This November, there are more women than ever contesting US midterm elections for governorships and House seats, after a huge post-Trump surge in women candidates for political positions at all levels.
It’s good news in terms of representation, but it’s not easy being a woman in politics. We know this because of all the women who have tried and are still trying. Because of all the evidence of the abuse they receive, the discrimination they face and the archaic structures that deny them opportunity.
Rachel Hundley, 35, has served on the city council in Sonoma, California for four years and is campaigning for reelection this November. Last week, she received an anonymous email that called her history “highly troubling” and her behaviour “immoral and unethical”. Threatening her with revealing secrets unless she dropped out of the race, it included a link to a website called “Rachel Hundley Exposed”, which featured pictures taken from Hundley’s (public) social media that showed her in her underwear while at Burning Man festival.
This is not a traditional smear campaign – because the website wasn’t being shared publicly – but blackmail. Except, this time, it hasn’t worked.
Hundley chose to release a video addressing her “faceless bullies”. She called the contents of the website (which no longer seems to exist) “a combination of outright lies and things I’ve proudly posted on social media... Its purpose is to make me afraid, to silence another strong female voice by scaring me out of this election.”
She is particularly disparaging about the attempt to slutshame her: “For too long it has been seen as OK to control women by dictating what is acceptable for us to wear, say and do. Strong women have been fighting these double standards and hypocrisy for years, fighting a culture that says our bodies and our lives are meant only for the consumption of men.”
While she evidently has the confidence and support to respond to a blackmail threat in this powerful way, that might not be the case for a woman new to politics. While male politicians also face personal attacks, smears and rumours, women are infinitely more vulnerable to criticism, especially that which focuses on their looks, lifestyle and especially their sexuality. Moreover, for women, the mud tends to stick around a lot longer.
Every time a man’s needs are catered to while a woman’s are ignored, or a woman’s gender is used to try and make her back down, that dodgy-looking political playing field gets even lumpier
And despite the female challengers, male gatekeepers are still able to dictate how the political game works, as Cynthia Nixon, running for the position of Governor of New York, has discovered. Despite her candidacy garnering a huge amount of media attention, Nixon is struggling to get her opponent, the incumbent Governor Andrew Cuomo, to take her seriously. According to her campaign, it has taken almost 100 days for him to agree to a debate, and even then only on the condition that she meets his demands for a debate that will take place in his preferred set-up – behind seated desks, at his preferred time, with no closing or opening statements and without candidates shaking hands. He refused to negotiate with Nixon’s staff, according to her team, and instead spoke to the TV station.
Her official campaign statement on the matter reads: “CBS management has acknowledged that the only way to get Governor Cuomo to show up is by giving him everything he wants. We weren’t even given a seat at the table. We understand this isn’t a level playing field. It hasn’t been since the very beginning. Nothing is easy when you’re an outsider, and it’s even harder when you’re a woman.”
To hit back, Nixon’s team has called Cuomo’s famous preference for press appearances in very cold conditions “notoriously sexist” , and demanded that the debate room is heated to 76 degrees Fahrenheit.
It might seem like a petty request, but Nixon is making a point that the status quo allows her rival to set the rules, while she is expected to follow them.
Similarly, Hundley’s video response to her threatening email – “I cannot be shamed into quitting because I am not ashamed” – might only apply to a city council race, but every woman forced out of any political election is one fewer woman who could potentially rise through the ranks.
Every time a man’s needs are catered to while a woman’s are ignored, or a woman’s gender is used to try and make her back down, that dodgy-looking political playing field gets even lumpier.