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Update: Join us for a discussion about the challenges Black women face in elected office tonight on Twitter.
TODAY: @IAmAmnaNawaz speaks to @MarilynMosbyEsq, @SenRhondaFields and @MsKiahMorris about their experiences as elected Black women who have faced harassment in their roles.
Join us on @TwitterSpaces Sept. 7 at 7:05 pm ET.
Submit your questions here: https://t.co/jdAyKB5g7m pic.twitter.com/hB32ZmPkk7
— PBS NewsHour (@NewsHour) September 7, 2021
TODAY: @IAmAmnaNawaz speaks to @MarilynMosbyEsq, @SenRhondaFields and @MsKiahMorris about their experiences as elected Black women who have faced harassment in their roles.
Join us on @TwitterSpaces Sept. 7 at 7:05 pm ET.
Submit your questions here: https://t.co/jdAyKB5g7m pic.twitter.com/hB32ZmPkk7
— PBS NewsHour (@NewsHour) September 7, 2021
Every day for more than four years, Kiah Morris lived in fear. She developed a safety routine for her family with the help of an international security expert, installed security cameras outside their home and received firearms training.
When Morris took office as a Democratic state representative in Vermont in 2015, she was the first Black woman elected to the state’s legislature in 26 years. Her district was located in a county with an estimated population of 36,589 that was about 96 percent white, according to 2015 Census Bureau data.
Morris said she entered public office as an advocate for marginalized communities, speaking candidly about racial justice and economic inequality. But the same advocacy that helped her get elected also put a target on her back.
Between 2016 and 2018, Morris, her husband and their neighbors reported at least 26 incidents to local police in which she and her family felt threatened, including suspicious vehicles parked outside Morris’ home, a break-in and theft from Morris’ car, and threatening online messages, according to a report issued by the Vermont attorney general’s office.
In 2016, police officers discovered neckties scattered in a cemetery near Morris’ home; her husband later reported that a number of his neckties were missing from their basement, the attorney general’s report said. That same year, Morris obtained a protective order against a self-proclaimed white supremacist who made it a priority, in his words, to “troll the hell out of” Morris online and at in-person events.
Ultimately, it all became too much. Morris announced her immediate resignation in a 2018 Facebook post, about three months before the end of her second term.
“It is mentally exhausting to live in constant fear, feeling like you’re in a state of constant fight or flight and not knowing who to trust,” Morris told the PBS NewsHour.
Morris’ experience is one shared by many Black women in politics. Black women have long faced challenges running for office for a variety of reasons, from a lack of access to fundraising or capital to a lack of internal support from their political parties, said Stefanie Brown James, co-founder of The Collective PAC, which advocates for Black Democratic candidates.
Across the country, groups like The Collective have tried to help Black women overcome those barriers, and the political sphere has slowly been diversifying. The current session of Congress began with a historic high of 26 Black women out of 535 voting members. A record nine Black women currently serve as mayors of the country’s largest 100 cities. This year, Kamala Harris became the country’s first woman, first Black and first Asian vice president.
Yet as many people celebrate this growing representation, women and people of color continue to bear the brunt of harassment and threats at all levels of government. The abuse is compounded for Black women, who experience both systemic racism and sexism. An Amnesty International study examining abusive tweets targeted at women journalists and politicians in the U.S. and U.K. in 2017 found that Black women were 84 percent “more likely than white women to be mentioned in abusive or problematic tweets.”
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That reality may jeopardize further representation in politics by causing some Black women to step away from public office while making others hesitant to run in the first place. In Vermont, Morris and James said they know several other Black women who have left political and civic leadership roles due to harassment or threats.
The PBS NewsHour requested interviews with more than 61 Black women who have held office or have run for office at various levels of government and across the political spectrum. Eighteen of the women, 16 of them Democrats, spoke with the NewsHour about their experiences. Twelve of the women currently hold office, four are former candidates and two are former office holders. Their positions range from representatives in the U.S. Congress to city council members across 14 different states. All but one recounted racist and sexist abuse, ranging from public attacks of their physical appearances to death threats. They described how policy disagreements and valid critiques of their work often turn into threatening or violent behavior.
