A 2016 Inter-Parliamentary Union study on sexism, harassment, and violence against women parliamentarians concluded that there is “a troubling prevalence of gender-based violence against women parliamentarians throughout the world” (IPU, 2016).
In the last five years, there has been an increase in cases of female politicians speaking out about the abuse that they receive from on- and offline sources. Some instances, such as the speech made in parliament by former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, have garnered international attention, including millions of views on YouTube.
Online misogyny and threats directed towards British MP Diane Abbott reached a new high in the days leading up to the Brexit referendum. For Abbott, virulent racism was attached to the misogyny that she faced: “I have had rape threats, death threats, and am referred to routinely as a bitch and/or nigger, and am sent horrible images on Twitter. Death threats include an EDL affiliated account with the tag ‘burn Diane Abbott’” (Mason, 2017).
Abbott claims that this type of abuse discourages young women from pursuing a life in politics, which is in line with the findings of the Inter-Parliamentary Union study which found that gender-based “violence impedes the ability of women parliamentarians to do their work freely and securely and has a dissuading effect on women’s political engagement in general” (IPU, 2016).
The present study uses corpus-assisted critical discourse analysis [CACDA] (Thomas, 2015) to uncover linguistic patterns in online conversations pertaining to Canadian female politicians.
Conversations that covered topics pertaining to Canadian women in politics were sampled using combinations of the following search terms: Canada, (women OR woman OR female), politic*, “Kathleen Wynne”, “Rachel Notley”, hate.
All conversations contained within the data set were created in 2018. The data set used for the present analysis contained 41 conversation threads written predominantly in English, which stemmed from primarily the r/Canada, r/CanadaPolitics, r/Ontario, and r/Alberta subreddits.
An in-depth analysis of the corpora revealed:
- gender-based hate targeting Canadian females in politics is prevalent and transcends political affiliation
- public commentary acknowledges that online gender-based hate target genders differently, both in terms of scope and scale
- online misogyny often intersects with other identity markers such as sexual orientation
Analysis of these salient terms revealed several meaningful linguistic patterns. Of these, the following three terms held associations that reveal particularly interesting discursive patterns: woman [women], look, hate.
Within the present data, analysis of the key word “woman [women]” revealed frequent and strong associations with terms such as: threat, rape, man.
Analysis of the key word “look” revealed frequent and strong associations with the term ‘like’. The word pairing “looks like” was used frequently within the conversation to discuss the physical appearance of female politicians in predominantly negative ways. Unlike the comments that probed the motives behind disparities in gender-based hate, within the comments made within the conversations analyzed as part of this research brief, hateful comments that referenced physical appearance were largely left unchallenged.
Analysis of the key word “hate” revealed frequent and strong associations with terms such as: Wynne, her. Overwhelmingly, when discussing Kathleen Wynne, comments referenced her appearance and her sexual orientation. The amount that Wynne’s sexual orientation factors into prejudice against her becomes more evident when contrasted with the types of comments made in reference to Rachel Notley. No comments in the current data set referenced Notley’s sexual orientation. Instead, the majority of comments provided a relatively measured analysis of her merits as a Premier.
The online conversations analyzed as part of this research brief highlight that gender-based hate targeting Canadian females in politics is both prevalent and transcends political affiliation. Former Ontario Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne, former B.C. Conservative Premier Christy Clark, and current Alberta N.D.P. Premier Rachel Notley were all frequent targets of hateful commentary within the data analyzed in the present study.
Where disparities in the nature of online misogyny exist are in the ways that it intersects with other identity markers, such as sexual orientation. To label these attacks as attacks against women alone would not paint a full picture of the problem. Attacks found on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit are intersectional in nature. That is to say that these attacks target interconnected social categories like gender race, class, and sexuality, simultaneously.
Notably, there were markedly more negative comments directed at Wynne, an openly homosexual political figure, than at Notley or Clark. Moreover, the majority of the comments made against Wynne failed to reference her politics; instead comments targeted both her appearance and her sexual orientation.
Mason, R. (2017, February 14). Dianne Abbott: Misogyny and abuse are putting women off politics. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/feb/14/diane-abbott-misogyny-and-abuse-are-putting-women-off-politics
Inter-Parliamentary Union. (2016). Sexism, harassment and violence against women parliamentarians. http://archive.ipu.org/pdf/publications/issuesbrief-e.pdf