When I read that Nancy Pelosi’s husband had been bludgeoned with a hammer inside his home last week by an attacker yelling “Where is Nancy?”, my first reaction was visceral – I could think only of how excruciatingly painful that must have been. My second thought was like a slowly dawning horror: What else would the attacker – who was found with duct tape and zip ties on him – have done if he’d found the woman he was seeking?
Also…why? Why so much hatred? It’s an answer that feels both highly complex, because there are so many social, psychological, and political forces at play, and also…disturbingly simple.
Because of course, angry men hate women in power. They always have.
Part of this horror came from the fact that I identify with Pelosi on several levels. I may not agree with all her politics, she may not be my personal hero, but as a lifelong Democratic voter and a woman who is open about my views, I’m certainly similar enough to her to safely assume that her attacker would have plenty of reasons to hate me (and every progressive woman I know, and, apparently, our family members).
It’s not that I think anyone is plotting to knock down my doors. But just knowing that there are that many people out there, with that much anger against us, is deeply unsettling. It makes me just a little bit scared to keep sharing my views in a public forum. I think that’s largely the point of such attacks.
While many have suggested that leaders on the right have fomented these kinds of incidences (citing a sharp uptick in violent rhetoric and threats against political groups in recent years), the particular hatred directed towards Pelosi, arguably the most powerful woman in American politics, is also part of a long legacy of violence against women in power worldwide.
Though the issue is hardly new, it becomes only more prevalent as women continue to fill more leadership positions, and more frightening in the wake of the Trump era, which whipped up a new level of emboldened misogyny.
For decades, Pelosi has been a focal point of vitriol for Republicans, who have spent hundreds of millions on ads featuring her. “Even in 2012, when Ms. Pelosi served as minority leader, wielding less power than Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic majority leader at the time, Republican television ads were six times more likely to mention Ms. Pelosi than to mention Mr. Reid,” reported The New York Times.
She’s hardly the only female politician in America who’s been threatened with violence in recent years. Around this time last year, the office of Democratic Representative Debbie Dingell was broken into and ransacked, and a Republican representative shared an anime video showing him murdering Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In 2020, Democratic Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer was the subject of a kidnapping plot.
An analysis of the 2020 U.S. congressional races found that female Democrats running for office were the target of 10x more abusive comments than their male counterparts.
Women of color in the U.S. have it even worse, as they are more than four times as likely as White candidates to be targeted with violent abuse, according to a new study.
In some cases, deaths threats have discouraged women from even running for office.
“What we’re seeing in the tenor of some of the attacks against not just Pelosi but other women in public positions is this idea of, ‘Who are you that you think you can be in charge’ and ‘I will do what I can to undermine this,” Jean Sinzdak, an associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics told The 19th.
The very uncomfortable truth about all of this is that while most people wouldn’t go so far as to threaten their elected officials, an aversion towards women in leadership is not unique to extremists, or conservatives for that matter.
Numerous studies have shown how widespread these views are worldwide.
One global study showed that fewer than 62% of people polled were comfortable with a woman as head of government.
Skepticism of women’s ability to lead is strong even in countries that have elected female leaders to the highest office.
In one study, only 41% of Germans said they’re very comfortable with a woman being the head of government despite Angela Merkel filling the role of Chancellor for more than a decade.
Complicating research around views of female leaders is the fact that many people seem to understand that it’s now perceived as wrong to be openly sexist, leading them to deny any prejudice.
Researchers have found that when they carefully design their questions in a way that allows respondents to avoid explicitly stating bias, both men and women, Democrats and Republicans, are far more likely to show bias against women leaders.
Of course, mistrusting female leaders is not at all the same as breaking into their homes or even spewing hateful things to them online. But when such a large portion of society doesn’t like the idea of women in power, it’s not hard to see how some people within that society might take the next step towards active dislike and then anger and hatred.
No perpetrator exists in a vacuum. Unfortunately, that dynamic is likely going to stick around for a lot longer. The real scary part is when those who’ve taken that leap to hatred feel empowered to act on it, as they clearly do.
The slowly-cresting wave of galvanized misogynists didn’t develop overnight – it took many years, many vitriolic statements from public figures, many millions of sexist social media posts. The effort to beat it back will take no less effort, but it’s crucial that we try, lest we want even more threats to our female leaders, even fewer women taking the brave step to run for office, and even less representation for women overall.
Annie Midori Atherton is a writer, content producer and parent living in Seattle. She’s interested in exploring how our broader culture impacts everyday life and questions of why we are the way we are.
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