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How a New Wave of Female Candidates Is Training to Fight the Trolls

Kim Weaver first saw the Facebook post during an otherwise normal work meeting in Des Moines. “Just wait till the day of the rope, when traitors like you get what you deserve,” a Twitter user had written to Weaver, then a candidate for Congress, apparently referencing the 1978 dystopian novel The Turner Diaries, in which a white revolutionary group publicly hangs people in the streets as part of an ethnic cleansing effort. It was the kind of anonymous online threat that most people in politics have come to expect. Weaver’s male campaign manager didn’t think it was a big deal; he even posted a screenshot of the post to his Facebook page with a little joke, which is how Weaver came across it on that July day. But to the single mom who was mounting her first challenge against Iowa Republican Representative Steve King, it was terrifying.

“When I saw that, I broke down,” Weaver says. “Men don’t understand how the world can be a dangerous place for women. They think you’re being melodramatic or whatever. But they’re not the ones who’ve had their butt grabbed in a crowded bar, or been felt up by some drunk who thought he could and, when you pushed him away, got offended.”

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Weaver went on to lose that race. And the following year, in June 2017, she dropped out of her second attempt to unseat King. In a Facebook post announcing her withdrawal, she cited as part of her reasoning “very alarming acts of intimidation, including death threats,” marking perhaps the most visible instance of a political candidate exiting a race specifically because of safety concerns. In addition to the online trolling, Weaver says she received King bumper stickers in her mailbox and woke up one morning to find a “For Sale” sign on her front lawn. She recalled getting angry emails calling her a “cunt” and also said a friend in Germany told her he saw a threatening post about her on a white supremacist message board. She couldn’t find the link later to take a screenshot.

“I felt violated and I felt vulnerable,” says Weaver. “It’s definitely more concerning when the person sending the threats isn’t someone you can identify.”

Today, nearly a year since Weaver dropped out, more women than ever are running for Congress and statewide political office in a wave fueled by several factors, including Donald Trump, the #MeToo movement and the 2017 elections, when women scored major victories in several states. According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, which tracks female candidates, 50 women are running for U.S. Senate, 420 are running for U.S. House, and 80 are running for governor. (See POLITICO’s interactive Women Rule Candidate Tracker to follow the races.) Organizations that provide campaign training to female candidates are also reporting huge spikes in interest. For example, in the past year over 30,000 women have contacted EMILY’s List, an organization that backs women who support abortion rights, about potentially running for office. To compare, roughly 900 women reached out during the 2016 cycle.

Yet, like Weaver, many of these women running might not be prepared for the level of trolling, harassment and threats that could face them on the campaign trail or in office. It’s hard to know just how bad female politicians have it—harassment targeting female political candidates and politicians is understudied and underreported. But research does suggest that female politicians are more often on the receiving end of sexualized forms of harassment and violence—from physical groping to online rape threats—than men. And, in the past few months, as more women in office have come forward with their own stories of harassment and intimidation, the anecdotal evidence that women deal with inordinate amounts of abuse, potentially squelching their desire to run at all, has become hard to ignore.

In response, several groups that train female candidates are either rethinking their programs or noticing changes in their training develop naturally. The goal is not necessarily to teach female candidates how to avoid the sexual, mental and—yes, sometimes physical—harm and suffering that can accompany a political career. Rather, it’s to better equip women to deal with those hurdles, so fewer women will drop out because of them. Those who work at the programs admit there is a bit of a fine line to walk with altering the training programs; they want to make sure women are still inspired to run and not turned off by the uglier aspects. But none of the groups I talked to are letting that stop them. While many programs used to underplay these incidences, insisting they were neither common experiences, nor central concerns for the women who sought training, no one is denying the existence of these challenges anymore. Often, they are taking center stage. It’s hard to be a woman in politics—as it is in most male-dominated spaces—and women are having open conversations about those difficulties, with the goal of one day lessening them.

