Women mayors twice as likely than men to face online abuse, threats of violence

Former Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, Duluth Mayor Emily Larson and Rochester Mayor Kim Norton spoke about the gendered criticism they face as executives.

Former Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, Duluth Mayor Emily Larson and Rochester Mayor Kim Norton described the often sexist, gendered criticism they have received as women in executive, elected office.

Former Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, the first woman in the city’s history to hold the post in the era of social media, recalls clearly the shift in criticism she received when she went from city councilwoman to city executive. 

“The number of times I was told I should get raped was extraordinary,” she said in a recent interview. “The experience of running for and serving in legislative office is different than the experience of running and serving in executive office as a woman.”

Hodges, who in 2017 revealed she had survived childhood sexual abuse, was the second woman to serve as Minneapolis mayor. Sharon Sayles Belton was the first, serving from 1994 to 2001, two years before the creation of MySpace and five years before the founding of Twitter. 

A study published last summer in State and Local Government Review, an academic journal, found that U.S. mayors uniformly face higher rates of abuse and violence than the general workforce. Women, however, are more than twice as likely to receive such vitriol and — unlike their male counterparts — it’s often sexualized, according to the study. 

The data provide a window into the experience of a growing number of women running for executive positions like mayor, governor and president. Even as more and more women are elected to office and executive positions in particular, online abuse is a continued source of concern, making it tougher to recruit women to run for office compared with men. 

Throughout the country, women mayors, like Heidi Harmon from San Luis Obispo, Calif., have begun shining a light on the treatment they experience. Harmon earlier this month published her experience on Facebook, denouncing the “daily cruelty, rudeness, threats, sexism, stalking, body shaming, rude/threatening comments towards my children.” 

Hodges said that the publication of the study and learning about Harmon’s story — detailed in a Los Angeles Times column help female mayors feel like they are not alone in their experiences. “It’s nice to have data that backs up our reality,” she said. Since leaving office in 2018 she has had numerous conversations with current and former women mayors who have shared similar stories, she said. 

The Minnesota Reformer spoke with three current and former female mayors throughout Minnesota, including Duluth Mayor Emily Larson and Rochester Mayor Kim Norton. (Former Woodbury Mayor Mary Guiliani Stephens, who ran for the GOP gubernatorial endorsement in the 2018 race, said that in eight years as mayor, she didn’t experience such pointed harassment.)

Hodges, 50, served during a particularly tumultuous time in the city’s history. Jamar Clark was shot and killed by Minneapolis police, touching off weeks of protest and an occupation of Minneapolis police’s Fourth Precinct station. Protestors went as far as appearing at her home. 

She also served during the first year of President Donald Trump’s presidency, during which he issued a travel ban from many Muslim-majority countries and cut the number of refugees the country admitted, leading the city to proclaim Minneapolis open to refugees. She also declared that Minneapolis would remain a so-called sanctuary city, meaning local police would not cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain undocumented immigrants. The action opened her up to a fresh wave of attacks from anti-immigrant critics.

Larson, who Duluth voters recently re-elected to a second term, said that the criticism she sometimes faces as the city’s executive carries a gendered edge, even on such mundane topics like the city’s snow removal. An apology for the city’s response to a massive snow storm in December she posted to Facebook garnered more than 1,000 comments, largely critical. Some called for her resignation, others told her to look to her male counterpart in Superior, Wis. and follow that mayor’s lead in how to clear snow. 

“I can say with great clarity that the edge and vitriol I receive on a similar topic as a male colleague, it has an edge, there is no question,” she said. 

Larson, who had previously served on the Duluth City Council, said she sometimes faces people in meetings who try to undermine her by addressing the man sitting next to her “instead of talking directly to me as mayor and decision-maker.” 

She added: “I’ve been direct with people and saying very clearly to them, ‘I understand you may not agree with me or believe me, but you’re speaking to me as though I don’t believe myself or as if I don’t understand my job, so why don’t you reschedule this meeting for when you want to meet with the mayor and come prepared for that discussion.’ ”

Norton, who just finished her first year as mayor of Rochester, said her experience has largely been incident free. She said that she faced more sexist attacks when she served in the Minnesota House, on emotionally charged issues at the Legislature like gun legislation

“The sexual nature of the comments were just horrific, from my perspective as a woman carrying that legislation,” Norton recalled, adding that she doesn’t believe the criticism aimed at male legislators sponsoring similar legislation carried the same sexualized or gendered tinge.

Norton believes one reason her time as mayor has seen less gendered criticism is because the Rochester mayoralty is nonpartisan. And, in addition to representing the Rochester area in the Minnesota House, she also previously served on the school board.

Meggie Wittorf, executive director of Women Winning, the Minnesota advocacy group that supports women who are running for elected office and support abortion rights, said the heightened nastiness aimed at mayors or other women in executive offices has been found to be rooted in some people’s lack of familiarity with female executives.

“Executive office holders in many ways have the sole decision-making authority,” Wittorf said. “When we think of authority figures, it’s very easy to fall into our own biases: What have I seen as a president, what have I seen as governor?”

Wittorf said she’s unsurprised to hear about the varying experiences described by Hodges, Larson and Norton. 

“Women are not a monolith,” she said.

But she’s hopeful that the growing number of women in leadership roles will change the minds of voters who can see different styles of leadership emerge — and also encourage more women to run for office.  

Hodges, who is currently living in D.C. after accepting a fellowship at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, said she has since taken up the work of advising other women throughout the country who are interested in running for mayor.

“I wanted to give meaning to my experience by being of service to other women mayors,” she said. 

And while Hodges has taken breaks from social media, she still tweets regularly, including cute animal videos. But she has also begun voicing her thoughts about her time as Minneapolis mayor, including sharing a link to a Washington Post article about the double standard female candidates face when employing humor. 

“Everyone who has expressed that they like my Twitter since I left office, but maybe if I had been more like this while I was in office you would have liked me more *then* and etc., etc. 1) you didn’t pay enough attention and 2) please read this article,” Hodges wrote

*A previous version of this story misstated how long Hodges was mayor during Trump’s administration. She served during Trump’s first year in office.

Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.