The release of Rutgers University professor Mona Lena Krook’s new book, “Violence against Women in Politics,” comes at a ripe moment.
Over the past four years the president of the United States delighted his supporters by using the phrase “nasty women” for women who did not conform to his views, launched the chant “lock her up,” first against his opponent Hillary Clinton and then others, encouraged Michigan citizens to rise up against its female governor while she was instituting measures to control a deadly pandemic, and cryptically told the Proud Boys — an FBI-labeled “extremist group with white nationalist ties” as well as reported misogynist leanings — to “stand by.”
Yet despite Trump’s labeling her as a “monster,” “communist,” and “angry,” Kamala Harris was elected as the first female vice president of the United States.
The above dichotomy reflects a reality that while some female politicians are making strides at the ballot box others are stopped before they get on the campaign trail by what Krook may refer to as “normalized injustices.”
Focusing mainly on violence against female politicians and leaving violence against male politicians to others, Krook’s book is a heavily researched international overview of the situation of women attempting to become leaders in a democracy.
To do so she divides the book into four sections: “The first traces how the concept of violence against women in politics emerged on the global stage through the collective theorizing of many different actors.
“The second develops a theoretical framework for understanding what violence against women in politics is — and, in particular, how it is distinct from other forms of violence experienced in the political sphere.
“The third identifies five forms of violence against women in politics. Four of these — physical, psychological, sexual, and economic — are widely recognized among both activist and research communities. The book also theorizes a fifth type, semiotic violence, which emerged inductively in the course of the research.
“(And) the fourth and final section issues a call to action, outlining what activists and scholars might do to tackle and raise awareness of violence against women in politics.”
Krook’s main premise is that the use of force to achieve political ends is a threat to democracy and “is illegitimate.”
And since the opposite of force is reason and choice, the book frequently focuses on the use of language (something obviously attractive to a writer) and how it affects the idea of politics and the persona of a politician.
“Metaphors to describe politics often invoke images of war. For some theorists, engaging in war and politics involves identical skill sets. As Machiavelli writes in his influential political treatise, ‘The Prince’: “A prince . . . must have no other object or thought, nor acquire skill in anything, except war, its organization, and its discipline. The art of war is all that is required of a ruler.’”
With the addition of politics as sport metaphor, Krook points to the idea that “both sets of metaphors are destructive in that they imply that negotiation and compromise are forbidden, requiring that opponents fight it out until the bitter end.”
While women politicians have been the target of physical violence, Krook says it is “generally less common than other acts” and says studies “suggest that psychological violence is the most widespread form of violence against women in politics.”
The reason is “psychological violence inflicts trauma on individuals’ mental state or emotional well-being. It seeks to disempower targets by degrading, demoralizing, or shaming them — often through efforts to instill fear, cause stress, or harm their credibility. Its varied forms comprise, but are not limited to, death threats, rape threats, intimidation, threats against family members, verbal abuse, bullying, rumor campaigns, illegal interrogation, surveillance, social ostracism, and blackmail.”
The above is also used on others who participate in the democratic process. Journalists, who Krook says “are not often viewed as political actors” nevertheless “play a key role in political life, and violence against them also poses crucial threats to both democracy and human rights.”
She also reports that “female journalists also often face sexualized hate speech online. Analyzing 70 million comments left on the Guardian website since 2006, editors discovered that, among the 10 most abused writers, eight were women and two were black men — despite the fact that the vast majority of its opinion writers were white men. The findings confirmed ‘what female journalists have long suspected: that articles written by women attract more abuse and dismissive trolling than those written by men, regardless of what the article is about.’”
As noted earlier, Krook includes the theorized idea of semiotic violence and writes, “Semiotics is the study of signs. Drawing on the philosophy of language and philosophy of art and aesthetics, semiotic analysis ‘reads’ words and images as ‘texts’ to gain insight into the interpretive frameworks filtering and guiding human perceptions of the world.”
She then continues, “As a general concept, semiotic violence entails drawing on and reinforcing inequalities by using words and images — and in some cases, body language — to injure, discipline, and subjugate members of marginalized groups. In the current context, it refers specifically to the use of semiotic resources to deny women’s political rights. A defining feature of semiotic violence is its public signification: while perpetrated against individuals, it seeks to send a message that the person’s group is unworthy, aiming to affect how the public at large views members of that group. Such acts may gain further resonance by tapping semiotic resources for denigrating other groups, creating intersectional manifestations of violence.”
Krook continues at length about the concept frequently demonstrated by Donald Trump and makes a strong argument. However, because of the subjective nature of interpretation, the idea best serves as a guide.
It also is in keeping with a book designed to “provide initial concepts and frameworks” for better understanding this problem for women in politics and “to begin, rather than end, a broader global conversation on violence against women in politics.
Violence Against Women in Politics, Mona Lena Krook, $27.95, 336 Pages, Oxford University Press.