When Erin Schrode, then 24, decided to run for Congress in her California district in 2016, she expected to face grueling hours and numerous other challenges, but she never anticipated fending off thousands of abusive online messages.
“One of the first pieces I read was, ‘We're going to laugh with glee while we gang rape you and bash your bagel-eating brains in,’” says Schrode, who is Jewish, recalling the messages she received.
“Just all of this idea that, you know, that I should get a husband and behave properly. That I should be quiet. That girls have no place in politics," she says of other messages she received.
The Democratic activist, who lost her primary challenge, soon learned she’d been targeted by a neo-Nazi website known for spearheading internet trolling campaigns. Some of her personal information — including Schrode's email address and cellphone number — were posted online.
“When I had police officers arrive at my house to go over safety precautions, when I was briefed by the FBI, when I'm speaking with the Department of Homeland Security,” Schrode says, “that is rattling, and that’s a new level of danger that I never would have expected when announcing my candidacy as a 24-year-old woman for United States Congress.”
Unfortunately, what happened to Schrode is not an anomaly.
A well-known tactic used to discourage women from seeking or holding political office is to literally terrorize them, often with threats of sexual violence, says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
“The kind of attacks that women face are about white male privilege and white males wanting to make sure that they hold on to the power and feeling threatened by the influx of women as more and more women are stepping up and running for office,” Walsh says. “There is a sense of losing control and losing power.”
The most recent high-profile attack on women in politics occurred last month when President Donald Trump tweeted the suggestion that four Democratic members of Congress — all women of color — should “go back” to the “corrupt” countries they came from.
Three of the four lawmakers targeted in the tweet, Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, were born in the United States. The fourth, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, left Somalia at the age of 6 and came to the United States when she was 10.
“The response is to attack them to demean them to belittle them and to make them the ‘other’ and the outsider,” Walsh says.
“It is such an old trope of, you know, ‘You don't belong here.’ It's a message that women and people of color and women of color have received so many times in history," she adds.
Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins was threatened in relation to the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court last year. Viewed as a critical swing vote, she ultimately voted in favor of Kavanaugh's nomination.
The harassment Collins faced included letters laced with white powder and a fax promising to slit her throat. Voicemails left at her office advised Collins not be be "a dumb b***h" and called her "a feckless woman."
Collins along with two other GOP women, Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, were targeted by online trolls in 2017, after they doomed Republican hopes of repealing the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. In online attacks, the senators were called "lying feminazi's" and "old hags."
Last year, the only African American woman in the Vermont State Legislature announced she wasn’t seeking re-election after being targeted by people affiliated with white supremacist groups. Announcing her decision on Facebook, Kiah Morris, a Democrat elected to the state House of Representatives in 2014, denounced the “divisive, inflammatory and at times, even dangerous” political discourse found on social media.
In Iowa, Democrat Kim Weaver decided against challenging incumbent Republican Congressman Steve King in 2018 because of the continuation of death threats she’d first received after challenging King in 2016. Weaver told followers on Facebook that she’d faced “very alarming acts of intimidation, including death threats ... my personal safety has increasingly become a concern.”
In 2016, Nevada Democratic Chairwoman Roberta Lange demanded an apology from Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, saying that she’d received death threats from his supporters. Lange told CNN threats had also been directed at her husband and 5-year-old grandson.
When an all-women majority on the Seattle City Council blocked a vote for a new basketball arena in 2016, the five female lawmakers received death threats from disappointed fans. The four men on the panel had voted in favor of the measure.
One email to each of the female council members said, “As women, I understand that you spend a lot of your time trying to please others … but I can only hope that you each find ways to quickly and painfully end yourselves.”
Walsh, of Rutgers, said she is concerned harassment could keep women in both parties from seeking office.
“Now what we're looking at is a playing field where women who think about running for office are afraid — afraid for their own physical safety, afraid for their families and for their children,” she says.
Schrode, the activist who ran for Congress in California, has spent the past two years helping distribute millions of meals in Puerto Rico, which was devastated by Hurricane Maria in September 2017.
She says the harassment she faced hasn't scared her off from running for public office in the future ... as long as she doesn’t have a family.
"Would I run again as a mother with children knowing what I would open, not only myself, but my family to? That I can't answer,” Schrode says. “I'm proud to be a woman. I'm not proud of what it means to be a woman running for office in this country today.”