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Negative online comments about female MPs often sexualized, say political veterans

Apr 06, 2015


This article originally appeared in The Hill Times on April 6, 2015, and was written by Laura Ryckewaert.


Social media platforms like Twitter have made Members of Parliament more accessible to the public than ever before, but that exposure is not all positive. MPs are subject to online harassment and some say they’ve noticed a gender difference when it comes to the nature of the commentary.


“Trolling happens to most MPs, but I think there is a gendered aspect when it applies to women,” said NDP MP Laurin Liu (Rivière-des-Milles-Îles, Que.) in an interview with The Hill Times.


Unfortunately, many female MPs have personal stories to back that up.


Nancy Peckford, executive director of Equal Voice, said negative comments made about female MPs are often sexualized.


“We have noticed a trend that when certain individuals want to take down female public figures, whether they’re serving in elected office or in another public leadership role, often that commentary is highly sexualized and misogynistic,” said Ms. Peckford.


“In our culture, a way to invalidate, undermine, attack a woman in public life is to use misogynistic and violent language that is often sexual in nature,” she said.


The “overwhelming majority” of female MPs have “extremely positive experiences” as elected officials, said Ms. Peckford, but “at the same time, by virtue of the fact that they are women” some MPs have “encountered extremely disconcerting situations, particularly over social media.”


Harassing comments from social media “trolls” is pretty much a given for public figures, but a number of female MPs told The Hill Times there does seem to be a difference in the types of over-the-line comments they receive. 


Speaking at the Broadbent Institute’s Progress Summit in Ottawa last month on a panel called “The Gendered Minefield of Online Harassment,” NDP MP Megan Leslie (Halifax, N.S.) said that while the development of social media as a way for politicians to connect with constituents is “thrilling,” the “down side” is politicians have had to learn “pretty quickly how to deal with online hate.” 


“We’ve tried our best to live by the motto ‘don’t feed the trolls,’ we’ve learned to block follows, to ignore Reddit, and really just how to shake it off,” she said at the March 27 session. 


“But there is something different about the hate that is directed at women, and that’s the use of sexual imagery against us, violent imagery to silence us, and the threat of sexual violence to put us in our place,” she said.


Ms. Leslie read out a number of actual tweets that have been directed to current female MPs as part of the session to exemplify her point. One story involved her caucus colleague, Ruth Ellen Brosseau (Berthier-Maskinongé, Que.), who had to file a restraining order against a man in her riding who was stalking and harassing her, including threatening to kill members of her staff. That situation began with unwelcome messages online. 


But Ms. Leslie also shared some abusive comments about her colleagues across the aisle: “CPC skank Michelle Rempel needs to eat a dick,” read one example. “Eve Adams is a skanky-ass bitch, a younger Playboy version of Belinda Stronach,” read another.


Ms. Leslie said after sending out a holiday card one year with a picture of her on a sled, someone tweeted at her, “Nice to know you know how to spread your legs, what else can you do?” 


“Ruth Ellen, Michelle and Eve all gave me permission today to use these stories because they all agree that part of fighting back against this kind of misogynistic hate is to name it, to speak it aloud, and to find solidarity with each other,” said Ms. Leslie at the session. 

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May (Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C.) said she doesn’t block anyone on her Twitter account and said “quite often” she sees comments that “are truly chilling and misogynistic and threats of violence, and they’re horrible.”


She said she ignores such comments, but said she “absolutely” thinks female MPs attract different types of commentary than male MPs do.


“Our looks are attacked more, our clothing is attacked, the notion of sexual attractiveness and sexual violence—I don’t think men experience that in social media. Maybe they do, I only know what I experience, and some of it is quite vile,” she said. 


Ms. Liu said being an MP is her “dream job” and she’ll be fighting hard in this year’s election to keep her seat, but she said harassing online commentary “definitely has an impact on the way the work environment is perceived in politics for women.”


She said she doesn’t just see a difference in the sort of comments directed to female MPs online, but in the House of Commons Chamber as well.


“I remember Peggy Nash giving a speech on the budget last year, 2014, while she was finance critic and being heckled to ‘learn to read,’ which is not—I mean it’s not expressly sexist, but these are the kinds of words that are more generally used towards women,” she said. 


Ms. Liu also had a story about NDP colleague Ms. Brosseau to demonstrate how language expectations are different for women. 


“She made this comment about the effect of austerity measures being put into place as having a ‘brutal’ effect on Canadian workers, and I remember her being mocked on social media for using the word brutal, even though I’ve heard it used since then by a lot of my male colleagues. There’s definitely a double-standard.”


Ms. Brosseau, speaking with The Hill Times briefly in the House foyer last week, said social media is “its own planet,” where people are often able to hide behind the anonymity of their Twitter handles.


“Something they wouldn’t say to your face, they’ll do online, but I try not to take that too personally,” she said.


While Ms. Liu said she’s personally able to disassociate herself from negative commentary online, she said for young women who see the sort of comments that get directed at female MPs online, it “definitely has a dissuasive” effect.  


Ms. Liu said the current NDP caucus is roughly 40 per cent female, and said she feels “there’s a noted difference between the way we work in caucus and the environment in caucus.”


She said electing more women to office would, in the “long term,” have a significant effect on the House of Commons workplace and how women are perceived in it.


NDP MP Charmaine Borg (Terrebonne-Blainville, Que.) said she thinks female MPs do “get comments that particularly wouldn’t be said to a man,” especially regarding her looks.


“I’ve had people say that I need to fix my hair and things like that. I’m not sure my male colleagues would receive the same kind of comments,” she said.


Conservative MP Cathy McLeod (Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo, B.C.) said that in her experience, while people have directed comments to her on Twitter that she considers “very inappropriate” and “ignorant,” she said she “wouldn’t consider them to at all be gender-based.”  


The topic of harassment has received considerable attention on Parliament Hill in recent months, following allegations of sexual harassment among MPs, and work is currently underway to develop a harassment policy and code of conduct.


Conservative MP Joe Preston (Elgin-Middlesex-London, Ont.), chair of the Procedure and House Affairs Committee and its subcommittee on a code of conduct for MPs, said the subcommittee’s mandate to develop a code of conduct and a harassment policy for Members of Parliament has been “difficult.”


“We’ve found no place else in the world, no other Parliament, no other group that has—certainly none of our provinces either—that has a harassment policy between Members, so we’re breaking new ground here and we’re trying to make sure we get that right,” said Mr. Preston.


The element of Parliamentary privilege has also complicated matters, he said.


“Let’s be straight: we work in a place where, if you watch Question Period…there’s harassment on a daily basis,” said Mr. Preston.  


“In a common workplace, if two people stood there and talked to each other that way, I think there would certainly be some conversation about whether it is harassment or not, and yet because of privilege in the House…it’s taken as part of the job,” he said. 


Mr. Preston said the subcommittee is working to report back to the main committee and subsequently to the House with a new harassment policy before Parliament rises in June.


The subcommittee has heard witness testimony from deputy Parliamentary law clerk Richard Denis, chief human resources officer Pierre Parent and analysts from the Library of Parliament.


Meeting minutes note the subcommittee has also invited the president of the Parliamentary Press Gallery and lawyer Cynthia Peterson, who recently concluded an internal investigation into the allegations raised against two now former Liberal MPs, to appear as witnesses in camera. The press gallery is also working on developing a harassment policy after an incident between two members last fall.

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