While the number of women in elected office in the U.S. has increased steadily in recent decades, they still represent a minority of officeholders. And, perhaps not incidentally, when they do run for or hold public office, women often are subjected to intense harassment, from online comments to death threats.
Olivia Laramie chose to research that topic for her capstone project at the UMass Amherst School of Public Policy, where she received her master’s in public policy and administration in May. Now her paper, “The Impact of Discriminatory Harassment on Gender Representation in Elected Office in the United States,” has been published in the RAIS Journal for Social Science.
“Discriminatory harassment can be a major deterrent for women running for elected office or serving in elected office,” Laramie wrote in her paper. “This deterrent contributes to the lack of female representation in the United States’ local, state and federal government bodies.”
In her research, Laramie interviewed female politicians about their personal experiences with harassment. Their experiences, she found, included “death threats, threats of sexual assault, stalking, vandalism of their homes and cars, home and car break-ins, racism, sexual
harassment, anti-Semitism and online harassment.”
“My interviews were so incredibly interesting and impactful,” Laramie says. “One of the most striking occurrences was how many women were nervous to speak with me because they didn’t want to face backlash from their male colleagues. I heard a lot of stories that I was actually asked not to share and thus are not in my paper. I heard stories about many well-known male politicians that could not be made public.”
Among the politicians Laramie interviewed was Christine Hallquist, the Democratic nominee in the 2018 Vermont gubernatorial race and the first transgender major-party nominee for governor in the U.S. Hallquist told Laramie about the ongoing harassment she experienced, including numerous death threats. “I was struck by something she told me,” Laramie says. “She said that she expected a majority of the harassment she faced would be due to her identity as a transgender woman but she actually correlated most of her harassment to her identity as a woman.”
Laramie’s paper offers a number of policy recommendations to address the problem, including a requirement that social media platforms develop detailed harassment policies for all politicians, with a clause that makes female politicians in particular a protected class. “Each politician should be required to sign a code of conduct when they are elected into office that discusses the correct way to interact with fellow politicians online and in the office,” she says. In addition, Laramie suggests that the next reauthorization of the federal Violence Against Women Act include a clause that deems female politicians a protected class.
This topic has special resonance for Laramie, whose career goals include working on refugee and human rights issues and someday running for public office. “One of my main fears when I consider running for office in the future is the harassment that I know I will inevitably face,” she says. “I wanted to talk to women who had run for office or had served in office to calm my own fears and to provide myself with more information about what could be done to solve this problem that is affecting representation in the U.S.”