What Will Hill's Experience Mean for Women's Political Engagement?

On Sunday night, freshman Representative Katie Hill (D-CA) announced she was resigning from her position in Congress after allegations of an affair with a member of her congressional staff. These allegations were brought on by the non-consensual publication of nude photos of the congresswoman. Right wing blogs and British tabloid The Daily Mail shared these photographs after Hill admitted to a consensual relationship with a campaign staffer. Despite the high profile and public nature of this case, Representative Hill’s story represents an all too common experience for many young women. Nonconsensual image sharing, or “revenge porn,” has become commonplace in our increasingly digital world. According to the Data & Society Research Institute, one in 25 Americans has been a victim of posts of private images without their permission or being threatened with the release of these images.

Hill’s story raises many questions about harassment and abuse of women candidates and politicians. It also generates concern that the freshman representative’s treatment in the press and in the public could affect young women with ambitions of running for office. Will women, for fear of being the victim of revenge porn or other sexualized forms of harassment, opt out of vying for high-profile positions? As laid out in CAWP’s new report, Unfinished Business: Women Running in the 2018 Election and Beyond, the women who ran in 2018 undoubtedly faced a myriad of barriers to candidacy. Threats of violence and harassment leveled at women candidates and officeholders represent a particularly insidious hurdle to progress. The #MeToo movement shed light on just how pervasive experiences of harassment are for everyday women. Although there has been a lack of systematic data on the prevalence of violence and harassment towards women candidates in the U.S., it stands to reason that the heightened scrutiny and publicity of a bid for office would increase the potential for harassment.

What do we know about harassment and violence leveled at women candidates and officeholders in the United States?
  1. A significant amount of harassment and abuse occurs online.

An online presence is essential to participation in politics, particularly for mounting a political campaign. However, this presence often comes with the cost of online harassment on social media platforms. Social media, where harassers can often remain completely anonymous, presents a new arena for harassment and violence against women political candidates. Analyzing messages on Twitter, a group of academics found that women candidates are more heavily targeted by uncivil messages than men. More systematic studies of online abuse and harassment against women politicians should be conducted. However, we do know that women in general are more likely to receive abuse on social media platforms than men. It is likely that this heightened abuse extends to the political realm as well.

  1. Harassment against women is often sexualized.

A 2016 study conducted by the Inter-parliamentary Union (IPU) of 55 women across 39 countries, found that almost 82% of those surveyed were subject to psychological violence. For 45% of these women, this violence included threats of rape, beatings, death, and abduction. More anecdotally, many women who ran in 2018 also described a constant barrage of rape threats and other sexualized forms of harassment. As we learned from the Hill case, private photos can also be weaponized against women in positions of power. These types of threats are clearly gendered and represent a concern that women candidates have to consider that male candidates generally do not.  

  1. Harassment is often racialized and targeted against candidates with marginalized identities.

Women of color, LGBTQ women, and candidates with other traditionally marginalized identities likely face even more intense and sustained harassment. For example, transgender women are increasingly running for political office. Christine Hallquist, the first transgender woman nominee for governor in the U.S., regularly experienced abuse and even death threats during her campaign. It is far from inconsequential that Representative Katie Hill was the first openly bisexual woman to serve in the House. The 2018 election was historic for Black women. For the first time in history, more than 20 Black women will serve in Congress as a result of the midterm election. However, Black women candidates face the additional burden of race-based stereotypes and racialized threats of violence. For example, Vermont State Representative Kiah Morris (D) – Vermont’s only Black woman lawmaker at the time – resigned from office in September 2018 after sustained raced-based harassment and attacks. 

Will cases like Katie Hill’s have a chilling effect on women running for office?
One of the biggest concerns as it relates to harassment and abuse against women in politics is that it will have a chilling effect on women considering a bid for office. Will women, knowing the potential abuse they may face, determine that the cost of running is simply too high? No systematic study has been done to establish whether threats of violence and harassment do indeed deter women from running for office. However, it is one more potential challenge on the long list of factors that women have to consider when deciding to run for office that men do not. Political science research shows that women are more likely to be deterred from running for office due to the potential loss of privacy. Sexualized threats of violence may be particularly likely to discourage women from a bid for office.

Drawing from my own research, however, I find reason for optimism. In a large-sample survey study of U.S. women, I find that self-reported gender discrimination and harassment can actually mobilize women to become politically engaged. More specifically, I find that as experiences with harassment and discrimination increase, so does political efficacy, interest, and propensity to participate in politics. This comports with the literature on race and politics that shows how discrimination, abuse, and harassment can be the impetus to political involvement.  

Women are not a monolith and their evaluation of threats and harassment will be varied. Although harassment should never be the cost of running for office as a woman, we should not automatically assume that all women will be deterred by the potential for this type of abuse. Women, like most marginalized groups, are accustomed to the fact that any type of bid for power or equality will be followed by backlash and resistance. #MeToo, the world’s first mass movement to tackle sexual abuse and harassment, demonstrated the galvanizing power that feelings of discrimination combined with collective action can have. In her resignation statement, Representative Hill wrote “Now, my fight is going to be to defeat this type of exploitation that so many women are victims to and which will keep countless women and girls from running for office or entering public light.” We will all be better off in a political environment where women do not need to fear abuse. However, until then, women will hopefully continue to harness the unequal conditions they face and use it as a catalyst for candidacy instead of a deterrent.

Claire Gothreau

Claire Gothreau is a Research Associate at the Center for American Women and Politics. She works on data collection, management, and analysis at CAWP. She received her Ph.D. from Temple University in 2019. At Temple, she was the Assistant Director of the Behavioral Foundations Lab where she specialized in the collection of physiological data. Dr. Gothreau’s research interests are in American politics with a focus on gender, political psychology, and experimental methodology. She is also interested in the intersection of politics, psychophysiology, and human behavior. Her most recent work explores how objectification impacts women’s political engagement and perceptions of women political candidates.