‘Don’t be afraid to run like a girl’

Local female politicians are all too often the target of personalized attacks and sexualized abuse, but the criticisms have only made them stronger.

By Krista Sylvester | August 19, 2021 |7:00 am

When Catherine McKenna announced she wasn’t running again, she had a message for other girls and women: ‘Don’t be afraid to run like a girl.’

It’s one of her signature phrases, and there’s arguably no one who took more abuse, harassment, and criticism over the years as a female politician than McKenna, who was elected in the 2015 election in the riding of Ottawa Centre, serving as Minister of Environment and Climate Change. 

In 2019, she was moved to Minister of Infrastructure and Communities in the reshuffle following the federal election. McKenna announced in June she was leaving federal politics to work toward combating climate change outside of government. 

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Throughout her tenure, she was subject to relentless personal attacks culminating in a spat of violent threats in 2019 that led her to hire security. Some of McKenna’s critics nicknamed her “Climate Barbie”, with a conservative MP even referring to her that way. 

When McKenna left office, she said the personal attacks were ‘just noise’ and had a message: “For those women and girls thinking about entering politics, do it … and when you do it, don’t be afraid to run like a girl. I’ll be there cheering you on.”

The difference between the abuse female politicians face compared to male politicians.

Political scientist Lori Williams says there is criticism levied at both female and male politicians, regardless of their party, but for women, it’s often something more. 

“There’s horrible stuff happening with a bunch of trolls that are basically competing to be the most creative threat. The difference is that the threats are sexualized for women, much more than they are for men,” she says, adding that for gay men and trans people, it’s even worse.

In Calgary, Ward 7 councillor Druh Farrell is no stranger to harassment, often being targeted with online abuse and name-calling. The longtime councillor even faced 68 serious threats in 2013, according to a FOIP request. 

“I think there’s no question that women (leaders and politicians) are targeted differently than men. It’s a strategy. It’s a strategy to silence, to intimidate,” she says, adding that social media has caused an increase in the level of abuse and vitriol because they can be anonymous. 

“We need to fight back. It motivates, it’s always motivated me to work harder to, to not accept. This is normal. It’s not normal.” 

Fighting back. 

Farrell’s approach now is to just ignore it and use it as fuel

“Disagreement is good. Debate is healthy, but abuse is not. The abuse can be relentless, but I have never let it bother me. I just let it flow around.”

Her approach isn’t uncommon, says Williams who points out that many female politicians including McKenna, Farrell, and Ward 13 councillor Diane Colley-Urquhart are examples. 

“When McKenna stepped down, she just basically said that women are tough, and they can handle it” Williams says, adding that female politicians now prepare themselves for the abuse that often goes along with the territory. 

Williams points to Ask Her YYC, which is providing training specifically designed to address the unique barriers faced by potential candidates. 

“I think more and more women are recognizing what’s involved, and if they are given the right preparation and a bit of training, I think they are able to manage it,” Williams adds. 

What can be done? 

Farrell thinks it’s up to everyone to combat this problem that seems to get worse and worse each year, especially with the heightened state of partisan politics. 

“I would urge members of the public when they see gendered abuse, they need to call it out. And it doesn’t matter what political party you belong to,” she says. 

“If you don’t like what you’re seeing, if you’re seeing people being bullied, we have a responsibility in a civil society to step up and call it out. We need to change the nature of politics.” 

She says that applies to racism in politics, too. 

“I’m a white woman, and I get a certain amount of abuse because of my gender, but add race to that, and it just went up. It’s unbelievable the abuse, racist abuse, that racialized women experience. It has a chilling effect, and we need to stand up to it.” 

This is our ‘Women in Politics’ part one of two series.

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Krista Sylvester

Reporter at Calgary Citizen

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