The political glass ceiling has been cracked, but the shards can cut

Women candidates in southwestern Minnesota faced frequent sexism, harassment

December 9, 2020 6:00 am

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, pictured here speaking during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to examine issues involving race and policing practices in the aftermath of the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd and the civil unrest that followed, on Capitol Hill on June 16, 2020 in Washington, DC. Photo by Jonathan Ernst-Pool/Getty Images.

After Kamala Harris became vice president-elect, a popular meme circulated on social media showing her wearing a pair of sneakers. The meme bore the caption: “Wear your shoes, ladies, there is glass everywhere.

She may have broken a glass ceiling, but now shards of glass litter the ground. And stepping on glass hurts. It cuts our feet, leaving them gashed and bloody. Anyone who’s been paying attention to politics has noticed that women have become much more politically active since 2016. Women throughout the country have broken glass ceilings, or if the ceilings are not broken, they are now cracked and damaged.

This certainly holds true in Minnesota. Our state has two female U.S. senators, a female state auditor and a female lieutenant governor. All of these women are Democrats, but GOP women have also made significant gains. To cite one example,  U.S. Rep.-elect Michelle Fischbach defeated 30-year incumbent Collin Peterson in Minnesota’s 7th Congressional District, making her the first Republican woman elected to Congress from Greater Minnesota. She becomes the fourth female representing Minnesota in the U.S. House of Representatives, bringing our state’s Congressional delegation to an even 4-4 balance of men and women.

Rural southwest Minnesota is part of this trend. Women have taken leadership roles in local political party units and grassroots organizations. The past two election cycles have seen women running for public office of every sort: school boards, city councils, county commissioners and the Legislature. In the area around Lyon County — where I serve as the chair of the local DFL unit — three Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party women ran for state office this year: Mindy Kimmel and Doria Drost for state House, and Shawna Marshall for state Senate. 

All candidates for public office face obstacles. Learning the issues and putting yourself and your beliefs out in the open for public scrutiny. Meeting people on the campaign trail — most of them strangers, many of them skeptical and even cynical, especially when it comes to Democrats in rural Minnesota these days. And, of course, the less enjoyable but still necessary task of raising money.  

But besides these usual obstacles, women candidates face additional ones just by virtue of the fact that they are women. The overt sexism and outright sexual harassment they encounter is beyond disheartening — it can be crushing. Running for office takes courage and fortitude for a person of any gender identity. When you hear what Kimmel, Drost, and Marshall experienced on the campaign trail, it is amazing these three women continued their campaigns at all.

A popular meme following the election.

There was the usual sexist evaluation of these women, who were judged not on their intelligence or experience, but on their physical appearance. When Kimmel first ran for the Minnesota Legislature in 2018, a supporter told her she had a chance to win “because you’re young and beautiful.” On Drost’s public campaign Facebook page, one man commented, “U are a very beautiful woman.” Another man posted, “You have a great smile. Are you seeing anyone?”

Unwanted sexual advances were not uncommon. Another man wrote on Drost’s campaign Facebook page: “I liked your profile picture text me if you want to do something sometime, let me know if you do, ok.” Shawna Marshall received a text message from a man that read, “Sho me ur boobs,” followed by a sexist epithet. 

For whatever Minnesotans tell themselves about how kind and polite we are, these women candidates received the usual sexist names and some others besides.

Sometimes it went beyond name-calling and unwanted sexual advances to outright sexual harassment. In 2018, as Kimmel walked away from the home of a young man in Belview in Redwood County, her attention was called back to the house when the man yelled out her name. He had exposed himself. When she continued to walk away, he followed her on his bicycle, calling out her name and telling her he would vote for her because she was beautiful.

This is not just a Minnesota problem. Women in politics nationally experience similar treatment. In 2017, Democrat Kim Weaver withdrew her candidacy for Iowa’s 4th Congressional District due to the sexist abuse and death threats she received. The Illinois Anti-Harassment, Equality, and Access Panel (AHEA) was formed in 2018 to address the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in Illinois politics after so many women came forward to report their experiences. Minnesota Reformer reporter Ricardo Lopez reported on the experience of female mayors, who are twice as likely as men to face online threats of violence and abuse.

And, of course, we all know how President Donald Trump treats women in general — bragging of sexually assaulting them in the infamous Access Hollywood tape — and female political opponents in particular. Referring to Hillary Clinton as “the devil” back in 2016. Calling Kamala Harris “nasty” and a “monster.” Refusing to even say Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s name, derogatorily referencing her as “that woman.”

Female politicians continue to face unacceptable levels of sexism and harassment. Even when they shatter the glass ceiling, the shards remain. And those shards leave women wounded and bloody. Shattered ceilings, even cracked ceilings, come at a price.

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