While criticism of their male colleagues tends to focus on name-calling, women in public-facing roles are more likely to face physical threats, said Mary Anne Franks, a professor at the University of Miami’s School of Law, who researches the intersection of civil rights and technology. For women of color, those threats are often sexualized or rooted in racial stereotypes, she added.
Though the issue has been well-documented, lawmakers at the state and federal levels have struggled to strengthen protections against stalking and harassment, an effort made more difficult by online technology.
First Amendment protections can complicate efforts to stop online harassment, and generally public figures are given fewer protections than private citizens, Franks said. Some of the women interviewed by the NewsHour have reported abuse to their local law enforcement or to personal and capitol security. But some expressed concern that police and other leaders in power do not take their concerns seriously. One woman said this belief stops her from reporting threats to police.
Nearly all of the women have adopted a tolerance of the abuse — including death threats — as either “part of the job” or a reality they must endure in order to represent their communities. But many also said they’ve had enough and are advocating for more protections and better systems to report and mitigate such attacks.
“Yes, I signed up for people not to agree with me. … But that doesn’t mean that you get to harass me. That doesn’t mean that you get to leave messages or attack me or attack my wife,” said Michele Rayner-Goolsby, a Florida legislator who is the first openly queer Black woman to hold public office in Florida. “I didn’t sign up for that, and no one signs up for that.”
Rhonda Fields’ decision to run for office stemmed from a tragedy. Her 22-year-old son Javad Marshall Fields was shot and killed in Colorado in 2005, days before he was set to testify in a murder trial. Fields said she never wanted to see another family endure such heartbreak.
She took office as a Democratic state representative in 2011, and five years later won a state senate seat, becoming the first African American woman elected to her district in Aurora, Colorado.
A year and a half into her first term as a representative, a man walked into a movie theater in Aurora with multiple firearms and opened fire on the crowd, killing 12 people and injuring 70 others.
READ MORE: Racial bias trainings surged after George Floyd’s death. A year later, experts are still waiting for ‘bold’ change
The mass shooting prompted Fields to co-sponsor gun control legislation requiring background checks for private and online gun sales and banning high-capacity magazines. Both bills were signed into law by the governor in 2013. The legislation was met with fierce opposition and Fields and her family became targets of violent threats.
“I just thought this came with the job, but when they used my daughter’s name, when they said, ‘We’re going to come after you and your daughter and your family, and there will be lots of blood,’ that’s when it became real,” Fields told the NewsHour. “I had already lost a son to gun violence, but now you’re talking about going after my daughter, my only surviving child.”
One email attacked Fields and a fellow state representative by repeatedly calling Fields sexist and racist slurs, and said, “Hopefully somebody Gifords [sic] both of your a***s with a gun,” referring to the 2011 shooting of former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz. The author of the messages was arrested and charged with harassment and attempting to influence a public servant. The charges were later dropped when Fields requested that the case be dismissed because he agreed to a permanent restraining order mandating that he stay at least 100 yards away from her at all times.
Fields’ early years in office aligned with a growing demand for more diversity in politics and legislation to address systemic inequities. As more Black women came into positions of power, threats often accompanied their decision to speak more openly about race and social justice.
“Any time that Black women call attention to racial injustice, they’re going to be punished for it because society does not want to deal with that racist, sexist oppression,” said Moya Bailey, assistant professor of Africana studies and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Northeastern University. Bailey coined the term “misogynoir” as a way to identify anti-Black misogyny.
Mona Lena Krook, a political science professor with Rutgers University, found in her research for a book that women in politics reported spikes in abuse when they spoke out on controversial issues like racial injustice.
Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby experienced this first-hand.
Mosby entered office in 2015 as one of several prosecutors around the country considered to be more progressive for their promises to reform the system. She immediately had to deal with people doubting her abilities, despite graduating from a top law school and previously working in the office of the state’s attorney.
