Women's greater political visibility could spark a backlash. We need to secure the progress we've made.
This week, Theresa May becomes Britain’s second female prime minister. Her opponent, Andrea Leadsom, dropped out — at least in part — because ‘the abuse was simply too much’.
Yesterday afternoon, Angela Eagle launched her campaign for the leadership of the Labour Party. Last night, a brick was thrown through her constituency office window and this morning she had to cancel a planned event because of threats.
Two weeks ago, Pat Glass was appointed to her ‘dream job’ in shadow cabinet. She announced the next day that she would not stand again as an MP, having been warned to avoid public places because of a series of credible death threats.
Less than a month ago, a female MP who had received online threats and abuse was shot and killed.
And amid all this, women are criticised for not celebrating the greater prominence and power of female politicians.
Quite simply, we’ll celebrate more wholeheartedly when entering politics as a woman is not only possible, but safe.
And yes, politicians of all genders get abuse — this morning Chris Bryant reported a death threat to the police — but, as Fawcett Society CEO Sam Smethers said yesterday ‘there is something about the way in which women in politics are judged, vilified and threatened that tells us that we are getting it badly wrong.’
There is evidence that while greater gender equality reduces violence against women in the long-term, in the short-term it can cause a backlash whereby women, as a result of their greater political visibility, become more likely targets of violence and abuse.
This presents a serious threat, not only to women politicians themselves, but to the progress that we’ve made.
If rape threats, death threats, and online abuse and harassment become a routine part of being an MP, fewer women will be willing to enter politics or — as in Pat Glass’s case — to continue in politics.
If running for party leadership involves having your windows smashed and your staff threatened, then women aren’t going to run for the most prominent and powerful jobs.
So if our political parties seriously believe in the benefits of greater gender balance, they need to do more than simply putting women in parliament, or in the cabinet, or in Downing Street. They need to ensure that women are safe and supported while there.
There are plenty of ways of achieving this, whether by officially backing efforts like Yvette Cooper’s Take Back the Internet, or by calling out the less overt acts of sexism that imply that women are fair targets — like when the Daily Mail wrote an entire post-budget story on the soon-to-be prime minister’s cleavage.
I propose that they go even further.
It’s a well-established political norm for parties to sign clean campaign pledges — why not take this moment to develop and sign a cross-party anti-misogyny pledge? One that holds the parties to account and demands that they take reasonable steps to rein in their supporters’ behaviour as well.
This won’t solve the problem, and would of course have to be linked up with more effective security, police willingness to take threats seriously and better professional support services for MPs.
However, at a time when women politicians are making much-lauded progress, political leaders should redouble their commitment to rooting out sexism at all levels of politics, not only in solidarity with their women colleagues, but in the interests of safeguarding what progress that has been made on gender equality.
Women parliamentarians still have to overcome tremendous and disproportionate barriers in order to realise their goal of serving the public.
They deserve better than this.
Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter.
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