Alberta MLA Sandra Jansen latest in long string of female politicians to face abuse
Standing in legislature and reading aloud abusive messages highlights struggles of women in politics
Alberta MLA Sandra Jansen isn't the first female politician to look at a screen and see words like "bitch" and "bimbo" and "dumb broad" staring back at her.
Jansen, who recently crossed the floor from her longtime home in the Progressive Conservative party to the ruling NDP, stood up in the Alberta legislature Tuesday and read aloud some of the comments she's received since changing parties.
"Sandra should stay in the kitchen where she belongs."
"What a traitorous bitch."
"Now you have two blond bimbos in a party that is clueless."
"Dumb broad, a good place for her to be is with the rest of the queers."
It was a remarkable break from parliamentary language and, at least in the heat of the moment, had its desired effect — MLAs from all parties took to their feet in applause.
It also presaged an announcement that Jansen — who left the PCs over what she said was bullying and harassment at a recent party policy convention — would receive a security detail due to the threatening nature of some of the messages she's received.
'Diminish women's contributions'
Jansen was highlighting an issue that is bigger than her experience, according to Nancy Peckford of Equal Voice Canada.
"The vast majority of elected women are encountering some sort of misogynistic behaviour, online bullying, or harassment on a fairly regular basis," she said.
"I think what's very disturbing for Equal Voice is the misogynistic and sexist undertones and explicit commentary that's used to diminish women's contributions to public life and also undermine the confidence and the leadership female elected officials are offering."
Jansen's speech — her first in the legislature as a member of the NDP under Premier Rachel Notley — resonated across the country. In the House of Commons, Status of Women Minister Patty Hajdu condemned the attacks on Jansen.
"I share the member's disgust at the misogyny that women in politics, in fact in public spheres, receive every single day in the cyber world, but in the real world as well," Hajdu said in response to a question from NDP MP Sheila Malcolmson.
Social media and vitriolic attacks
Other women have also spoken out about the sexism they encounter in public life, including Conservative MP Michelle Rempel.
"The everyday sexism I face involves confronting the 'bitch' epithet when I don't automatically comply with someone's request or capitulate on my position on an issue," she wrote in a National Post opinion article in April.
"It involves my ass being occasionally grabbed as a way to shock me into submission. It involves tokenism. It involves sometimes being written off as not serious when I've clearly proven I am."
Lori Williams, associate professor of policy studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary, points the finger at social media for enabling the kind of hatred she sees seeping into politics, particularly directed at women.
"That combination of the immediacy and the anonymity means that it's sort of exploded into a new culture of pretty vicious, vitriolic attacks," she said.
"Unfortunately, the attacks are particularly vicious toward women, and the attacks against women aren't just violent, they're sexualized violence. So it's quite disturbing to see that some people will behave in this way, and it's a challenge for our political culture to respond effectively to it."
She hopes more and more people will come together to condemn misogyny in politics and said it's important for party leaders to forcefully and unequivocally reject the attacks.
Fear it will scare off more women
Rebecca Sullivan is the director of women's studies at the University of Calgary. She said it's heartening to see misogyny called out for what it is, particularly by a federal minister in the House, and that it rears its ugly head as the result of women gaining power.
"It creates this reaction in some people to remind a woman that whatever power you think you have, I can take it away in a heart beat. I can harm you, I can kill you," she said.
Many are expressing concern that the abuse directed at Jansen and others will deter women from entering politics.
Jansen herself fears what would happen if "we let that poison become normalized," but she hopes that won't be the case.
"It is an incredibly rewarding job. It is an extremely important job. And to have women's voices at the table has never been more critical," she told reporters in the legislature on Wednesday.
"I have gotten emails and direct messages on Twitter from literally all over the world. I got a note from a soldier in Ukraine this morning that I can't even read all the way through because it just makes me cry it's so wonderful."
With files from Carolyn Dunn