“The assumption is it’s going to happen. It’s not a preparation on how to avoid it,” says Erin Vilardi, founder and CEO of VoteRunLead, an organization that provides candidate training to women of all parties for local and state-level offices. The group used to cover issues like trolling, harassment and potential violence informally during panel discussions, while focusing the bulk of training on more traditional tools, like fundraising and public speaking. But now, Vilardi says, it offers a three-pronged communication strategy to deal with any sort of abuse: Call it out immediately or report it to police if there are safety concerns, use humor if possible, like tweeting out a joke about a sexist attack, and, lastly, find an opportunity to do something more long form, like writing an op-ed about the incident. VoteRunLead trained 9,700 women online and in-person over the course of 2017. This year, the organization has already trained close to 1,000, but anticipates training an additional 30,000 by 2020, according to Vilardi.

The revamped training, at a time when women are more interested than ever in running for office, could play an important role in closing the long-standing gender gap in political leadership. According to CAWP, women currently make up just 20 percent of Congress, 25 percent of state legislatures and 12 percent of governorships. And even though women are just as likely as men to be elected, they tend to not run in the first place. How much that is due to fears of harassment and personal safety hasn’t been studied specifically, but in a 2012 report on the underrepresentation of women in U.S. politics, researchers Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox found women were nearly twice as likely as men to be deterred from running for office because of potentially having to engage in a negative campaign. “You could easily extrapolate from that,” says Fox, “that certain horrendous threats—threats of rape and murder—would sort of be an extreme version of the sensibilities that may make women less interested in running.”

This time, though, Vilardi doesn’t anticipate the new curriculum will discourage anyone from running, even if it does devote more time to the negative possibilities. “Bravery and courageousness are contagious,” she says. “The fearfulness is a constant, but all of a sudden it’s so much more worth it to take the risk.”

Andrea Dew Steele, president of Emerge America, which trains Democratic women to run for office, has seen a near-90 percent increase in applicants to Emerge America programs since Trump’s inauguration. And while in earlier years Steele noticed that women lacked confidence to come forward with their stories, today she thinks the openness of the #MeToo movement has shifted the way women approach the political process.

“This is so completely radical, the idea that you might talk about something that’s inappropriate happening to you,” says Steele, who says her team is talking about incorporating guidance that addresses abusive behavior into its curriculum, which currently covers topics including networking, field operations and messaging. “So often women have said, ‘Oh, that’s part of the deal,’ and as candidates they’ve said, ‘Oh, that’s part of the deal.’ That’s not the case anymore.”

***

There is no way to know just how often women in politics are harassed worldwide. In 2016, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright pointed out that the United Nations then did not track acts of violence against women who engage in politics. As chair of the National Democratic Institute, she recently directed the nonprofit to work closely with the U.N. special rapporteur on violence against women to establish a channel allowing people to report cases of harassment, intimidation and psychological abuse against politically active women. The online initiative has a map showing the number of incidents reported per country through its form; it’s currently speckled with 21 pins, including one corresponding to two incidents in the U.S.

Some studies provide insight, but still paint an incomplete picture. In 2016, the Guardian published an analysis that found Hillary Clinton received abusive tweets at almost twice the rate of her Democratic primary opponent Bernie Sanders, while former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, too, received about twice as much abuse as her male challenger, Kevin Rudd. A few months later, the Inter-Parliamentary Union released troubling findings: Across 39 countries, over 40 percent of female members of parliament said that they’d received threats of death, rape, beatings or abduction while serving their terms, including threats to kidnap or kill their children. The IPU study also found that female MPs considered sexual harassment a common practice; 20 percent of those surveyed said they were subjected to sexual harassment, while over 7 percent said that someone had tried to force them to have sexual relations. Notably, however, the IPU’s survey did not include U.S. lawmakers. And the sample size was only 55 MPs—roughly .5 percent of women in national parliaments worldwide.

But then, of course, there is the anecdotal evidence. Just a few conversations with female politicians makes it obvious that they suffer high levels of abusive treatment, often sexual in nature, but not always.

During her first term as the first black and first female mayor of Greenville, Mississippi, Democrat Heather McTeer Toney remembers receiving one particularly graphic letter via snail mail to her office threatening to decapitate and rape her. Cracking down on crime was an important issue for Toney, and the threat arrived when her office was gearing up to launch drug raids around the city. She had to have a police detail assigned to her during the working hours for most her time in office.

