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In 2024, political violence against Black women is a big threat

Women’s History Month is good time to thank our Black women in office – and keep them safe. 

- March 18, 2024
Women members of the Congressional Black Congress gather in the office of Senator Kamala Harris (D-California) on January 18, 2019.
Women of the Congressional Black Caucus, January 2019 (U.S. Senate, Office of Sen. Kamala Harris, via Wikimedia Commons)

Political violence is a real threat in the 2024 U.S. elections – particularly for women in office or seeking election. In January, the Brennan Center for Justice released important new research on the intimidation of state and local officeholders. Women are the targets of this type of violence more often than men, the report finds. And this type of abuse puts democracy at risk, with gender-differentiated consequences for politics, the state, and policymakers. 

Violence against women in politics (VAWIP), according to political scientists Mona Lena Krook and Juliana Restrepo Sanín, is “a distinct phenomenon whereby the origins, means, and effects of violent acts specifically aim to exclude women from the political sphere … as a means for reinforming gendered hierarchies.” Indeed, many U.S. voters expect to see a campaign cycle marred by political violence. This is for good reason: A number of women political elites in early 2024 have already reported experiencing threats and harassment

While patriarchy, sexism, and misogyny target cis-gender women, femmes, and trans women and girls as well as non-binary or gender-fluid women, those with marginalized identities experience VAWIP in distinct ways. Personal safety is crucial for ALL those who experience political violence, of course. That makes it important for lawmakers to understand and develop strategies to reduce this type of violence. But it’s also important to ensure that intersectionality – and how complex biases along race, class, and gender axes shape discrimination and violence against a given individual or group – remains at the center of tactics to reduce VAWIP.

What we know about violence against women in politics

VAWIP is a growing concern in American politics but we often think this type of violence takes place outside of the United States. Indeed, most of this research focuses on women engaged in the political process globally. Researchers have paid less attention to the experiences of U.S. female politicians. However, research findings from across the globe are instructive for understanding how VAWIP may impact women’s political representation in the United States. 

Here’s why: Threats of violence or intimidation make women more likely to consider leaving politics than their male counterparts. This has tangible implications as women politicians are more likely to champion policies of importance to women. Moreover, democracies are stronger with the increased visibility of women in politics. That’s because seeing women holding office increases the public’s opinion of a legitimate government. 

The Brennan Center findings have important implications

The January 2024 study finds that women and Republicans report an increase in the severity of abuses, in comparison to their gendered and partisan counterparts. But the major finding of this report is that women – as well as people of color and women of color – are experiencing the lion’s share of political violence and intimation, particularly at the local level. 

Women are not a monolithic group, and they experience marginalization and oppression along other lines, beyond gender alone. That makes an intersectional approach particularly important as a cornerstone to efforts to address political violence. Yet there is limited understanding of intersectional VAWIP in the United States. My new work with Paru Shah hopes to fill this gap.

The existing international literature and the Brennan Center’s report provide the theoretical framework and empirical findings that square with several interviews that I’ve conducted with Black women political elites over the years. Here are three examples of how an intersectional approach helps us to understand violence against Black women in politics.

How I came to this work

Truthfully, I was not interested in studying political violence. By nature, I avoid conflict. My “happy place” is political research on the body related to adornment and style, not violence. However, my interest in somatic politics has led me to also explore research on sexual harassment and gender-based violence. My scholarship is a communal response to sexual harassment in an attempt to hold political science as a discipline accountable to survivors who are demanding structural change. 

As I interview Black women political elites about their political experiences, sometimes participants share things that I did not anticipate, including their experience with political violence. But this is often how new research projects come about. I did not anticipate that Black women state legislators would talk with me about how their hair texture and skin tones have impacted their political behavior or legislative experiences. But because I kept hearing about this, it became a new research question. So, when I interviewed a Black woman candidate in 2017 in Ferguson, Missouri, I paid specific attention to a comment she made after our interview ended. 

Black women politicians share their stories

I met a candidate for Congress during a research trip to examine how Black women politicians drew on their lived experiences to bring political awareness to Black Lives Matter legislation. During this interview, this candidate recalled what happened at a local restaurant during a campaign event a few months earlier. After this experience, she told me she now travels to events with friends or family members who serve as bodyguards to keep people from getting so close to her anymore: She explained:

This guy came from the back of the room. I was standing in the front with some other supporters and my campaign manager/friend when he rushed me. He grabbed my face and kissed me on my mouth then gave me a bear hug. The guy said that he was a huge supporter and wanted to thank me. And then he turned around and left. I was so startled. We all were. I couldn’t move, I didn’t know what to do. 

