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“I fear this has broken me”: how worried should we be about abuse pushing women out of politics?

Nineteen female MPs have stepped down ahead of December’s general election. Online abuse has been cited as a major factor in women quitting politics – so how concerned should we be? Stylist investigates.

Earlier this summer, Teresa Pearce popped into a supermarket just outside Erith and Thamesmead, her constituency on the London-Kent border. It was late, and the store was quiet. As Pearce paid for her groceries, she chatted with the woman behind the till about the lottery – a normal, everyday conversation.

Yet when Pearce left the shop and got into her car, she felt strangely emotional. It was, she says, the first time a member of the public “had spoken to me kindly, in an ordinary way, for months”. She remembers thinking: “This must be what it’s like to be normal.”

Pearce, who was first elected as a Labour MP in 2010, is one of 19 female MPs who have stood down ahead of the snap general election on 12 December. In leaving, she is joined by five other women from her own party, as well as six Conservatives, four independent MPs, two from the Independent Group for Change and one Liberal Democrat. 

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“We now have a situation where very talented politicians – some of whom have served in cabinet – are resigning before they have been able to fulfil their potential,” Mandu Reid, leader of the Women’s Equality Party, tells Stylist. “This election looks likely to reduce the numbers of female MPs still further.”

Nicky Morgan
Online abuse: Nicky Morgan is one female MP who has stood down citing the problem

Of course, it’s not just women MPs who have stepped down ahead of the election. More than 50 male MPs have also chosen not to stand again, and some prominent figures have argued that concerns about a female exodus from politics are overblown. Tory chairman James Cleverly recently retweeted statistics showing that 32% of MPs standing down were female – a percentage that tallied with women’s overall representation in the Commons. At the time of writing, the percentage of women among those leaving parliament stood at 25%. 

But others remain troubled. Totnes MP Sarah Wollaston, who defected from the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats in August and is currently campaigning to retain her seat, has observed that the female MPs leaving the Conservative Party are younger and have spent less time in the Commons than the men who are standing down.

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She’s not wrong: analysis by Stylist shows that the average male Tory MP who has left parliament ahead of this election is five years older and had served six years longer in the Commons than his average female counterpart.

Earlier this month, Wollaston told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Cleverly “should be looking very carefully at why women are stepping down at a younger age and having served for a far shorter time in [parliament]”. 

Heidi Allen
Heidi Allen: the former Lib Dem MP received significant online abuse for her support of the EU

The problem of abuse

So why are women leaving politics? In recent weeks, one explanation has become more prominent than any other: abuse. At least four of the 19 women standing down from parliament have explicitly cited a culture of intensifying intimidation and harassment – both on and offline – as one of the reasons they no longer feel able to continue in politics.

In her letter announcing her decision to stand down, culture secretary Nicky Morgan said she would no longer put up with “the clear impact on my family” and the “abuse” that her job entailed. Morgan’s former Conservative colleague Heidi Allen, who joined the Lib Dems in October, wrote in her final letter to her South Cambridgeshire constituents that she could no longer tolerate “the nastiness and intimidation that has become commonplace”. (Earlier this year, two men were jailed in separate cases for making threatening phone calls and sending death threats via email to MPs including Morgan and Allen.) 

Caroline Spelman, the former Conservative MP for Meriden, has also said that the “intensity of abuse arising out of Brexit” was a major factor in her decision to step down.

Caroline Spelman
Former Tory MP Caroline Spelman has also stood down, citing abuse related to Brexit

Leave-supporting MPs are not immune to harassment by the public: the Tory Brexiteer Andrea Jenkyns has endured awful online abuse and threatening graffiti at her constituency office. But it is notable that Morgan, Allen and Spelman all campaigned to remain in the European Union – as did ex-Labour MP Teresa Pearce. 

“When I got elected in 2010 I wanted to be a different sort of MP: very open, approachable and accessible,” Pearce, whose constituency voted to leave, tells Stylist. “But when people write to you telling you you’re a traitor, saying you don’t care about your voters… To be misjudged is a terrible thing, and it does something to you.” 

Pearce says she suffered from “terrible anxiety” and panic attacks as a result of the abuse she faced, and began taking a personal alarm to her surgeries (Spelman has also said she wore a panic button when out in public). “One of the problems is that there are people who hate MPs, and there are a lot of people who hate women, so women MPs get it worse,” Pearce says. “And there are – in my constituency and in other places – people who don’t like women with voices. So they try and silence you.”

The abuse, Pearce says, gave her a “siege mentality. You can’t operate openly or spontaneously… You can’t do the job as well as you want, and you can’t live your life in any sort of meaningful way.” She is still worried about the long-term effects the threats and harassment may have had on her psyche.

“I remember saying to my husband, ‘I know there will be life after [politics], but I actually fear that I’m sort of broken.’ I fear I’ll never be able to be alright again, because my brain seems to have gone into some sort of mode where everything’s terrifying.” Pearce’s family, she says, are relieved that she has decided not to stand again. 

Teresa Peace, ex Labour MP for Erith and Thamesmead
Abuse in politics: ex-Labour MP Teresa Pearce says it made her position untenable

Nobody is obligated to stay in a position where they face abuse. And there is no doubt that the threats and harassment faced by women politicians is a major problem – and one that needs tackling urgently. Recent analysis by Susan Watson of the University of York found that the UK’s female MPs were collectively sent over 5,000 abusive tweets – an “overwhelming majority” of which were explicitly misogynistic – over an 11-day period earlier this year. (The women MPs who received the most Twitter abuse during that period were Anna Soubry, Stella Creasy and Theresa May, who was prime minister at the time). When Watson included retweets in her study, her sample rose to over a million abusive messages. 