Three months into her first term, 25-year-old Freddie Gray died after his spinal cord was severed during an arrest by Baltimore police officers. The medical examiner ruled the death a homicide. Gray’s death came less than a year after Eric Garner and Michael Brown were killed by police, propelling the Movement for Black Lives.
Soon after Mosby filed charges against the six police officers involved in Gray’s death, she began receiving death threats. Six years later, they haven’t stopped, even after three of the officers were acquitted and the charges against the remaining officers were dropped.
Mosby has received emails describing her being “gunned down” and her husband being “burned and dismembered,” letters telling her that the position of state’s attorney is only respectable when held by a white person and telling her to jump off a bridge — the examples of violent ideation and hate seem endless, she said. In early 2020, after attending a rally to support St. Louis circuit attorney Kim Gardner, who was facing backlash for suing city leadership for racial discrimination, Mosby received a voicemail saying “if we’d known you all were going to be this much trouble we would have picked our own f***ing cotton.”
“I was professionally attacked. I was personally attacked. I have a book full of death threats and hate mail,” Mosby said. “It can be overwhelming at times. And it’s something that has been consistent throughout my tenure.”
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Kim Foxx, who defeated an incumbent state’s attorney in 2016 to become the first Black woman to be the top prosecutor in Cook County, Illinois, was also part of the wave of “progressive prosecutors.” She sought to make the office more transparent, promote bail reform, vacate wrongful convictions and rethink the volume of criminal charges. When the state legislature voted to legalize recreational marijuana in 2019, Foxx began expunging past marijuana convictions.
But Foxx has seen her fair share of backlash, notably for her office’s decision in April 2019 to drop charges against Jussie Smollett, an actor accused of staging an attack against himself in Chicago, which he reported to police as a racist and homophobic hate crime. A 2020 report by a special prosecutor did not find evidence to warrant criminal charges against Foxx or her office for how they handled the case, but said there were “substantial abuses of discretion and operational failures” in the decision to drop charges against Smollett. Members of the Chicago Police Department wanted to see Smollett held accountable for wasting law enforcement resources.
Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police union organized a protest outside of Foxx’s office, during which Foxx said male demonstrators engaged in “offensive, sexist behavior,” including “rubbing [her] face — [her] picture — on their genitalia.” The union’s president, John Catanzara, told the NewsHour that the protest was peaceful, with no injuries or damages. Unrelated to the protest, Catanzara is currently under investigation by the Chicago Police Board and has been stripped of pay for allegedly posting obscene and racist social media messages and allegedly filing a false police report.
Amid the tension, hateful calls and emails to Foxx’s office became overwhelming for her receptionist and assistant, she said. A now-defunct site called Second City Cop Blog, run by an anonymous author, posted racist and sexist insults and nicknames about her almost daily, alongside what the author claimed were critiques of her role as state’s attorney. In addition, the blogger posted Foxx’s home address and invited people to pay her a visit, she added. The author appeared to have close ties to the Chicago Police, but a spokesperson for the department would not comment on whether a current or former officer ran the blog.
Foxx, who has two daughters, said it was difficult to protect her children from the offensive language online. But she said she was advised not to speak out to avoid “giving [the harassment] oxygen.” Keeping the reality of her situation silent felt like “a prison,” she said.
For Kentucky state Rep. Attica Scott, harassment accelerated following her arrest on Sept. 24, 2020, at a demonstration calling for justice for Breonna Taylor, who was killed by Louisville police during a raid in March 2020 . Scott was charged with felony rioting and misdemeanor failure to disperse. The charges against her were ultimately dropped. Scott, her daughter and a local activist filed a lawsuit against the officers who arrested them that night for violating their constitutional rights. The Louisville Metro Police Department declined to comment on the lawsuit.
