implications for women’s representation in government. In 2018 a drove of sexist and anti-semitic campaigns caused Democratic hopeful Kim Weaver to withdrawal from the Iowa congressional race. Weaver is just one of many women who have been forced to end their campaigns for elective office because of the shrill sexism they faced during their runs.
When we think about the under-representation of women in government, it’s more than about the sheer number of women that lack adequate representation. It is about the women who are seeking office but are deterred because of the gauntlet of violent threats and sexism they face. It is about the women who do succeed in gaining government office, but fear for their lives on a daily basis.
Economic barriers, family obligations, social stigmatization, and a host of other barriers serve to make the battle for women’s representation in government an uphill struggle. Coupled with the pervasive sexism and violence experienced by so many government hopefuls, it is unfortunately no surprise that women remain disproportionately under-represented in all aspects of government across the world.
While the picture is grim, there are policy agendas in the United States that need to be passed immediately to begin undoing the severe harm that has been done and carve an equitable path for women in government.
- Pass the ERA to ensure that women have opportunities to gain the economic, social, and political capital that propels them and creates more equity in political races.
- Follow the model laid out by Bolivia and the Inter-American Commission on Women to codify laws and regulations that address the violence against women in political races and government office.
This is part two of a two-part series on the topic.
Harmony Bulloch, President’s Office Intern
- Juliana Restrepo Sanín: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/politics-and-gender/article/law-and-violence-against-women-in-politics/70361170ECDE7E5CDA6EDE5ABBDDB43D
- NBC News: https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/congress/aoc-says-she-feared-her-life-during-capitol-riot-i-n1254042
- New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/08/us/gretchen-whitmer-michigan-militia.html
- New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/24/us/politics/women-harassment-elections.html
- Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR): https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Women/ViolenceAgainstWomeninPoliticsReport.pdf