On Tuesday evening, during a debate in the United States Senate on the nomination of Senator Jeffrey Sessions as Attorney General, Senator Elizabeth Warren took the floor to read a letter written 30 years ago by Coretta Scott King, the widow of civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In the letter, King describes Sessions’ efforts to restrict the voting rights of black citizens.
However, Warren was not given the chance to read the letter in full. Republicans accused her of violating Senate Rule 19, which prohibits Senators from impugning each other, and she was forbidden from taking part in the floor debate over Sessions’ nomination leading up to the vote on Wednesday.
This is only the latest example of a global trend of attempts to silence women in power. Despite the tremendous strides made worldwide to increase women’s political participation and their abilities to exercise their human rights, misogyny—and often, intersectional forces of racism, classism, xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia—is still being used to ensure that men have the first and last word.
A study by the Inter Parliamentary Union in 2016 found that over 80% of female parliamentarians surveyed had experienced some form of psychological or sexual harassment or violence, and 65.5% had been the target of insults using sexual language and imagery.
Susana Villarán, the former mayor of Lima, Peru, has spoken out about the attacks and threats she faced in office that sought to “diminish my image and make it clear it was not a place for a women like me to try and disrupt that male world of politics and power”.
In 2015, 14 female members of parliament in New Zealand took the floor to disclose their personal experiences as victims of sexual assault in response to a comment made by the prime minister the proceeding day. Each woman was told to stop talking, and all were either thrown out or told to the leave the room.
When South African opposition leader Lindiwe Mazibuko came to Parliament one day in 2013, her male colleagues were more concerned with her appearance than what she had to say. During the budget debate, male member of Parliament John Jeffrey said, “While the Honourable Mazibuko may be a person of substantial weight, her stature is questionable.”
In Egypt, several female parliamentarians have reported severe bias by their colleagues towards male lawmakers, and women lawmakers being denied the chance to speak during proceedings.
Jeni Gunn, a first-time female candidate in Scotland, spoke out publicly on twitter about the sexual harassment and threats she faced online: "The abuse I have received for simply daring to stand in an election has made me realise why young women don't stand. This needs to stop."
Confronting this level of institutionalized sexism on a global level as well as a local one requires accountability: holding politicians accountable for their discriminatory words and actions, and also holding all individuals accountable for the ways in which misogynistic behaviors and attitudes are accepted as status quo.
With this in mind, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) launched the global #NotTheCost campaign in March 2016 to raise awareness of the violence women face when holding or seeking local, national or international office. NDI is hoping that indicators will be developed to track the prevalence of physical, sexual, psychological, verbal and economic violence faced by women in government. Women political leaders worldwide have expressed support, and are refusing to be silent any longer.
In France, female politicians are joining campaigners and journalists to demand an end to sexual harassment and assault faced by women in parliament. “We can no longer stay silent,” said Isabelle Attard, a member of parliament from Normandy. “Women must feel able to speak out.”
Michelle Rempel, a member of Parliament in Canada, is challenging the public to confront sexism wherever they see it, including in their own minds:
“While I applaud the efforts many women have made to empower other women to address sexism in the moment it happens, we should upend the table. The responsibility for combating everyday sexism doesn’t lie with those who live with it; it lies with you.”
Mimoza Kusari-Lila, mayor of Gjakova in Kosovo, who received death threats while in public office, said, “All these efforts only make me stronger. I know it might frighten many young women from entering politics [but] this is a pattern. We have to win the war to win the peace. You keep throwing stones at me and I will keep paving roads.”
In a recent editorial, Madeleine Albright wrote, “I believe that each person should be able to go as far as her or his talents will allow. Women and girls around the world who share that belief are ready to shape the future of their countries. Integrity, dedication to public service, and hard work should be the only entry fee to politics.”
As for Elizabeth Warren, when defending his action, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Warren fired back on twitter:
Here’s to the women who persist, who refuse to be silent, and who have dedicated their lives to standing up for what’s right, and here’s to the men who stand alongside them. Moving forward into a world where anything is possible for any driven, passionate human being means ensuring that all voices are not only heard, but also listened to. Throughout history, the iconic leaders we remember are the ones whose act of resistance was, at times, steadfast persistence. As our speaker Leymah Gbowee says, “We have lived through fear all our lives, and when you have gone through a whole lot of fear, sometimes all you can do is resist the fear, and resistance comes in the form of courage.”