“It doesn’t make sense to me. I feel like the police set me up as a target when they arrested me,” said Scott, who in 2016 became the first Black woman in 20 years to be elected to the Kentucky legislature. “To a certain extent, I feel helpless.”
Scott recalled being sent an email in which the author said they would have shot her if they had been one of the officers who arrested her in September. She has also received threats to burn down her home and a voicemail from someone warning that their neighbor wants to shoot and kill her. Threats are so common, it almost feels normal now, she said.
A typical day for Scott usually begins with some kind of abusive, racist or sexist message, she said. She’ll feel deflated for a moment, but then moves on to her legislative duties. She doesn’t have time to process, she said, and representing her community feels like her calling.
“I do think I really have convinced myself that this is the way it is,” she said.
Research indicates these types of experiences can have a significant effect on women’s physical and mental health, including their ability to hold down a regular job, said Sarah Sobieraj, a sociology professor with Tufts University.
Nearly three years after Morris’ resignation from the Vermont legislature, the events leading up to that decision still haunt her. She and her husband sold his childhood home in Bennington where they lived to relocate to a different city. But anxiety remains for each member of their family. Morris said her 10-year-old son created a panic room in one of the closets of their new home in case they need to hide for safety.
“I’m still not OK,” Morris said. “It was a shame, but what [staying in office] was going to cost me and my family … You can’t ask that of anyone. How dare we as a society ask that of anyone?”
Colorado State Senator Rhonda Fields faced racist abuse after she introduced gun control legislation in 2013 following the Aurora mass shooting. Losing her son to gun violence is what drove her to run for office — she didn’t want another family to go through the same. Photo taken remotely through a projector by Chloe Jones/PBS NewsHour.
U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Ga., has never felt safe in elected office. Her tenure as a Georgia state senator began with her being arrested by the state capitol’s police while protesting with her constituents in 2018. Her charges were later dropped.
She thought she would be safer in the U.S. Congress, she told the PBS NewsHour in April. But in her first week in Congress a violent mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in an effort to support former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. The Jan. 6 attack resulted in multiple deaths.
On Jan. 24, U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., tweeted that a white man who had previously tagged her in violent social media posts participated in the insurrection. That same man has been charged with assaulting a U.S. Capitol Police officer, among other crimes related to his involvement in the Jan. 6 breach.
The Capitol riot reflected a growing threat that sparked fierce conversations about lawmakers’ vulnerability and U.S. Capitol security protocols, which trickled down to other levels of government as the FBI warned of plans for armed extremists to protest at state capitals following the D.C. attack.
Acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman testified before a Senate committee in April that threats against members of Congress increased nearly 65 percent between January and April of this year, compared to the same period in 2020. From 2017 to 2020, threats increased 119 percent, she added.
The U.S. Capitol Police did not respond to the NewsHour’s request for more specific information about the race and gender of Congress members targeted by those threats. Williams said many are aimed at members of color like herself.
In search of solutions to better protect lawmakers and their staff, the House passed a $1.9 billion emergency funding bill last month to bolster security at the Capitol, which would include enhanced security for members of Congress. The bill is currently being considered in the Senate.
Reps. Bush, Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley, all Black women, voted against the bill, stating in a press release that “a bill that pours $1.9 billion into increased police surveillance and force without addressing the underlying threats of organized and violent white supremacy, radicalization, and disinformation that led to this attack will not prevent it from happening again.”
A bipartisan report issued jointly by the Senate Rules and Homeland Security Committees in June cited a number of security failures leading to the Capitol breach. Among them, the report said, U.S. Capitol Police had information about possible violence on Jan. 6, but did not share the full scope of that intelligence with rank-and-file officers or other law enforcement partners.
The committees’ recommendations included better training and equipment for Capitol Police officers.
With safety concerns still unresolved, Black women in Congress said they continue to feel at risk. Williams said she pays for 24-hour security for her and her family using campaign funds, which the FEC allowed following the Jan. 6 attack. Two weeks of security costs her $18,000. “I have to take these things seriously because it is my life. It’s my family’s life. It’s our safety,” she said. Williams no longer reads the messages she receives and her staff manages her inboxes. A spokesperson for Williams said in June they have not received any official guidance on how to address harassment and threats.
