An unprecedented number of American women may be running for public office this year, but that hasn’t necessarily prevented harassment and smear tactics aimed at their campaigns from emerging. For Rachel Hundley, a city council member in the small city of Sonoma, Calif., that became all too clear earlier this month.

Hundley received an anonymous email on Aug. 13 that accused the 35-year-old of being “immoral and unethical.” It then suggested she drop out of her race for reelection in November, with a link to a now-defunct website called “Rachel Hundley Exposed.”

The site was indicative of the type of smears aimed at women candidates specifically; it attacked Hundley for her stance on divisive issues while mayor of Sonoma and contained photographs mined from Hundley’s social media accounts, including some showing her in a bra and underwear and working at Burning Man, the famed art and music festival. The site, supposedly created by an organization called “Sonoma Citizens for Peace and Cooperation,” called Hundley a “cruel and demented person,” who was “a cancer” that needed to be cut from the community.

The attacks were clearly designed to tarnish her reputation and derail her campaign. But as Hundley’s experience illustrates, in the #MeToo era, when a woman is willing to confront the attacker, it can actually spark outrage, inspire voter support and raise the candidate’s profile.

Women-specific smears

Most politicians deal with trolls and criticism, and in 2018, the platforms and methods for harassment are vast. A 2016 Inter-Parliamentary Union survey of women in legislatures around the world found that more than 40 percent reported wide distribution of “extremely humiliating or sexually charged images.”

Tactics such as sexualizing candidates are usually specific to women, Jennifer Lawless, a professor at the University of Virginia who has spent years studying the intersection of gender and politics, said. For men, evidence of sexual prowess is often seen as a positive, a boon to their masculinity. But with women, it’s different, she said.

“Whether it’s slut-shaming or trying to humiliate a woman because of something she did in her past that’s linked to sexuality, that kind of activity still happens more to women than men,” Lawless said.

“Tapping into a woman’s sexuality is seen as a way to undermine her credibility and undercut her experience.”

‘I cannot be shamed into quitting’

Over the years, public responses to these types of attacks on candidates have shifted. Research shows women who push back and call out the behavior are often rewarded. But the threat of such harassment can still deter women from running.

“I think it’s important to call out these kinds of examples and make sure female candidates or women in the political arena know they don’t have to suck it up and remain silent,” Lawless said.

Hundley conferred with advisers and close friends — many of whom suggested that she ignore the threats. Instead, Hundley decided to address it head-on with a YouTube video, which had nearly 14,000 views as of Monday afternoon. In it, she called out the “anonymous coward” for attempting to slut-shame her into silence, and she put the threats against her in the broader context of the harassment and hypocrisy women in politics face. The purpose of the website was to make her afraid, she said. But she refused to be intimidated.

“I am here today to tell my faceless bullies that I cannot be shamed into quitting because I am not ashamed,” Hundley said in the video, eyes fixed on the camera.

When Hundley made her response video, she wasn’t following a precedent — she was just angry and wanted to model “radical transparency.” Still, the nerves were intense. On the morning of Aug. 20, before the video was posted, Hundley was so anxious that she vomited.

“I wasn’t sure if this was going to blow up in my face,” Hundley said.

But the outpouring Hundley has felt from her community and beyond has been entirely positive. She’s even had a wave of volunteers to help with her campaign, with people offering to put up yard signs and host fundraisers. Hundley said the help is coming from people who are determined to keep attacks like the one against her from being successful, and Hundley said she’s proud to be part of the change propelling women forward in politics.

“I believe that talking about this happening removes all of the power that it has,” Hundley said. “Once that video was released into the Internet ether, I felt like I’d done what I needed to.”

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