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It is unacceptable that the ability to withstand misogyny, verbal abuse, threats of sexual violence and body shaming has become a job requirement for female politicians, but it still happening
Last week’s videotaped verbal tirade against federal Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna is just one more reason why it is getting harder to encourage women and girls to consider a career in politics without issuing a word of caution.
It is unacceptable that an ability to withstand misogyny, verbal abuse, threats of sexual violence and body shaming has become a job requirement. And yet all these things have become common tactics used to belittle and intimidate women in politics, not just in Canada, but worldwide.
In Atlantic Canada just under four years ago, a female finance minister — Cathy Bennett in Newfoundland and Labrador — went public with the cyberbullying she was experiencing, everything from violent sexual imagery to comments about her body.
“Reflect on the language being used.” Bennett said in December 2016. “As a society, what are we willing to tolerate? Are we condoning online bullying when we don’t stand up? … Is this what respectful public discourse looks like?”
No it isn’t.
Catherine McKenna has been dealing with the issue ever since she was elected the first woman MP in Ottawa Centre in 2015. She’s been verbally accosted while walking down the street with her children, derided with nicknames as the minister responsible for climate change and had an obscenity spraypainted across an image of her face at her campaign headquarters in 2019.
Before anyone reaches for the cliché “If you can’t stand the heat…,” let’s be clear here. What McKenna, Bennett and other women in politics are experiencing has nothing to do with the cut and thrust of debate on the floor of the legislature. This is hate and vitriol, pure and simple, and it should not be seen as something that comes with the territory that has to be tolerated.
“This isn’t an isolated incident involving me, my staff members, my family. Too often there are incidents against politicians, often female politicians. … Canadians don’t want this. We can’t stand for it." — Catherine McKenna
Last year, BBC Newsnight paired up with the think-thank Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which focuses on extremism and polarization online, to compare the types of comments being made about men and women in politics in Europe and the United Kingdom.
As the BBC reported, “The investigation revealed evidence that female figures receive proportionately more abuse than their male counterparts — and that a significant proportion of it takes the form of misogynistic and violent anti-female vitriol.”
Women politicians are far more likely than men in the same profession to have their physical appearance criticized, for example.
Such personal attacks have nothing to do with policy or constituency concerns. It is hateful and damaging.
“This isn’t an isolated incident involving me, my staff members, my family,” McKenna told the Ottawa Citizen. “Too often there are incidents against politicians, often female politicians. … Canadians don’t want this. We can’t stand for it. And we need to be vigilant. We need to take action to make sure it stops happening.”
Not only can we not stand for it, we must stand against it. There’s a huge difference between legitimate criticism of those in public office and misogyny and hate.
Let’s call it out.