“I could be wrong, but I don’t know too many men who get letters or phone calls that say, ‘I’m going to rape you,’” Toney says. “I was the first female mayor. Nobody else in the history of the city had to have police security all the time.”

Minnesota state Rep. Erin Maye Quade, also a Democrat, similarly feels her identity played a role in the abuse she’s experienced during her short time in office. Quade, who is married to a woman, has publicly accused two male lawmakers of sexual harassment. But she says there have been other incidents involving men she doesn’t yet feel comfortable naming. Recently, for example, she was giving a speech on the floor about education when she overheard two male lawmakers talking about her. “You know she’s a lesbian, right?” she remembers one saying. Then she heard the other reply, “I know, what a waste. Look at that body.”

“I’m gay, so I feel like sometimes the fetishizing of women together plays into it a lot,” Maye Quade says.

Days before she won Georgia’s closely watched special election, Republican Representative Karen Handel received a suspicious package at her house that contained white powder. The letters were also sent to her neighbors and included a threatening note encouraging readers to take a “whiff of the powder and join [Handel] in the hospital,” according to a copy that a neighbor provided to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Eventually, the FBI gave the all-clear, saying that the letters posed no threat.

Wisconsin state Representative Melissa Sargent, a Democrat, says her support for stronger gun control measures once prompted one of her critics to tweet out her home address and encourage people to show up and terrorize her and her family. To her knowledge, none of the male lawmakers who supported stronger gun control measures received the same treatment.

“I wasn’t prepared for it,” says Sargent, who serves on the board of directors for Emerge
Wisconsin, an affiliate of Emerge America. She now feels it’s crucial to educate potential female candidates about similar challenges they could face. “Knowing that you’re not the first one to have this happen I think is an important message for women who are considering this.”

In another special election, former South Carolina congressional candidate Sheri Few, a Republican, says she received numerous threats on Facebook and Twitter—including one to “put the barrel in [her] mouth”—after releasing an ad in which she held a military-style rifle and criticized the state’s decision to remove the Confederate flag. A week later, Few says an angry man followed her and her husband to their car after a heated candidate forum. The man was yelling at her and putting his finger in her face.

“My husband is 6-foot, 280 pounds. … If he had not been there, I would’ve certainly been very uncomfortable,” says Few. The issue of harassment and violence didn’t come up when she attended local candidate training years ago. But including it now, she adds, “would be smart.”

It would also be a mistake to say that men are somehow immune from attacks. Former Democratic congressional candidate Jon Ossoff, Handel’s opponent in Georgia, for example, had to add a security detail after receiving intensifying threats against him ahead of the special election. Earlier in 2017, meanwhile, Michael Treiman, a Democratic candidate for mayor in Binghamton, New York, dropped out of the race after someone threw a full soda can at him while he was walking with his young children. The assailant reportedly yelled “liberal scumbag” before driving away. And most glaringly last June, when a gunman opened fire on members of the Republican congressional baseball team, all those wounded—save for one U.S. Capitol Police officer—were men.

Yet again, even though researchers cannot definitively answer the question of whether women in politics face attacks more frequently than men, they can point to differences in the way women are attacked—and the way they’re likely to handle those attacks.

“Threats of sexual violence are almost exclusively directed toward women in these trolling moments. Describing body parts are mostly directed toward women,” says Fox, the political scientist who’s been studying the underrepresentation of women in U.S. politics. In addition to finding that women were more likely than men to be deterred from running for office because of potentially having to engage in a negative campaign, he and co-author Jennifer Lawless also found in their 2012 report that women were more likely than men to be deterred because of the potential loss of privacy. Men, by contrast, were far more likely to describe themselves as having “thick skin.” Based off that research, he says, “Women may, and for very good reason, process threats differently on a political psychology level.”

Fox anticipates the next decade will bring more authoritative studies on harassment and violence against women in politics. Yet he acknowledges the difficulty in monitoring everything that’s said online. Another challenge to conducting research on the topic is that typically, women just haven’t talked about their experiences.