Targeted in a Target store

In 2018, I interviewed a Black woman state legislator who told me that she had an angry woman follow her in Target demanding that the legislature do more to combat crime and drug abuse. This legislator explained that she was shopping on a Sunday afternoon and did not expect constituents to stop her to talk about contentious political issues because she had her 10-year-old daughter with her. However, she noted that constituents recognize her in the community – “I’m one of the few Black families in this town,” she noted – and frequently share their political opinions with her. 

This legislator welcomes this engagement and recognizes that constituents desire to have accessible representatives. However, she did not anticipate the verbal abuse in Target on a Sunday afternoon from an angry constituent, a white woman. The legislator calmly informed the woman that this was a conversation that they should have in another place and suggested that the woman contact her office on Monday morning. The constituent, however, followed the legislator around Target demanding in an increasingly loud tone that the state legislature get tougher on crime. The legislator recounted to me that she responded by “running into the store’s bathroom and taking my daughter into the handicap stall with me to wait this crazed woman out.” In response to this aggressive behavior from a constituent, the legislator stated that she changed her shopping schedule and now opts for online shopping.

Political violence in the aftermath of Jan. 6, 2021

A Black congresswoman shared a third relevant and unexpected experience with me in early 2021. My colleagues and I had secured a grant to interview Black congresswomen and we had tremendous difficulty in setting up these interviews. I reached out to a mentor who had formerly worked with the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) to ask for assistance in getting female CBC members to interview with me about the project. My mentor immediately reached out to the chief of staff working for a member of Congress whom we wanted to interview because we are sisters of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc

This chief of staff did not immediately respond, which was unexpected. So that evening my mentor called her personal line and asked why she hadn’t responded sooner. The chief of staff shared that ordinarily they would act on this request from two sorority sisters, but said that the congresswoman and her staff were still in a state of post-traumatic stress from the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and the subsequent racial and gendered threats made to them by Trump supporters. 

My mentor relayed this information to me the following day and noted that she had never heard the chief of staff sound so demoralized, exhausted, and hopeless in the 25 years they had known one another. In turn, my mentor suggested that I wait a few months and try again. My colleagues and I attempted to contact this chief of staff and the member of Congress in late 2021 but were unsuccessful. In 2022, my mentor shared that the chief of staff had left her Congressional job.

My new research project: intersectionality and VAWIP

These three examples laid the foundation for my new research project on VAWIP. The women experienced harassment in ways that were distinct to their racialized, classed, and gendered identity. Experiences with VAWIP are not monolithic and are instead influenced by the multi-marginalized identities that women hold.

For example, the candidate in Missouri who experienced sexual harassment on the campaign trail resorted to the volunteer labor of her family and friends to provide personal security because she did not have the financial resources to hire a trained security officer. And the state legislator who was verbally assaulted in her local Target had to hide in a bathroom stall because no one came to her aid, or removed the woman who was harassing her. The legislator later stated that she often feels as if she lives the Myth of a Black Superwoman who is so strong that she does not need or want help. 

And, lastly, the chief of staff on Capitol Hill believed that her office was targeted because she worked for a Black congresswoman. Indeed, America witnessed both a symbolic and actualized display of white male power on Jan. 6, 2021. This national story received attention but the stories of the state legislator and candidate for local office have gone largely unnoticed. 

Black women politicians have warned about violence

Black women are often the proverbial canary in the coal mine. In fact, Black women politicians have been warning Americans for decades about political violence but have been largely ignored. Perhaps, as the state legislator opined, Black women are expected to be Superwoman and able to withstand abuse because of their commitment to democratic processes

Scholarship on Black women’s politics, in fact, supports this thinking. For example, people tend not to believe Black women when they come forward with instances of abuse, because of their historical experiences with violence in America. Next, Black women’s experiences with raced-gendered stereotypes and shame contribute to the politics of misrecognition that improves structural constraints. As Melissa Perry-Harris argues in Sister Citizen, shame is a political project of the state that leads to Black women’s disengagement from politics. The stereotypical myths of Black women not only marginalize them in politics but also turn them into second-class citizens.

Forward-looking

The Department of Homeland Security warns that threats of violence are likely for the 2024 election. From the national level to the local level, governments can take a number of steps to protect candidates from political violence and intimidation this election season. Nonprofits, think tanks, and researchers have produced reports that provide suggestions for keeping Americans safe from political violence. Scholarship has consistently shown that using a single-axis approach to solve a problem has dire consequences for marginalized groups.

During Black history month, we often celebrate the increasing numbers of Black women in elected office. But if Black women don’t feel safe in office, perhaps society should question why we applaud their public service but pay too little attention to their well-being.