Staff of the newly elected representative of Ottawa Centre, Catherine McKenna, arrived at her campaign office Thursday morning to find a misogynistic slur written on the front window. The word used — “cunt”— was spray-painted in red across her photo, obscuring her face from view.
Although the exact origins of the word are fuzzy, more recently and in a North American context, the etymology of the word “cunt” carries a misogynist meaning: it is commonly used as, and understood to be, a vulgar reference to women’s genitalia that is meant to sexualize and demean them. When used as a noun, its purpose is to denigrate women who are thought to be mean, disagreeable and generally unpleasant. It’s a nasty word reserved for “nasty” women.
It is also a go-to slur for online attackers, taking pride-of-place on many misogynists’ vocabulary lists. It was frequently used to attack Hillary Clinton during her 2016 presidential bid. If you are a woman and have publicly asserted an opinion (either online or in real life), there is a decent chance that you may have been called this word, although presumably not in as public a manner as Catherine McKenna’s misogynistic attacker(s) did to her this past week.
What has McKenna done to warrant such an attack against her?
‘A warning signal sent to all women’
The first strike against her is that she sought re-election. The decision to run again must have been a difficult one for McKenna and her family, made as it was in the context of a persistent campaign of online hate directed at her since she became a cabinet minister in 2015. In spite of the efforts of her faceless, anonymous online attackers, McKenna then proceeded to beat out 10 rivals to win back her riding in this election. She will likely be invited to sit on Justin Trudeau’s second gender-balanced cabinet — if not as the next minister of the environment and climate change, then on some other portfolio.
The word used to demean McKenna this week was both personal and political. Personal, in that it hit closer to home than the online vitriol directed at her in the past. The perpetrator(s) was in her riding (or came there), found her office, and then wrote a vile, misogynistic word over her image — or rather, over the image of her face — erasing it from public view. This action is more personalized than the long-running online intimidation campaign that has thus far failed to force her to “self-select” out of politics.
The attack was also political in its very public display of a generalized hatred towards women. This is because while sexism and threats of violence are often directed at a lone woman politician, they are also intended to telegraph a broader message that women have no place in politics.
Although men politicians are threatened and harassed, women and racialized minority politicians tend to bear the brunt of such behaviours, precisely because they challenge the patriarchal belief that politics is for white men only. Women are also attacked in a more sexualized manner than men.
Misogynistic words and labels are used to shame and silence women who are, or who aspire to be, in public life. The vandalism of McKenna’s office this week was a warning signal sent to all women, any woman, with the smarts, skills and ambition to step forward into public life: don’t do it; otherwise, you’ll be next.
Online misogynistic, racist and homophobic attacks have real-life consequences. People who are on the receiving end of such attacks can experience a loss of sleep, appetite, focus and productivity. Such behaviour can affect one’s personal relationships, sense of well-being and safety. Online attacks can also escalate into real-life harassment and violence, including doxing.
Indeed, the campaign office incident is just the latest real-life misogynistic episode for McKenna, when a month before she announced that she had to hire security after a driver rolled down his window and yelled, “Fuck you, Climate Barbie” while she was out with her children.
The second strike against McKenna is her record advocating for climate issues as former Minister of Environment and Climate Change. Women who speak out on climate change issues represent a double threat to those who cling to misogynist views. Not only do such women defy patriarchal expectations of leadership, they also espouse policies that pick at the delicate threads of heterosexual masculinity, which are closely entwined with industrialized capitalism and climate denialism.
Recall that just days before McKenna’s office was vandalized, an Edmonton mural of global climate change activist Greta Thunberg was twice defaced.
A familiar pattern
The third strike against McKenna is that she speaks publicly and frankly about the sexist vitriol she faces, both on her Twitter account and in press conferences. Her outspokenness and candour about her fears and the implications of such attacks for women are often received with kindness and support. But they are also met with an extra dose of sexist vitriol against her.
This is a familiar pattern. Other women and racialized minority politicians who have spoken out about sexism and/or racism in politics have also experienced this, such as former MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes.
An unspoken rule in Canadian politics seems to be that women are not supposed to speak about their experiences of sexism in politics, just as racialized minorities are not supposed to speak about their experiences of racism. To do either of these things would be a betrayal of both party loyalty and of the myth that Canada is an inclusive society where anybody can succeed at being politician — one only needs to throw one’s multicultural hat into the ring to get started.
In the wake of the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements, it is possible that this unspoken rule may be relaxing (and, if it is, this would be a very good thing), but it remains in place enough that when women do speak out about their experiences of sexism publicly, the attacks against them amplify. And for every woman who does speak out publicly, there are many who do not for their own personal, legitimate reasons.
Unfortunately, the 2019 election leaves little cause for celebration. Incidents of sexist and racist slurs on lawn signs were reported. Canada’s first racialized minority leader of a main political party was told to remove his turban in order to look more “like a Canadian.” In the aftermath of the sitting prime minister’s black and brownface incidents, as in the past as they are, a broader public discussion about systemic racism and misogyny in Canadian society did not take place during the campaign and has yet to happen.
With only 29 per cent women elected into the House of Commons this week, there is much work to do.
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