U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., told the NewsHour she does not have security with her all the time, but she has taken advantage of available security resources, including working with the Sergeant at Arms to improve her office’s cybersecurity and to conduct security assessments of her residence.
Still, she believes an attack against her is “a matter of time, unless there’s increased processes put in place to streamline the reporting and investigations … and leadership from the top that says this is not OK,” she said in March.
In addition to concerns about outside threats, the country has also witnessed escalating conflict between lawmakers themselves on Capitol Hill. Multiple news reports have detailed instances of shouting in the Capitol halls and debate over whether lawmakers should be able to carry firearms, which they are currently legally permitted to do on Capitol grounds.
When metal detectors were installed just outside the House floor in January, a number of lawmakers spoke out against the new security system and others were fined for bypassing them.
This tense dynamic on Capitol Hill is also cause for concern, Underwood said. “We have to have accountability in all of our workplaces, including the United States Congress,” she said. “You can’t threaten a colleague, you can’t bring a weapon to work because you don’t like your colleague, and you can’t threaten to use your weapon at work against your colleague and expect to keep your job.” When asked if there was a specific incident that concerned her, Underwood’s team said she was speaking generally.
A spokesperson for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said, “The speaker takes the safety and security of members and all who work in the Capitol extremely seriously, and has taken measures such as the [metal detectors] around the House floor to ensure safety.”
In addition to Pelosi’s office, the NewsHour contacted the office of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the office of Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., and the press office for the Committee on House Administration to ask about the tension between lawmakers and the existing protocols for when lawmakers receive credible threats. The offices did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
When Black women in politics experience abusive behavior or harassment it can be difficult to determine where they can turn for help or what legal and institutional resources are available to them.
For Scott in Kentucky, security would help her feel safer, but she doesn’t have a way to pay for it, she said. Kentucky state law does not address security in its campaign finance laws, and she said she doubts that paying for security with campaign money would be permitted.
Scott feels safe in her Louisville community, but when working at the state capitol she feels vulnerable. She thinks about ways she could escape if an active shooter came in wanting to kill Black legislators.
She doesn’t report harassment to law enforcement, even if they are credible threats. She feels the police see her as an enemy because she advocates for police accountability. She doesn’t believe they will protect her.
“I just have those threats,” Scott said. “There’s no reporting system, at least to my knowledge, for those of us who are legislators who receive threats of any kind. We don’t have a system in place for that.” The Kentucky state legislature did not respond to NewsHour’s questions about their reporting system for threats to lawmakers.
Some women in office do turn to law enforcement to address their security concerns. Coral Evans, the former mayor of Flagstaff, Arizona, experienced physical intimidation during her campaign and two terms from 2016 to 2020. She told the NewsHour of four different trespassing incidents, including one in which a stranger confronted Evans’ daughter in the front yard of their home and made what Evans perceived to be a threat.
Evans said she reported these incidents to police. They were “super supportive,” she said, but their ability to intervene in many cases was limited by the fact that she was a public figure.
“As a public official, you have people that send you emails constantly, they are calling you constantly, they walk up to you in grocery stores. And they’re allowed to do that because you’re a public official,” Evans said. “It’s harder to prove harassment and intimidation and stuff like that if you’re a public official.”
Evans said she’s noticed a change in the treatment of public officials in the last four years. To her, the “shift” resulted in people feeling like they could “say whatever they want” to her — including one constituent telling her, “You’re elected to serve me, I own you.”
Evans, who has long been acquainted with the chief of police, said that during a conversation he recommended that she put up ‘no trespassing’ signs outside her home, advice she followed, but she continued to deal with intruders. “I’m standing here in my yard with my ‘no trespassing’ signs, talking to a guy that’s trespassing,” Evans said of one incident.