“I didn’t put it out there because I didn’t want people to be aware of what was said,” says state Representative Attica Scott, the first black woman to serve in Kentucky’s state Legislature in nearly 20 years. She remembers receiving sexually abusive tweets last year after she said something critical of Trump, though she doesn’t remember exactly what she was criticizing him for.

“I wanted to be thoughtful about the people I was running to represent,” she says of her decision to keep the threats to herself. “I didn’t want them to feel like they were going to have a representative who was always under attack.”

***

As of last summer, VoteRunLead didn’t cover issues like harassment or personal safety in a structured way. In a typical training session, a panel of women serving in office or who had served in office would answer questions from potential female candidates. And while the topic of how to stay safe would often come up, it didn’t always; questions about sexist coverage in the media and how to balance a political career with having a family were far more common, according to Colorado state Representative Faith Winter, VoteRunLead’s training coordinator.

VoteRunLead’s curriculum, like that of most organizations catering to women in politics, was designed to be empowering, to inspire women to overcome the fears that have long contributed to the gender gap in political ambition. There was, therefore, concern at the organization that devoting an entire training session to something like harassment and threats could be discouraging. But that thinking has since changed. In the past few months, as the #MeToo movement gained traction, Vilardi, VoteRunLead’s founder and CEO, says the group’s leaders began to talk about how to implement training that deals with violence against women “in a more strategic way.”

“Of course, it was talked about in groups of women, but we didn’t actually codify it in a way as we are now,” she says. “I think we’re better prepared [for the darker side of running] because it’s an open conversation now, instead of a behind-the-scenes conversation.”

In addition to its retooled communications training that instructs women to publicly call out abusive behavior or report it to police, VoteRunLead also teaches women not to devote any campaign time or resources on voters who even casually say something sexual or menacing. “Thank them and hand them a flier,” says Vilardi. “That guy’s never going to vote for you.”

The group is also making sure that women are having conversations in smaller cohorts—an African-American cohort, an under-25 cohort, an LGBTQ cohort, for example—in order to provide opportunities for potential candidates to discuss how they might feel nervous about a particular part of their identity.

At a recent training event in New York City, Vilardi devoted roughly 10 minutes of the hour-and-half session to speaking frankly about combating sexual assault and harassment on the campaign trail. She talked at length about Winter, the organization’s training coordinator, who successfully led an effort to expel her sexual harasser from the Colorado state House earlier this month and all of the frightening developments that accompanied that long process—including the decision made by two of Winter’s supporters to wear bulletproof vests at the Capitol for fear of retaliation. Despite the grim details, no one in attendance seemed bothered by that aspect of training.

“I have a background in working in restaurants and cafes. I have experienced sexual assault, sexual harassment and I’ve seen it with other co-workers or people in that industry. I know that it’s happening across the board,” says Karen Romero, a Queens native who came to training because she’s thinking of running for City Council in 2021. “Did [that part of training] put me off? No. It made me feel that we definitely need more representation as women.”

VoteRunLead is not the only group that’s changing its curriculum. For Rise to Run, a recently launched organization that encourages young, progressive women to run for office, confronting gender-based intimidation and harassment was always going to play a central role in its program as it was developed. The group initially planned to have a diverse array of female politicians—known in training as “Trailblazers”—talk openly with potential candidates about their scariest experiences, in addition to teaching them more conventional campaign skills, like how to give a stump speech and write an effective email to donors. But soon, says Helen Brosnan, the group’s co-founder, the portion of training covering interactions with the public will include more specific ways to address harassment and assault.

“We want to talk to girls about how you would report it,” says Brosnan. “Just like other people are working to make Hollywood more inclusive and safe, we’re trying to make the political process less murky when it comes to harassment.”

Other groups like EMILY’s List and Emerge America, are seeing changes in their training develop more naturally, spurred by attendees and speakers volunteering their own experiences involving abusive behavior with greater frequency. Although more scary stories now color trainings, the concern that potential female candidates will drop out because of them seems to have decreased.

“I don’t think we’ll see more Kim Weavers,” says Steele, president of Emerge America. “I think we’ll have more of a culture shift where it’s not OK to bully someone like that. … They’ll feel the wrath of Oprah.”

