Violence against women in politics contributes to a lack of women in elected office, congressional leaders say

Photo illustration: Kelli R. Grant/Yahoo News; photo: Shutterstock
Photo illustration: Kelli R. Grant/Yahoo News; photo: Shutterstock
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Earlier in March, the month that honors women's history, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and other congressional leaders reintroduced a House resolution acknowledging the violence that women in politics face, and demanded a more inclusive political landscape for women.

Tlaib first spoke out about this issue on the House floor in March 2020, after a 2019 study found that female mayors are more likely than male mayors to experience violence and abuse. In addition, a 2018 report from the United Nations on violence against women in politics found that minority women are disproportionately impacted by violence.

“Violence against women in politics is a global phenomenon, because we know that the goal of this violence is an attempt to keep us from participating in our political process and government,” Tlaib told Yahoo News in a statement. “My colleagues and I in Congress have experienced threats, violence and discrimination for simply existing here — this is unacceptable.”

Democratic Reps. Cori Bush of Missouri, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, IIhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Lois Frankel of Florida, who serves as the chair of the Democratic Women’s Caucus, joined Tlaib in calling for government action to ease violence against women in politics.

Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Cori Bush, Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pose for the camera against a green background.
Democratic Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Cori Bush, Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez outside the Supreme Court in July 2022 protesting the overturning of Roe v. Wade. (Shutterstock)

“Since coming to Congress, I have received countless death threats, endured endless microaggressions and frequent veiled attacks — even by my own colleagues,” Bush, the first Black woman to represent Missouri in Congress, said in a press release. “All of those have only strengthened my resolve. I am more committed than ever to ensure that women, Black women in particular, are not only empowered to join civic life, but are also protected when they do make the courageous decision to actively participate in political life.”

Tlaib says the violence that women in politics face is part of an effort to silence their political participation and, in turn, cripples democracy. While women make up 51% of the U.S. population, they hold less than a third of all elected positions.

To put things into perspective, “there are over 500,000 elected offices in this country, and while women are the majority in the country, we still hover around 30% or less than the elected leaders up and down the ticket,” Erin Loos Cutraro, CEO and founder of She Should Run, a nonpartisan nonprofit that works to increase the number of women in elected positions, told Yahoo News. “For women of color it is even more stark.”

When Kamala Harris was elected to the office of vice president in 2020, she broke barriers by becoming not only the first woman to hold the job but also the first Black woman and first person of South Asian descent in the role. Still, experts say there is a long way to go to reach an inclusive government.

Vice President Kamala Harris at a podium marked Seal of the President of the United States, raising both hands in surprise, with two rows of young women arrayed behind her.
Vice President Kamala Harris addresses a reception celebrating Women's History Month at the White House on Wednesday. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

“For generations, women have continued to make incredible progress in the classroom, in the workplace, in the halls of government. And we are all here evidence of that progress,” Harris said during the White House Women’s History Month reception on Wednesday. “And we know our fight is far from over.”

Currently, there are no Black women in the U.S. Senate, and there has never been a Black woman to serve as governor in the United States, according to data from the Center for American Women and Politics.

“If I don't see people like me in office, how do I expect them to bring my issues and my perspective and my experiences to these debates?” Kelly Dittmar, the director of research at the center and a scholar there, told Yahoo News.

Cutraro says the work to increase the political participation of women won’t happen overnight. Instead, it's a long game.

A study released Tuesday by She Should Run “found that women are motivated by the economy, by climate change, by reproductive health, racism and gun violence. It doesn't mean that these are the only issues, that means that these are the top issues,” Loos Cutraro said.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib at the microphone.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., speaking at a rally in Detroit in 2022. (Brandon Nagy/Shutterstock)

Projected U.S. census data to the year 2060 "makes very clear that women will continue to be the majority of the population, and that women of color will be the majority of all women in the U.S. by 2060," Loos Cutraro added.

But experts say the projected census data does not equate to the representation of women in politics, and that therefore the U.S. political landscape needs to catch up.

“We need more women in all levels of government. Their lived experiences have been missing in these institutions for far too long,” Tlaib said.

But some say that even once women enter political roles, they don’t tend to hold power, because women are missing from the process. “Women members may not always be given the same respect and deference from their colleagues. There are certainly many ways in which their power may be undermined,” Christina Wolbrecht, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, told Yahoo News.

But Amani Wells-Onyioha, the operations director at Sole Strategies, a campaign labor organization for Democratic campaigns, told Yahoo News that “it should not be a deterrent for Black women entering this space, because it's much needed. Absolutely much needed.”

While there are signs of progress, as more women hold elected offices than ever before, the Brookings Institution found that, compared with 20 years ago, women in 2022 had similarities in their lack of interest in running for political office.

“The reality is that without full representation, we don't see the full opportunity of women's leadership, and we're missing out,” Loos Cutraro said.