In the US midterms, more women stood in the elections or went out to campaign than ever before. Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland have become the first Native American women, and Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar the first Muslim women elected to Congress.
As we cheer those pioneering women across the Atlantic, it’s time to mark the progress made, to focus on what more needs to be done for women’s empowerment and equality, but also to challenge the misogynistic backlash that has arisen, which aims to silence women in public life. That is the purpose of today’s conference in parliament bringing together more than 100 women MPs from across the world in the centenary year of the first votes for women in Britain. This conference isn’t just about speaking out for women, it is about standing up for democracy itself.
As Harriet Harman, who first proposed today’s event, has argued, “women are still pioneers in male-dominated parliaments”. New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Arden has just brought in paid domestic violence leave and became the second prime minister in the world to give birth while in office. Icelandic prime minister Katrin Jakobsdottir was among scores of women who walked out of their workplaces to protest against sexual harassment.
But let’s be honest. Alongside progress, we’ve also seen attempts to intimidate and shut women down. A global survey of women politicians in 39 countries concluded that almost half have experienced serious abuse, including threats of murder, rape, assault and abduction.
While social media has often been empowering, helping many women campaign, it has too often provided platforms for threats and intimidation aimed at drowning women’s voices out. Donald Trump has attacked individual women as “dogs”, “fat pigs” and “slobs”. Here at home, it is truly appalling that Britain’s first black woman MP, Diane Abbott, should be the target for unprecedented online abuse including racist threats, and also that Jewish and Muslim women MPs and councillors face some of the worst abuse too.
The attacks aren’t just online. A far-right Trump supporter has been charged with sending bombs in the post to some of the public figures targeted by the president’s most vitriolic tweets. We should remember Marielle Franco in Brazil and Angiza Shinwari in Afghanistan – women politicians murdered in recent years for speaking out. Neo-Nazi activists have been convicted of plotting to kill Lancastrian MP Rosie Cooper. And today’s conference in the Commons will sit beneath the coat of arms painted for Jo Cox, murdered for her views just two years ago.
Threats and violence towards people based on their views or identity are deeply corrosive. There is a responsibility on every one of us, here and across the globe, to challenge the vitriol, misogyny and prejudice that is degrading our politics. Here in Britain, it brings shame on the Tory party that some of its MPs have used threatening violent language about nooses and killing towards the prime minister, normalising threats in public life. It brings shame upon my party that Labour members are being investigated by the police for hate crimes, and my brilliant colleague Luciana Berger was assessed by the police as needing protection during the Labour Party conference, showing we must do more to tackle abuse and antisemitism.
In the conference today, women will debate how we challenge bullying and harassment in public life. All of us should show solidarity with women across the world exercising their democratic rights and demanding change.
Abuse and violence in politics has for too long been excused as a reflection of anger or radical demands for change. Women know it is the opposite. These are the weapons used to silence women or to prevent social transformation. Today’s conference is a chance for women to come together to show how bringing humanity back into our politics, greater equality for all and radical change go hand in hand.
Yvette Cooper is the Labour MP for Normanton, Pontefract, Castleford and Knottingley