This is a guest blog post by Marina Banister, former chair of the City of Edmonton Youth Council.
When Sandra Jansen read the comments she had received in the legislature last month, she was broadly applauded for bringing attention to a problem of sexist and misogynistic culture that is still very prevalent in our government, whether it be at the federal, provincial, municipal, or student level. However, part of the reason why Sandra Jansen’s words were powerful was because she took it upon herself to take a stand. It wasn’t a news anchor asking her to reiterate the vile comments, it was her choosing to disclose the harassment she received. She took control of her own narrative. It was her choice.
As former chair of the City of Edmonton Youth Council, I’m frequently called upon by the media to provide a “youth context” to political stories. So when media sources called me to comment on the implications that Sandra Jansen’s comments had for young women seeking a political career, I talked about how governments have a long way to go to being inclusive to women and gender minorities, how this is a call to action, and why it is important we continue to move forward on this issue. I also spoke briefly about my personal experience facing harassment.
As you may know, two years ago, I was the face of a motion to recommend the City adopt vegan catering. Because of that motion, I received a torrent of online abuse.
When prompted, I spoke about why I believe that harassment happened, what it says about society, and what it means both for me and for other young women moving forward. However, in every interview where I said I have faced online harassment, more often than not the follow up question was, “But what did people say to you? What sort of threats did you get?”
I try to speak in generalities, commenting on the sexist and violent nature of the messages, without giving the specifics. I don’t feel those words need to be repeated. For some reporters, though, that is seldom enough. I get hounded for quotes to make the headlines.
I am tired of repeating the disgusting messages that were sent to me, but I am even more tired of people asking.
If you really want to know what was said, you can Google it. You don’t need my soundbite for the intro. You don’t need my quote for the headline.
To me, it seems like media and the public pay attention to the harassment women in politics face only if they can report the shocking details on the exact words that were said - for the sake of shock value, and extra clicks.
It shouldn’t matter what people said to me. It shouldn’t matter what people said to Sandra Jansen. It should matter that it was said to make us feel unsafe, unwanted, and unsure of our role in public discourse as women. That’s what needs to change.
What Sandra Jansen did was brave, but it wasn’t unique. Plenty of women, including myself, deal with sexism in their career. Many female politicians have spoken against gendered attacks they have received with little news coverage. I’m sure many more will speak to it in the future.
I choose to talk about my story to inspire people not to be complacent, to make sure that we know our daughters, sisters, mothers, and friends still deserve for the status quo to continue inching forward. I want people to know that it is possible to move forward. In the past two years, I have successfully become the Chair of the City of Edmonton Youth Council, President of the Political Science Undergraduate Association, a University of Alberta Senator, and the Vice-President Academic of the University of Alberta Students’ Union. But instead of talking about these other positive accomplishments, reporters ask me to reflect on what happened to me in the summer of 2015. It is concerning to me that my story is only newsworthy if I repeat and rehash what was sent to me, and that my testimony is only believed if I share every salacious detail.
My experience could have easily been traumatic. I persevered because I have a sound network of friends and family who support me. I was also 20 and didn’t entirely understand the significance of what was happening. However, not everyone has a support system, and not everyone wants to work in a sector where women are told that receiving sexist attacks “come with the territory” and to just “have a thick skin”. If I had been completely traumatized by what had happened to me, is it moving the ball forward that I am continually asked to rehash that time? I don’t think so.
I’m often asked if what happened two years ago dissuades me from a future in politics. The answer is always no, that it makes me want to work harder for change. If anything deters me it’s the the idea of surviving harassment becoming what I am known for as I navigate my career. I dread making a bid for office, whether that’s five years from now or 15, and people still bringing up something that happened when I was 20. The past is important, and helps shape how I want to move forward, but my past experience should not overshadow the work I strive to do now in making governance more inclusive.
We all need to come together, as media, citizens, and public officials to stop fetishizing the harassment women in politics face for shock value and headlines. We need to care not because of the threat of the individual words but because threats against women are a threat to us all.
We need to motivate and encourage other women in our lives to run for politics, to back them up when they are attacked for nothing more than their gender, sexuality, and appearance. We need to condemn the people sending those unacceptable threats and comments, as well as the people who only care to reiterate the hate instead of focusing on the reasons behind them. What Sandra Jansen did was brave, but it wasn’t unique. Plenty of women, including myself, deal with sexism in their career. Many female politicians have spoken against gendered attacks they have received with little news coverage. I’m sure many more will speak to it in the future.
Let’s come together in an authentic way to support those women who choose to put themselves out there as legislatures, policy creators, and decision makers. Let’s stop asking them to relive the comments that were sent to them, as if the only thing that matters in a women’s political career is the threats a man has sent her way. Let’s support her if she wants to discuss the sexism she faces but not at the expense of discussing her ideas on other topics.
What happened does not define my past. It does not deter me from a future in public service, and I hope it also doesn’t deter you from getting involved, speaking your mind and sharing your truth. That’s what we need to hear.