Women across the United Kingdom marched together last month to pay tribute to the suffragette movement and celebrate 100 years since British women won the vote – albeit only one sector of the female population. They commemorated the Representation of the People Act 1918 which granted women over the age of 30 the right to vote, as long as they were property owners – or married to one.
Although it would be another decade before women in Britain would have the same voting rights as men, the Act paved the way for future reforms. In November 1918, women were allowed to be elected to Parliament, gaining at the same time the right to become government ministers.
After years of mass protests, hunger strikes and violent acts, women finally had a voice in the British political sphere.
Fast-forward to 2018. Theresa May is the second female Prime Minister in the UK. One out of four Cabinet members that form her government are women, as well as 32% of Members of Parliament (MPs). The Shadow Cabinet, the opposition spokespeople who lead on scrutinising their opposite numbers in the government, is at present gender balanced. Not only do women make up 50% of the Shadow Cabinet, but they also hold high profile leadership positions, such as Shadow Home Secretary and Shadow Foreign Secretary.
There is no doubt that women are still under-represented in the upper echelons of national politics. Nevertheless, they are asserting themselves in the decision-making process and exercising their rights as equal to lead. Change is slow, but is happening.
And yet, after a centenary of women’s participation in governance, many are not comfortable with women claiming their political space. The sentiment that politics is something purely masculine still exists.
In Parliament, where the democratic debate is supposed to take place, women politicians are still experiencing misogyny, their voices constantly delegitimated. They are shushed, talked over, or ridiculed when they speak. Last year, Sir Nicholas Soames, a Conservative MP, had to apologise to former SNP member Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh for barking at her. He was making “woof, woof” noises while she spoke in reaction to what he called “her canine behaviour.”
The continual depersonalising and objectification of female politicians in the media switch the focus from their work to what they look like instead. In 2017, a Daily Mail front page sparked widespread outrage as they pictured Theresa May and Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon in skirts, next to the headline “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!.” Sending the message that even the most powerful women in the country are not taken seriously.
Bust most troubling is the online threatening language and graphic violence used towards women politicians for using their voice. A study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union showed that social media platforms, including Twitter, have become the number one place in which violence and abuse against women parliamentarians is perpetrated.
Twitter, a toxic place for women
“We believe in free expression and think every voice has the power to impact the world.”
This is how Twitter advertises itself. In the UK, about 20 million of people use the micro-blogging site to debate, network and share their thoughts with the rest of the world. A powerful tool of expression for public figures as they are able to engage directly with their audiences to advocate, communicate, mobilise and gain visibility.
And yet, in its latest research, Amnesty International found that many women cannot express themselves freely on Twitter without fear of violence or abuse – journalists, activists, writers, bloggers. Women who dare speak their minds suffer outrageous bullying. Those who have a voice that could “impact the world” are being pushed backwards to a culture of silence.
And it particularly affects women in politics.
Online violence and abuse against women MPs across all political parties in the UK have been of great concern in recent years. The aggressive nature of the violence is deeply disturbing, and takes different forms: sexism, racism, homophobia, threats of physical or sexual violence, mass bullying and privacy violations.
In January, Conservative MP Anna Soubry submitted multiple tweets to the police containing death threats against her. Labour MP Jess Phillips has received daily vicious online threats of violence and aggression since she started her political career. “In one night, I received 600 rape threats” she revealed last month. “It was probably more but I stopped counting. To try to subvert that, I received thousands of comments from people saying ‘I wouldn’t even rape her’.”
And the less a woman conforms to the traditional gender norms, the worse the abuse.
Trolls target all aspects of a woman’s identity. Her race, disability, sexual orientation and religious affiliations are all reasons for abuse, reflecting a wider trend of intersectional discrimination.
In the five months preceding the UK General election of 2017, Amnesty conducted an analysis of the online abuse against women MPs active on Twitter. During that period, Diane Abbott, the Shadow Home Secretary and first black female MP in the UK, received 8,121 abusive tweets – eight times more than any other woman MP.
“(The online abuse I get) is highly racialised and it’s also gendered because people talk about rape and they talk about my physical appearance in a way they wouldn’t talk about a man,” she writes in a blog post for Amnesty International. “Also the volume of abuse is much greater. It’s the volume of it which makes it so debilitating. So corrosive and so upsetting. It’s the sheer volume. And the sheer level of hatred that people are showing.”
The aim of online violence and abuse, reports Amnesty, is to create a hostile online environment for women with the goal of shaming, intimidating, degrading, belittling and silencing women.
The act of silencing women
“When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice,” writes Mary Beard in her book Women & Power: A Manifesto.
A professor of classics at Cambridge University, Mary brings her expertise of ancient times to explain the present misogyny and harassment of women online.
She traces the “muteness” of women in public life all the way back to the Greeks and Romans, when the very sound of a woman’s voice was seen as subverting social and political stability.
She recounts many myths in which women are physically prevented to using their voices. In Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Io is turned by Jupiter into a cow so she can only moo, and chatty Echo is punished by having her voice reduced to a mere instrument for repeating the words of others. When the young princess Philomela is raped, her tongue is cut out to prevent her denouncing her attacker.
The first recorded account of a man telling a woman to ‘shut up’ is immortalised in Homer’s Odyssey when, 3,000 years ago, Telemachus tells his mother that her voice was not to be heard in public. The act, we learn, was an essential part of growing up as a man.
In the ancient world, “public speech was a – if not the – defining attribute of maleness,” Mary writes. “A woman speaking in public was, in most circumstances, by definition not a woman.”
She also reports how a Roman anthologist of the first century AD described two women who dared to speak up in the Forum. Maesia was called an “androgyne,” and Afrania had people tired with her “barking” and “yapping.” Sound familiar?
These attitudes, assumptions and prejudices, repeated throughout history, are all ingrained into our culture, Mary states.
“It doesn’t much matter what line you take as a woman” she writes. “If you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It’s not what you say that prompts it, it’s simply the fact that you’re saying it.”
So what can be done to make sure women’s voices are heard?
Making social media more social
Coming back to modern times and the modern forum that is social media, at the G7 summit in Canada last month UK Prime Minister Theresa May called on world leaders and social media firms to tackle gender-based violence, abuse and harassment online with the same urgency as they do terror threats.
According to security minister Ben Wallace, digital IDs should be brought in to end online anonymity. Authentication used by banks, he said, could also be employed by internet firms to crack down on bullying and grooming.
“I think the anonymity debate is probably where parliament will lead” said Labour MP Jess Phillips as she called for online trolls to no longer be allowed anonymity. She believes social networks should have access to real identities to flush out abusers.
For now, Britain’s parliament is hiring a dedicated security advisor to help women lawmakers deal with “extreme” threats, abuse and intimidation.
These ideas could be effective to limit the amount of Internet abuse women receive. Most importantly, they could help avoiding women shutting up online. But as long as people will find the idea of a woman with a voice intolerable, they will find ways to intimidate and silence her.
There is no other option than to keep speaking up. Ignore the hatred. Report it, block it. And remember the words by Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai:
“When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.”
Featured image: flag from freepik.com