(First published in the February 7, 2019 issue of City Pages)
“Gynocracy” and “whiney bitches” are just some of the insults local women lawmakers have to endure
For Tori Jennings, one final comment tipped her over the edge.
As one of seven female members on the Stevens Point City Council — a rare government board with women in the majority — she receives a lot of misogynistic comments, as do the other women council members.
Yes, serving in government on any level means you’ll get negative comments. It goes with the territory. One citizen regularly spoke at Stevens Point meetings to tell everyone what a bunch of idiots they were.
But there’s something remarkably different and nasty about many comments directed toward women in politics, even locally. The Facebook comment that tipped Jennings over the edge was from a citizen saying about Jennings, “She looks like a good lay, tho.”
In response, Jennings sent out a powerful message to Stevens Point via her Facebook page: “The non-stop vitriol leveled at women on City Council, and especially me, has risen to a level that one wonders how and why so many city officials turn a blind eye… I find it troubling that in our small community where so many people know each other, it feels like very little has changed.”
As Jennings pointed out in that post January 13, the vitriol toward women tends to be personal attacks with a misogynistic twist: Female Stevens Point alderwomen have been called “old hags,” “whiney bitches,” “broads,” and a “gynocracy.”
By most accounts, there are now more women in elected government seats than ever before in the U.S. Following the November elections, a record 102 women now serve in the U.S. House of Representatives—nearly a quarter of its members. In the Wisconsin legislature, half of the Assembly’s Democrats are women, 18 out of 36. Combined with the nine female Republican representatives, women now make up more than a quarter of that legislative body.
Women became the majority of the Stevens Point City Council, for the first time ever, in 2017. Yet strangely enough, several members of the council confirm that the misogynistic attacks grew worse then.
Interviews with nearly a dozen female lawmakers at both the local and state level, confirm that nearly every woman has encountered this particular, sexist brand of vitriol while running for or serving in office.
Wisconsin Assembly Rep. Katrina Shankland understands that female lawmakers at the state level have been dealing with gender-based attacks for some time. Shankland, of Stevens Point, was elected to the state Assembly in 2012, when she was 24 years old (a double whammy: youth and femaleness).
The traditional approach might be to brush off sex-based insults, but Shankland doesn’t buy that. She’s happy to call out people making misogynist comments toward her. “One of the best ways to handle gender-based comments is to ask the person if they would say that to a 60-year-old man,” Shankland says. “The person looks at me, speechless. They’re so used to getting away with their comments. It puts the burden back on them to explain their behavior.”
Shankland likes to put the comments out in the open — now they have to explain their words to friends and family. “I don’t think it’s OK to call me a socialist slut,” Shankland says. “I will let people know you called me that.”
The last two to three years have gotten worse, Shankland says. She credits President Donald Trump’s documented history of using crude language, particularly toward women, as fueling misogynistic behavior in general.
These types of comments from the public can be overt and crude; the sexist treatment from colleagues inside the statehouse is more subtle. She still gets comments about why she isn’t with her kids (Shankland is not a mother). And that she wouldn’t be able to handle being a lawmaker and having a pet dog, after being elected Assistant Minority Leader. “Excuse me, I’m not allowed to have a dog?” Shankland says. “I was appalled by that comment.” She was even told not to change her hair too frequently.
Shankland is often approached for advice from women candidates, and is happy to help. It can be hard to recruit female candidates for office, Shankland says, because women in office tend to receive more abhorrent insults and be dragged through the mud. It’s a phenomenon even incumbents share amongst themselves. “An elected official will text me and ask ‘Is this normal?’” Shankland says. “‘No, here is what you do,’” and I tell them how to handle it.”
Tori Jennings says the social media insults have “risen to a level that one wonders how and why so many city officials turn a blind eye.”
While the numbers offemale candidates had been steadily climbing since the 1970s, the 2018 mid-term elections saw an unprecedented spike.
According to data from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, the numbers of women candidates exploded in this past election cycle. Women running for statehouses rose from about 2,500 in 2010 to 3,365 in 2018. U.S. Senate candidates rose from 14 to 22 in that time period; U.S. House candidates from 135 to 235; and governor candidates from 10 to 16.
That trend could be seen locally as well. The Marathon County Board, for example, has ten women supervisors (of 38). Of those, five were newly elected in 2016.
Five of the 11 Wausau City Council members are women, and in Stevens Point women became a majority in 2017 — seven of 11 members. Both councils have women council presidents: Meleesa Johnson in Stevens Point, and Lisa Rasmussen in Wausau.