EMILY’s List, which of all the training and recruitment organizations boasts the biggest surge in interest, hasn’t formally changed its curriculum, according to the group’s communications director, Vanessa Cardenas. Women who attend its Run to Win training still hear from an instructor about who’s qualified to run, the basics of fundraising and how to build an effective campaign team. But, Cardenas adds, women attending are bringing up their personal stories of sexual harassment more frequently. When that happens, she says, the conversation pivots to how women can be authentic when talking about their personal experiences and why they think they can make a difference. “The #MeToo movement has propelled more women to step up and say this is not OK and I can be part of the solution,” Cardenas says. “In that sense, we have seen a positive change.”

Not everyone agrees that enhanced training is necessary. Patti Russo, executive director of the Women’s Campaign School at Yale, which is known for its five-day intensive training program for women of all party affiliations, doesn’t think that focusing on harassment will tackle the biggest problems female candidates face. Her main concern when she saw the huge increase of women interested in attending campaign school was that many of them were so new to politics that a five-day intensive seemed inappropriate.

“A third of the women who contacted us who were mad and marched weren’t even registered to vote,” says Russo. “Another third were registered to vote but didn’t vote in the presidential because, they said, ‘the two candidates were so similar, I couldn’t make up my mind.’ … We were concerned about not creating a training where we would meet women where they are, the level where they are.”

Russo developed a one-day training covering just the basics of campaigning, which starts out with an hour-and-a-half section going over everything a woman should consider both professionally and personally before even thinking about running for office. Oftentimes, she says, women decide that running simply isn’t worth it. She believes additional training won’t change that, but the current cultural moment might.

“There have always been women who have just decided that the risk to their personal safety or their families’ personal safety is just too high a price to pay, and so they decide not to run, and they don’t tell anyone why they’re pulling out,” says Russo. “I think you’re going to see a different kind of response to that now where more and more women are finding their authentic voices and feeling comfortable and confident in addressing the bullying.”

Changing candidate training to address the ugliest challenges that women face is no easy feat. There is no authoritative playbook from which to draw, and the whole effort often seems wildly unfair: Why do women have to learn to deal with abusive treatment, when the perpetrators so frequently get to keep acting the same? The logistical challenges, alone, are great. At Ready to Run New Jersey, part of a national network of nonpartisan campaign training programs for women, there is barely enough time in the day to cover all the nuts and bolts of running for office, says Jean Sinzdak, associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics, who oversees the program. But the bigger issue, she says, is that there is no existing guide for what to do if, say, you’re working in a legislature and you’re sexually harassed.

“In politics, there haven’t been very clear sets of rules,” says Sinzdak. “If you’re working for a particular company, in theory—and I realize that there are problems everywhere—but in theory, you can go to the HR department. In theory, there’s a structure of who you could report abuse to. It’s a lot more of a gray area inside statehouses and city council buildings.”

Sinzdak says the idea has come up of putting together a panel of women discussing how they’ve dealt with these issues in office. But from a program planning standpoint, the possibility of hearing conflicting advice is problematic.

“It is something I’m thinking about,” says Sinzdak of adding in training that addresses harassment and threats. “But we are struggling a little bit with the question of how to do that effectively, so you’re really giving people good advice and feedback in a way that’s useful to a broad audience.”

For now, talking openly about these challenges—rather than ignoring them, or relegating them to the whisper network—appears to be the biggest change that the record numbers of women signing up for training can expect.

Weaver, too, says she’s eager to share her experience with other women considering a political career. She is particularly interested in discussing security tools like maintaining two different email addresses and having a volunteer or staffer man the public one, so that candidates don’t have to see violent or sexual threats themselves.

She doesn’t anticipate she’ll be the last woman to the feel the risk to her life is too great to pursue a political career. But she’s hoping there will be fewer over time.

“I’ve had women tell me after what happened to me they’ve decided not to run,” she says. “But I think if we can give women tools and let them understand what could happen and how you can deal with it, it’s a lot easier to handle something.”

Emma Margolin is an independent journalist based in New York. She has previously worked as a national reporter at NBC News and MSNBC.

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