‘Worthless. Gutless. Loser.’ Online attacks escalate when the mayor is a woman

click to enlarge Heather McTeer Toney, the former mayor of Greenville, Miss., who received threats to her safety while in office, at her current office in Oxford, Miss., Dec. 17, 2019. Female mayors are more than twice as likely as male mayors to experience psychological abuse and almost three times as likely to experience physical violence, a new study found. - ANDREA MORALES/THE NEW YORK TIMES
Andrea Morales/The New York Times
Heather McTeer Toney, the former mayor of Greenville, Miss., who received threats to her safety while in office, at her current office in Oxford, Miss., Dec. 17, 2019. Female mayors are more than twice as likely as male mayors to experience psychological abuse and almost three times as likely to experience physical violence, a new study found.
By Adeel Hassan
The New York Times Company

Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway’s inbox makes abundantly clear how personally venomous local politics has become.

“‘Fat,’ ‘sick,’ ‘worthless,’ ‘gutless,’ ‘loser,’ ” she said, reciting some of the insults that have been leveled at her since becoming mayor of Madison, Wisconsin, in April.

She got a taste of the animosity during her campaign, when she was criticized on blogs and social media not for her plans for housing, stormwater management or transportation, but for not wearing makeup.


“People are angry, or afraid, and express themselves in mean ways,” she said.

Rhodes-Conway is not alone in facing this type of abuse. As many as 79% of mayors in the United States report being the victim of harassment, threats or other psychological abuse, according to a recent study. Thirteen percent also reported instances of physical violence.

And one factor — gender — stood out above all others as a predictor of whether a mayor would be targeted. Using a statistical analysis that took into account factors like time in office, the researchers concluded female mayors were more than twice as likely as their male counterparts to experience psychological abuse and almost three times as likely to experience physical violence.

The study, published in the academic journal State and Local Government Review, and interviews with current and former mayors, lay bare today’s harsh political climate, in which threats of violence over social media are constant and speaking out can be perceived as a political weakness.


“We’re seeing more women get elected into political office everywhere at the same time that there are increasing threats against all public officials,” said Mona Lena Krook, a political science professor at Rutgers University who was not involved in the study. “Men also face violence, but women face more, and more types of violence.”

And the ease of making threats on social media is driving the abuse, said Sue Thomas of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, the lead author of the paper.

In all, 16% of the 238 mayors who responded to the survey said their experiences of abuse had them thinking about leaving their office, suggesting the toxic environment also threatens to scare off mayors who are interested in long careers and higher political office.

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