Yet, “We’re still at a point where women are treated differently,” says Katie Rosenberg, first elected to the Marathon County Board of Supervisors in 2016. “You have this whole thing, maybe I’m coming across as too bossy, or shrill, or a know-it-all. Or, not knowledgeable at all.”
One particular incident came when Rosenberg says she was speaking to a fellow board member on the phone who told her not to get “too excited” about a particular issue they were discussing. “Don’t tell me not to be excited,” Rosenberg says. “I am very excited and that’s how I want to be known.”
Rosenberg says she’s had a pretty good experience overall, and knew what she was getting into as her father, Jim Rosenberg, had been a politician in Wausau for years, as a city council and county board member. The nastiest comments came when the county board was considering a new set of ordinances around metallic mining. “The interactions I had got to almost feel personal,” Rosenberg says. “You have to be ready for that, I guess.”
Not everyone City Pages spoke to was willing to go on the record, and sometimes with good reason. One local elected official, a young woman who declined to be named, says she is sexually harassed regularly by a male colleague, who made comments about her appearance and regularly harassed her on social media. She says she admonished him for his behavior.
Shankland: “One of the best ways to handle gender-based comments is to ask the person if they would say that to a 60-year-old man”
Mary McComb has been on the Stevens Point City Council since 2015—two years before women made up the majority.
But since 2017, the council has seen a slew of misogynist comments, far worse than before, McComb says.
McComb, who recently retired from running the Sugar Doll chocolate and paper shop in downtown, says Jennings receives the worst of the comments, both because she is serious and outspoken, and attractive. (Jennings is 57 but looks young for her age, and was the recipient of that “good lay” comment.) McComb says people can be especially critical of an attractive woman, pointing out U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, recently elected as a 29-year-old to Congress, as an example. “Many people have been just horrible to her,” McComb says. “They’re not dealing with the issues, they’re personal.”
That’s the main problem, McComb says. The sexist comments take away from the issues and hamper an effort to have a real conversation about important policies. “It pokes at your sense of self-efficacy, to be constantly hated.”
Heidi Oberstadt, 33, was first appointed to the Stevens Point City Council when Mike Wiza was elected mayor, taking the council seat he left to become mayor. She was re-elected in 2016 and then again last year.
She’d been involved with Trout Unlimited and its lobbying efforts, so she had experience with politics. She enjoyed the connections with neighbors, and learning the ins and outs of a city government.
But the criticisms grew as the city council became majority female. “I feel like I’ve had to work harder to prove myself,” Oberstadt says. “I found that no matter what I said it was never well-received.”
That echoed her experience with Trout Unlimited, where legislators and others weren’t used to a young female angler who knew what she was talking about on conservation issues.
“Instead of listening to my concerns, they would try to re-educate me on something I already knew about,” Oberstadt says. “They didn’t believe me and thought they knew more than me.” Oberstadt says she had to develop strategies to get her point across to men who might be quick to dub her “snotty” or “unprofessional.”
If society is ever going to tamp down sex-based vitriol, it also must consider how to handle more logistical and even basic fairness issues as more women enter politics.
As a Stevens Point alderwoman, Oberstadt experienced some of the worst public comments after her mother died in January 2018, and Oberstadt missed February’s meetings (she returned in March). She received a volley of voicemails telling her to resign. Others emailed the mayor asking him to force her to step down (which is not within a mayor’s power). She couldn’t help but feel she was being held to a much stricter set of standards than a man would be.
Then she gave birth to her son in July—Stevens Point’s first “alder baby,” or baby born to a sitting city council member—and feared another round of criticisms for some missed meetings. Again, would the public be so unforgiving if a man just went through a major medical event?
Two weeks after her child was born, she was at a parks meeting with newborn in tow. Then in December, Oberstadt attended a closed session meeting that went long. Her husband had their son in the next room in case the baby needed to be breastfed. The baby started to cry, so Oberstadt asked to step out for a few minutes. She wasn’t allowed to, and was informed that if she left the meeting, she couldn’t return. (It should be noted that local officials often step out of long closed meetings to take a break).
Oberstadt resigned this month, making her effective date in April 2019, to complete half the term. Her experience was the first time the council had a woman in its ranks give birth during a term in office, and she says the city needs better policies and basic awareness, “if we want to continue to have young women and mothers in politics.”
For Jennings, whose post inspired this story, the misogyny is worse than when she served as a firefighter in Colorado in the 1980s and 90s. People who would say, well, it’s politics, you need thick skin need to understand that, “It’s not just calling people a bunch of dummies,” Jennings says. “There is a whole history to this language… The attacks are very much ad hominem; I’m attacked personally. I don’t know that anyone has said anything about my policies explicitly.”