The Dangers of Being a Female Politician
Wednesday night, New Jersey councilwoman Eunice K. Dwumfour was found in her car with multiple gunshot wounds, according to authorities. She was pronounced dead at the scene.
Dwumfour, a Republican, was only 30 years old. She was still a newcomer, serving her first term on the Sayreville Borough Council after being elected in November 2021. Her former campaign manager Karen Bailey Bebert told the New York Times that Dwumfour was an “inspirational woman” who was excited to get into politics at a young age.
Though the motive of the New Jersey councilwoman’s killer is still unclear, the story joins an array of high-profile headlines in the past few years that detail incidents of violence, or attempted violence, towards women in politics. Last week, a video was released of Paul Pelosi being struck in the head with a hammer by an intruder who intended to kidnap Nancy Pelosi. In July, a man with a loaded gun was arrested outside the house of Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.). Neighbors told The Washington Post that they heard him yell “go back to India” and threaten to kill Jayapal. And In 2020, several men were convicted for their participation in an elaborate plot to kidnap Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in the name of their anti-government ideals.
These are just some of the attempts at violence that materialized in real life, but a large sect of harassment towards female officials happens online and goes unreported.
“Online violence is becoming more prominent because there just isn’t a consequence for it,” said Nina Jankowicz, author of How to Be a Woman Online and lead for the Centre for Information Resilience’s Hypatia Project, which combats online harms against women.
The frequency and variety of possible channels for online abuse makes accurate data difficult to come by. But in September 2022, Princeton University and the Anti-Defamation League created a database tracking threats and harassment to politicians on the local level. Based on their data, the researchers estimated that female officials are targeted 3.4 times more than their male counterparts.
The challenges can be even more pointed for women of color. An October 2022 Center for Democracy and Technology report found that women of color running for Congress in 2020 were at least five times more likely than other candidates to be targeted with tweets related to their identity that focused specifically on their gender and race.
Harassment, both offline and online, has proved challenging for many officials to deter.
About a year ago, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu put forward a controversial proposal which barred demonstrations at any private home between the hours of 9 p.m. and 9 a.m. The proposal, which became law, came after months of early-morning protests targeting Wu’s family home. The move was met with accusations of obstructing First Amendment rights from critics. Protests against Wu mainly coalesced around COVID-19 restrictions, but also devolved into racist and misogynistic comments.
“There is of course an element of, I believe, people seeing someone who is a woman of color, relatively new to this job, and seeing someone who can be bullied,” Wu said on WBUR’s “Radio Boston.”
Even in the very top levels of government, continued harassment can grate on women in power. New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern became the world’s youngest female leader when she was sworn into office in 2017. But she resigned last month, saying that she no longer had “enough in the tank” to continue as prime minister.
Ardern was subject to constant online harassment. Auckland University’s Extremism Insights Aotearoa research team analyzed posts referring to the prime minister, and found that she was the subject of an unprecedented amount of negative and hateful comments.
The team looked at online posts mentioning Ardern, as well as six other high-profile figures. In comparison, Ardern received online vitriol at a rate between 50 and 90 times higher than any other high-profile figure.
“I had no idea that it was going to be that much of a gulf,” Chris Wilson, who leads the research team, told Women Rule. He also noted that several of the comments about Ardern were especially vulgar, including mentions of sexual violence. The prime minister has said that threats and abuse were not a decisive factor in her resignation.
Unsurprisingly, harassment keeps many women out of the political sphere. Jankowicz describes it as a “chilling effect.” She has experienced online harassment herself, after an appointment as head of the Department of Homeland Security’s Disinformation Governance Board.
“You just really look at your life very differently. Especially if you have children. You wonder if there’s going to be somebody outside waiting for you,” Jankowicz told Women Rule. “You wonder, when you go walk the dog or bring your child to daycare, if somebody’s going to be there to threaten you.”
Jankowicz urges women to report abuse, both online and off, to officials, which she acknowledges can be a difficult process. “So much of the burden of dealing with these issues is on the survivor of the abuse, and that’s really problematic, but report as much as you can.”