This past week, Equal Voice spoke at a quickly convened memorial for the late Jo Cox, the U.K. legislator who was stabbed and gunned down in her constituency. In a world where women remain a distinct minority in elected office, the death of Jo Cox, who was a passionate and outspoken advocate for the disadvantaged, in addition to being a mother of young children, is a devastating blow.
We have become accustomed to hearing about violence and threats against politicians, including women, in countries rife with conflict and embroiled in civil war. It is much harder to get your head around it when we are talking about a modern democracy and relatively safe country like the United Kingdom. For women the world over, the murder of Jo Cox is a poignant reminder that serving in elected office can be fraught with risk.
And while male politicians are also subject to death threats and occasional attacks in modern democracies, there is something particularly pernicious about how women politicians are singled out. Manitoba New Democratic MLA Nahanni Fontaine said it very well after going public last week about a threatening call from a man, in which she told the CBC she received a “warning to … watch what she says in the Manitoba legislature.”
Fontaine seized the occasion to “express her solidarity with all women in public service in the face of hatred against women.” She underscored that “the reality is that women engaged in public life across the globe are constantly intimidated, threatened, sanctioned, silenced, ridiculed and in some cases tortured, raped, and murdered.”
On the eve of Equal Voice’s efforts to mark the 100th anniversary of (some) women getting the federal franchise, it’s not the dominant message Equal Voice wants to be sending to women about politics. In a video just released by EV called ‘Dear 20-year-old me,’ we sought to feature hopeful and inspiring clips from 13 federal female MPs, both new and seasoned.
As part of EV’s national initiative, Daughters of the Vote, we are eager to underscore how women’s perspectives, and voices, enrich legislatures and the outcomes they produce. We are inviting hundreds, if not thousands, of emerging young women leaders to consider politics as a rewarding professional path.
The positivity that federal MPs, among others, embodied in our video is what Equal Voice wants to share about the opportunities for women in politics. Having a seat at the table and creating change is an incredibly meaningful endeavour. We know that the satisfaction that comes from serving in public life is—more often than not—well worth the time, energy and sacrifice. Moreover, we believe that it is incumbent upon women to consider elected life, and parties to promote the opportunity, if we expect to produce policies, programs and legislation that are reflective of women’s diverse realities.
But we would not be having this conversation justice if we do not also acknowledge the price that many elected women pay for their service. Up to now, the ugliness, the misogyny, the hostility has been something that many female politicians have been reluctant to talk about. No one seeks political office to have this be their defining experience or narrative. Further, the vast majority of elected women are—of course—supported, well-liked and astute political actors who rise above the occasional incident, the vitriol of social media trolls and the disrespect they sometimes encounter—as women—from within and outside of their legislatures.
But the combined experiences of elected women from all levels of government is one we now need to address in a more substantive way. We simply cannot take it for granted that women politicians are always safe—or that they the verbal or other threats they encounter are, exclusively, ‘just innocuous acts from disgruntled voters.’
Because the political sphere is one where those elected are subject to greater scrutiny for their partisan or policy interests, it may seem difficult to disentangle disgruntlement from legitimate concern for one’s well-being. The reality is, however, that many of the hostile and egregious comments that are directed at elected women are fuelled by misogyny, i.e., a discomfort with the fact that, increasingly, women are taking up space and advocating for change in an arena where, typically, men have dominated the agenda. The dissonance that this creates for what is a small minority of their colleagues, constituents and the media underlies many of the actions intended to intimidate and silence.
Clearly, this is not to say that women entering or serving the political arena are neither welcomed, or do not thrive. We know the opposite to be true. Many women describe their time in elected office as the best time of their lives—and one in which they are able to create long-lasting change for their communities. At the same time, given the developments of recent weeks, the complex realities of women in elected office need to be better addressed.
Women in elected office need to feel that they have the resources and mechanisms at their disposal to be as safe and secure as possible. The hyper-sensitivity that many politicians, particularly women, feel about deploying public resources or being perceived as “entitled” or “privileged” cannot undermine what should be done. Reasonable and continuous efforts need to be taken to ensure that elected women feel safe in their homes, their constituency offices and in the community. Individual women who are elected should not have to internalize a feeling of vulnerability on the basis of a nefarious Facebook post, verbal threat, or other incident. They absolutely should not be left to deal with it on their own.
It is time that the collective and often gendered experiences of women in elected office be unpacked, better understood, and, quite frankly, improved if we, as a country, are serious about ensuring that far more women serve in politics.
Nancy Peckford is the national spokesperson for Equal Voice.
The Hill Times
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