By Claire Zillman
February 17, 2017

Earlier this week, members of the U.K. Parliament erupted over revelations that Brexit Secretary David Davis had made a slight about MP Diane Abbott’s looks in a text to a friend. Fellow MP Shami Chakrabarti characterized Davis’ behavior as “very silly, sexist and patronizing.” Another female MP said it showed Davis’ “arrogance.”

Abbott, who was Britain’s first-ever black female MP when she was elected in 1987, issued her own response in a poignant op-ed, in which she addressed the “misogynist text exchange” and the other abuse she regularly receives. Rape and death threats are commonplace. “And [I’m] sent horrible images on Twitter,” she wrote. Despite her long tenure in Parliament, the fight against misogyny and racism, “is getting harder.”

Abbott is certainly not alone: In January, a survey revealed that a majority of female MPs have received online and verbal abuse from the public and a third have considered quitting as a result. “This is an issue for all women in the public space, and it is particularly an issue for those of us who would like to see more young women involved in political activity,” Abbott wrote.

That got me thinking about how the issue of online abuse will play into the Donald Trump-era trend in the U.S. that’s seeing more women pursue politics. It turns out U.S. organizations that support female candidates are training women on how to deal with this sort of harassment.

Rachel Thomas, national press secretary for Emily’s List, which works with pro-choice Democrats, told me the organization “help[s] campaigns identify when and how to stand up against these attacks while remaining focused on the most important piece of their campaigns—speaking to voters about their vision and the issues that matter to them.”

Erin Forrest, executive director of the Wisconsin arm of Emerge America, another group that supports Democratic women candidates, said in a statement, “We talk about online harassment as an unfortunate reality. Much like other forms of sexism you don’t necessarily get to avoid it if you don’t run for office.”

The good news is that women who win office understand online abuse and are in positions to do something about it. In her previous role as California’s attorney general, Sen. Kamala Harris, a Democrat, was the first in the nation to successfully prosecute an operator of a cyber exploitation website. And Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) has pushed for stronger investigations and prosecutions of online attacks—especially against women.

“Because women are often the targets of cybercrime and cyberbullying,” Thomas says, “it’s women leaders that we’re seeing taking bold action to prevent others from being the targets of future attacks.”



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