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Female mayors, mayors of color report higher rates of political violence, study finds

Female mayors and mayors of color reported higher rates of political violence directed at them both online and in person compared to their male and non-Hispanic white peers in 2021, according to a study released Wednesday. 

The survey found widespread reports of psychological violence directed at mayors across the board. Nearly 95 percent of participants reported experiencing psychological violence, defined as an act likely to harm the psychological well-being of individuals by inducing fear or harm to their sense of self-worth or well-being, at least once.

But in addition to reporting higher levels of harassment, female mayors and mayors of color were also more likely to report certain types of attacks and threats. Threats against female mayors were more likely to target their gender and be sexual in nature, the report found, while mayors of color were more likely to be criticized based on their race.

The report was conducted by academics at Oklahoma State University and funded by the Center for American Women in Politics. The report also had support from the Mayors Innovation Project and Equity Agenda. 

Types of psychological violence respondents were asked about included “disrespectful content” about them on social media, disrespect at public meetings and violent threats to themselves or someone in their family. 

Sixty-five percent of non-Hispanic white female mayors said they experience at least one type of psychological violence monthly. Sixty-three percent of men of color, 57 percent of women of color and 55 percent of non-Hispanic white men said the same. 

The report also found that 24.2 percent of mayors reported at least one threat and 15.8 percent reported suffering physical violence.

Mayors of color and non-Hispanic white women reported experiencing at least one type of physical violence at higher rates than non-Hispanic white men, although the differences were not statistically significant, according to researchers. 

Twenty-one percent of men of color and 20 percent of women of color reported experiencing at least one type of physical violence, compared to nearly 19 percent of non-Hispanic white women and nearly 14 percent of non-Hispanic white men, based on the study. 

Researchers reached out to mayors of cities with populations of 10,000 and above between Sept. 27 and Nov. 21. For each type of violence, mayors were asked to use a scale to indicate how frequently they encountered acts of violence, and they were asked to self-identify on questions about race and gender. 

The report is based on 971 responses researchers received from the 3,151 mayors contacted. 

Among the mayors, women of color reported being harassed at least monthly at the highest rate, at 45.7 percent, while roughly 40 percent of non-Hispanic white women reported the same, compared with about 36 percent of men of color and 23.4 percent of non-Hispanic white men. 

Women of color also reported the highest rates of threats among the mayors. More than 8 percent of women of color reported being threatened monthly, as did 6.3 percent of men of color, 1.5 percent of non-Hispanic white women and less than 1 percent of non-Hispanic white men. 

“As a national network for mayors, this is very concerning – both because it’s a threat to mayors’ personal safety and because of the potential to increase the already striking gender and racial parity gap present,” Katya Spear, managing director of the Mayors Innovation Project, said in a statement. “Mayors should not have to weigh their decision to run for office—or stay in office—based on these kinds of abhorrent threats.”

The types of violence and threats reported by the mayors also differed among the demographic groups, the report found. 

For example, among the mayors, about 18 percent of women of color and men of color said they were criticized monthly about their race. On a weekly basis, 7 percent of women of color and about 4 percent of men of color said they were criticized based on their race. 

In comparison, 4.7 percent of non-Hispanic white female mayors and 4 percent of non-Hispanic white male mayors said they were criticized monthly based on their race. 

Twenty percent of non-Hispanic white female mayors said they were criticized because of their gender at least monthly, as did 14.3 percent of women of color. 

Nearly 4 percent of men of color and about 2 percent of non-Hispanic white male mayors said they were criticized monthly based on their gender. 

Female mayors across the board also reported the highest rates of sexualized violence. Seventeen percent of women of color and 10 percent of non-Hispanic white female mayors said they experience some form of sexualized violence at least monthly. Two percent of men of color and less than 1 percent of non-Hispanic white male mayors reported the same. 

One survey respondent said that the threats and harassment from email, phone and “primarily” social media are “constant and wearing.” The respondent said posts including “sexual slurs” occur with “some regularity” and that their cell number and photos of their husband have been published. 

Online threats, particularly misogynistic attacks on women, have raised concerns among advocates that such issues will cause more women to be unwilling to run for office at all levels. Nearly 70 percent of mayors who participated in the report said they knew someone who chose not to run for office due to threats or harassment, and 32.2 percent said they thought about leaving office themselves.

“Local officials, including mayors, election administrators, and school board members are experiencing political violence,” Heidi Gerbracht, founder of Equity Agenda, said in a statement. “They are also the heart of American democracy, serving from within their communities, which also puts them in harm’s way. We have to address local political violence, so that it doesn’t deter women and people of color from running for these roles.”

Tags Equity Agenda Mayors Innovation Project online threats political violence psychological violence

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