Morris in Vermont also filed multiple reports with the police department in Bennington. In several cases the police determined there was no sufficient evidence to pursue criminal action. A number of the complaints were then investigated by the Vermont attorney general’s office but also did not result in any criminal charges against the man at the center of her harassment allegations. Morris said part of her decision to resign from office was because her lawyer said he could better protect her if she were a private citizen rather than a politician. After she left office, Morris filed a complaint with Vermont’s Human Rights Commission in 2019 alleging discrimination by the Bennington Police Department and the Town of Bennington.
In a report, an investigator with the commission concluded in March 2021 that the Bennington police chief failed to disclose relevant information about Morris’ harasser to her, including his possession of high-capacity firearms and details of an interview with his ex-wife during which she expressed concern for Morris’ safety. The investigator recommended the commission find reasonable grounds that the Town of Bennington discriminated against Morris “on the basis of race and color.” The Town of Bennington publicly apologized to Morris in April and agreed to pay $137,000 to Morris and her family.
This outcome and level of acknowledgement is unusual in cases involving harassment, particularly when it comes to someone in the public eye, Franks of the University of Miami said. Targets of abuse either in person or online face a patchwork of complicated stalking and harassment laws that may offer limited protections.
In-person harassment usually falls under state jurisdiction unless it takes place on federal property or involves interstate contact. But there’s often a high bar to restrict a potential perpetrator’s ability to be in the same place as a potential target.
“It’s so hard to tell the difference between a person who’s just doing things that are not only legal, but also protected,” Franks said. “You’re allowed to go to public places. You’re allowed to show up at the grocery store. You’re allowed to drive to someone’s house. … How do we determine when that becomes illegal?”
First Amendment protections also blur the lines of what constitutes illegal speech, particularly speech directed at public figures.
“The reasoning behind this is twofold: that public officials have made a voluntary choice to serve the public interest and to be in the public eye, and that public officials have more means at their disposal to respond to false or distressing statements,” Franks said.
A series of Supreme Court cases have established this precedent for public figures, including in the New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, a 1964 landmark case in which the high court ruled that First Amendment protections gave public officials limited means to sue for defamation.
For online language, the limitations are less clearly defined because many of the notable cases defining the boundaries of free speech were decided before existing internet culture. Therefore, direct, in-person threats are typically treated much more seriously than online abuse.
“It is incredibly easy to harass a woman online or be abusive online without facing any consequences,” Sobieraj of Tufts University said. “Our laws are based and designed around having a crime and a perpetrator … And in this case, a lot of the time, we have neither. We don’t have anything that’s technically a crime. Identifying a perpetrator is incredibly difficult because of IP-obscuring technologies that exist and the fact that anybody could do it from a public library or a hotel business center.”
PBS NewsHour reporter Chloe Jones projects Baltimore State’s attorney Marilyn Mosby onto a wall in her bedroom in order to take a virtual portrait. Jones puts her camera onto a tripod to take a photo of the projection. On the right, Kiah Morris is shown on the camera screen. Photo by Chloe Jones/PBS NewsHour.
Online harassment or stalking is more likely to fall under federal authority because it crosses state lines, Franks said, adding that two crucial components for successful legal action are that the perpetrator has established a pattern of harmful behavior and has shown an intent to cause harm. Both of these can be incredibly difficult to prove, especially given the vague context of online posts and the fact that online abuse may involve multiple actors who have not engaged in multiple offenses individually.
Despite these challenges, sometimes the law does align in public officials’ favor. Stacey Plaskett, a Black congresswoman representing the U.S. Virgin Islands, became a target in 2016 when two of her former staffers used email and social media to distribute nude images of Plaskett and her husband taken from Plaskett’s cell phone. The two former staffers pleaded guilty to charges that included conspiracy and cyberstalking. The legal elements that worked in favor of the prosecution were that there was a clear breach of Plaskett’s privacy and a clear intent to cause her harm, Franks said.