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During the run-up to the 2017 UK general election, meanwhile, research by Amnesty International showed that “women in politics [faced] an extraordinary amount of abuse on social media” – with women of colour particularly targeted. In the six weeks before the election, shadow home secretary Diane Abbott infamously received over 45% of all abusive tweets aimed at women MPs. And this abuse has an impact: one 2018 study showed that it can distract female politicians from their real work and cause them to be wary about sharing personal information – thus reducing their chances of winning over the electorate. 

Diane Abbott
Online abuse: Diane Abbott receives a disproportionate amount of Twitter harassment aimed at female MPs, research has shown

“I think it’s right that women are bravely talking about what’s making them stand down,” says Seyi Akiwowo, who founded the anti-online abuse platform Glitch after experiencing racist harassment on Twitter during her time as a Labour councillor. Political culture, Akiwowo notes, has long told women “they should be grateful to be MPs and grateful to be able to serve, and that complaining or criticising or revealing any kind of personal experience” is in some way unseemly. By speaking candidly about online abuse, she says, women politicians are rejecting implicit pressure to put up and shut up.

As Pearce observed, one of the principal goals of online abuse itself is to shut women up. “It has a silencing effect,” says Akiwowo. “Surveys and evaluations [from around the world] show that women politicians are leaving because of online violence and harassment. It might not just be what they’ve personally received – the fear of being a victim can also be paralysing and lead to self-censorship.”

Akiwowo focuses on tackling online abuse because it is, in her words, “low-hanging fruit”. From implementing a code of conduct around language used by politicians to providing digital self-care training for political candidates, she says there are many “quick wins” that tech companies, governments and businesses could introduce “to make the online experience of women MPs a little bit better”.

But Akiwowo also recognises that online abuse is just one of many factors that may make a woman want to leave politics. “There could be other things. Like [a lack of] childcare; like MPs wanting to be an advocate for their local community but getting drowned out by the polarisation that’s happening across our online and offline spheres and in our political parties. That can be exhausting.” 

The bigger picture

This recognition of the complexities around online abuse – the acknowledgement that while it is a vitally important issue, there are also other reasons that a woman may no longer want to work in politics – seems to have been lost in recent weeks. It would be remarkably easy to accept the narrative that abuse is actively driving women from politics in their droves, yet a look at the data shows this is not the case. More than 90% of women MPs elected during the last parliamentary session are standing again, and of the 19 women stepping down ahead of the next election, one is Ann Clywyd – an 82-year-old MP who had been in the Commons for 35 years.

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Others, such as Louise Ellman and Margot James, are leaving after having legitimate political disagreements with their parties on a local and national level. Many more, including Roberta Blackman-Woods and Seema Kennedy, have said they simply want to pursue other interests and spend more time with their families. This seems a perfectly reasonable explanation if we accept that MPs are human beings, and especially when we consider that the average woman MP leaving parliament is 60 and has been in the Commons for 16 years. (The average male MP stepping down ahead of the next election is also 60, and had served for 18 years – a difference, certainly, but not quite the dramatic gulf that has been suggested.)

Margot James
General election: ex-Tory MP Margot James declined to stand again, citing rifts with her local Conservative association

Eva Barboni is the founder of Atalanta, a social enterprise dedicated to advancing women’s leadership that has conducted in-depth research on the effects of online abuse. Reporting on this topic can be “a little bit of a double-edged sword,” says Barboni. 

“The underlying issue of abuse needs to be addressed, whether or not it’s always cited by women as a reason for leaving politics.” But, she adds, some media coverage of online abuse and its effect on women MPs “can have a counterproductive effect”, inadvertently reinforcing the sexist view that “women just can’t hack it” in politics and potentially deterring other women from standing for election. 

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Gloria De Piero, who announced that she would be standing down as the Labour MP for Ashfield in July, is keen to emphasise that she was “certainly not” pushed out of politics by abuse. Rather, it was just time to move on: “When I first stood as a candidate I thought this was probably something I could commit my life to for about 10 years. And I’m at nine and a half.”

De Piero agrees with Akiwowo’s observation that burnout can influence some politicians’ decision to leave. Being an MP means being constantly “pulled in a lot of different directions,” she says. “Your weekends and your evenings are really not your own. And of course I want to be a good daughter to my quite elderly mum and dad; I want to be a good wife; I want to be a good friend. I wouldn’t have not done this job for the entire world, but I just didn’t feel I could continue at the level required to do it properly [for another five-year term].”

Gloria De Piero
Online abuse: Gloria De Piero says it was not a factor in her decision to stand down as a Labour MP

When we talk about women MPs and why they might be leaving politics, it’s essential that we look at the whole picture – acknowledging that, as with any group of people, there is no one sole answer or motivation. We should recognise the threat that online abuse poses to our democracy, and demand that tech companies and the authorities start taking steps to prevent it. We must also respect absolutely the right of any MP to decide that abuse is not a price they’re willing to pay to represent their community.

But we can do those things without suggesting – inaccurately – that a disproportionate number of women politicians are being pushed out by trolls. Because actually, the situation is more hopeful than mainstream media coverage might suggest. Hundreds of women are currently standing for election across the UK – hundreds of women determined to participate in our democracy, despite the risks.

“Whatever the downsides [to being a woman in politics], the upsides outweigh them,” says De Piero. “There is no better way of learning about Britain and about helping people. It’s unique, and it’s the honour of my life to have done it.”

And despite concerns about a loss of women from political life, De Piero is optimistic about the future. “I may be going, but the next Labour candidate in my constituency is a fantastic working class woman.” If the goal of misogynistic trolls is to push women out of public life, they’ve not won yet. 

Images: Getty Images 

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