News / Edmonton

'With female politicians, you're either stupid or a bitch'

Politicians have been mocked for as long as they've existed, but some women in Alberta's arena say the vitriol has caught them by surprise.

Cristina Stasia and Sandra Jansen are two people who are speaking out about the abuse and vitriol that gets aimed at women who participate in Alberta politics.

Kevin Tuong/For Metro; contributed

Cristina Stasia and Sandra Jansen are two people who are speaking out about the abuse and vitriol that gets aimed at women who participate in Alberta politics.

Cristina Stasia sometimes grabs her iPhone between brushing her teeth and going to bed, for one last look.

“I’ll just say to my partner, ‘Oh, just let me check one more time for rape and death threats before we go to bed,'” said Stasia, who ran (and lost) in the last election for the Alberta Party in Edmonton-Gold Bar. 

Joking about the hate that personally targets her online helps Stasia move past it, but she also realizes she’s not the only one affected. “That’s hard for him, as someone who loves me,” she said, of her partner

Citizens have mocked and criticized politicians since politicians have existed. But Stasia and many other women politicians argue there’s a special kind of dangerous vitriol being unleashed against them in Alberta.

Last week, less than a month after entering the race to lead the Progressive Conservative party, former journalist and current Calgary-North West MLA Sandra Jansen announced she was dropping out. Jansen said in a letter to supporters that the “filth” filling her social media feed, insults scrawled on her nomination forms and jeers from delegates in the hallways all amounted to abuse that left her “shaken.”

“I have never before experienced harassment like that,” she wrote.

And the attacks come from all angles. In July, New Democrat MLA Marie Renaud spoke publicly about having an abortion. Response? “I wish you had the strength to have your child,” Sheila Gunn Reid, with Rebel Media, tweeted.  

Over the next three days, Metro will share stories of what female politicians face to advance the conversation.

But first, there are those who say politics is a battlefield — those, like Wildrose MLA Derek Fildebrandt, who took to Twitter recently to dismiss people who call-out abuse against women or other groups as “hypersensitive” and unable to take criticism.

Jansen, in an interview Metro conducted before she ended her campaign, drew a line between political criticism and misogyny. “A lot of the comments are things they’d level at you whether you were male or female — I don’t regard all the comments as gender-related,” she said. “But certainly there is an element of the public that is doing that.”

Indeed, that element sees Jansen employ a staff member to spend hours from their day deleting social media attacks against her — like one recent post, which said her only job in the former PC government, led by Jim Prentice, was to “give Prentice head.”

“If people don’t think there’s a misogynistic undertone — and I say ‘undertone’ gently — to those statements, then they’re really not based in reality,” Jansen said. “With female politicians you’re either ‘stupid’ or a ‘bitch’ or you’re both.”

Many say the lightning rod for the abuse against women politicians in Alberta has been Premier Rachel Notley.

In June, an organizer for the Big Country Oilmen’s Association golf tournament created a target using Notley’s face for golfers to aim their shots at. More recently, Wildrose Leader Brian Jean made what he described as a bad joke about it being “against the law to beat Rachel Notley.”

In May 2015, Notley led the biggest political upset in Alberta in half a century, defeating the 40-plus-year PC party dynasty with a slate of candidates that leaned heavily on female talent. Of the 53 NDP candidates elected, 25 are women, or just less than half.

A golf tournament for the Big Country Oilmen's Association drew plenty of criticism for using Premier Rachel Notley's face for a target.

File

A golf tournament for the Big Country Oilmen's Association drew plenty of criticism for using Premier Rachel Notley's face for a target.

“We had a Conservative government for over 40 years, so I have no doubt that people struggled with the change, but that is no excuse for gender-based abuse,” said Renaud, the NDP MLA for St. Albert.

“I think what bothers me the most is I find myself almost getting used to it,” Renaud said.

Before she was elected she thought she was prepared, but she says the force of the vitriol overwhelmed her.

“I had one person in particular who was sending me messages about where I was and what I was wearing, so I was pretty sure whoever it was, was watching [me],” she said. “So that’s really unnerving.”

Some politicians have fought back.

Last June, Calgary-Bow MLA Deborah Drever read a member’s statement in the legislature about the “nasty” messages she’s received, after her surprise victory in 2015. Some threatened her life.

Her colleagues gave her a thunderous applause, but the threats haven’t stopped, nor has the damage.

“I don’t know anyone who could get a death threat and not be affected,” Drever said.

Drever said if there’s a positive element, it’s that the issue has united women across political lines.

Indeed, rallies held last week supporting Jansen attracted women of every political stripe, including Wildrose MLA Leela Aheer, representative of Chestermere-Rocky View, who attended the one held in Calgary.

“I want to make sure that we’re supporting the people who are supporting us, and we’re demanding that the people who say these things that are hurtful or otherwise inappropriate, apologize,” said Aheer.

Renaud pushes back against a common refrain that those in the public eye should just grow a thicker skin — one espoused recently by a conservative Edmonton columnist.

“When I get advice from men to say, ‘Well, just delete your account or don’t say anything,’ that’s not an acceptable decision for me,” Renaud said. “I refuse to be silent, and that’s not a good example for our future leaders or our girls.

“You get the same excuses — ‘It was just a joke,’ or, ‘You should get used to it,’ ‘It’s part of the job.’ But no, it’s not part of the job and it’s not acceptable and it’s certainly not a joke.”

TOMORROW: It’s 2016: So why is abuse against women in politics in Alberta accelerating?

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