“Revenge porn” and sexualized threats are commonly used against women in public positions. In many cases, explicit images may be acquired without the victim’s consent; in other situations the images can be falsified, such as editing a victim’s face onto the photo of another person’s body. To begin the process of filling the legal gaps of online abuse, some lawmakers are pushing to further define the parameters of this behavior, giving victims of harassment and abuse more legal recourse.
As a Colorado state representative in 2014, Fields sponsored a bill to more clearly define cyberbullying of minors and make it a misdemeanor offense. That bill passed in the state House but faced accusations of First Amendment violations and stalled in the state Senate. In 2018, after Fields became a state senator, she worked with other lawmakers to sponsor a bill signed by the governor that redefined the existing revenge porn law by removing requirements like the need to prove a target endured emotional distress.
Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby has been receiving death threats since 2015. She said the abuse can be overwhelming, but that using her position for justice keeps her going. Photo taken remotely through a projector by Chloe Jones/PBS NewsHour.
At the federal level, a bill known as the SHIELD Act would address things like “revenge porn” and “sextortion” by making it a federal crime to post nonconsensual sexually explicit images online. The bill was introduced in the House in 2019 but never reached a vote. It has since been added as an amendment to the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2021 that was passed in the House in March, but has not yet received a vote from the Senate. The bill aims to provide resources and protections for targets of domestic violence, sexual assault stalking and technological abuse. Notably, the latest version would prohibit anyone convicted of misdemeanor stalking or domestic abuse from being able to purchase a firearm.
Franks and Sobieraj said that online platforms such as Twitter and Facebook also have a responsibility to regulate their users’ language and posts — something lawmakers have debated for years. Twitter, for example, could moderate mentions and replies directed at public figures by making the tweets subject to review before they can be publicly available, Sobieraj said. Franks also advocates for reforming the existing laws that protect online platforms from liability for illegal content posted on their sites.
As the subject of harassment and its effects gain increased attention, more women are pushing back on the narrative that they need to accept racism, misogyny or abuse in order to hold a public position. Krook of Rutgers University said there is growing public solidarity among women in politics to raise awareness on the issue. Last year, five Democratic congresswomen, four of them women of color, introduced a resolution in the House to recognize violence against women in politics as a global phenomenon that requires more research. However, it did not reach a vote in the House.
If harassment and abuse is left unchecked, experts fear it could undo some of the recent progress on diverse representation in public office. Multiple academics said harassment of women — especially women of marginalized groups — can lead to declining political involvement. Some women may leave office, which Krook noted also cuts off a pipeline for younger people from underrepresented backgrounds to enter politics. Others may censor themselves.
“In order to fully understand social problems or design effective policy interventions, you really need to hear from a wide variety of people with different views and perspectives and experiences and life histories in order to get the richest picture possible,” Sobieraj said.
Nadia Brown, an associate professor of political science and African American studies at Purdue University, said legislators from underrepresented backgrounds use their lived experiences to inform their policymaking decisions, which can result in policy that improves circumstances for marginalized communities on the whole.
A challenge for Black women in politics, those interviewed by the NewsHour said, is balancing their determination to remain in office and serve their communities with fighting the abuse and harassment that threaten their personal wellbeing.
Underwood said she loves serving her constituents in Congress, but said there are other ways to work for her community outside of public office. “If this job turns into one where the threats continue to escalate, I will not continue to do it,” she said, “I am not willing to die to do this work.”
Editing: Erica R. Hendry, Emily Knapp, Travis Daub, Talesha Reynolds
Design: Chan Young Park, Vanessa Dennis, Chloe Jones
Video and audio: Julia Griffin, Vika Aronson
Fact checking: Harry Zahn
Lead images: Chloe Jones
Graphic: Megan McGrew
Candice Norwood is a former digital politics reporter for the PBS NewsHour.
Chloe Jones is the Roy W. Howard fellow for the PBS NewsHour. Connect with her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @chloeleejones.
Lizz Bolaji is a News Assistant for the PBS NewsHour
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