Will Conservative Women Flourish in the Trump Era?

Donald Trump owes his presidency to women. Many political observers had assumed that Trump’s boorish behavior would alienate women at the polls and, while exit polls showed that Trump won just 42% of them to Clinton’s 54%, Trump secured a majority of the votes of white women in the 2016 election. One of the strongest contingents in this bloc comprised outspoken, conservative women leaders who honed their political skills in the Tea Party—a group that I profile in my book Tea Party Women.

U.S. right-wing movements are nothing new. What made the Tea Party distinctive was the extent to which its initial leadership came from women.

For both men and women, my research finds that conservative ideology, being an Evangelical Christian, and opposition to Barack Obama are all statistically linked to identifying as part of the Tea Party—factors that, undoubtedly, are common among many Republicans. Yet, I argue that women emerged as leaders in the Tea Party, rather than in the GOP, in part because opportunities to get involved in mainstream Republican Party politics were limited or unappealing.  Some Tea Party women I spoke with encountered “good ‘ol boy” networks in local party politics, while others confronted a political establishment that they believed was ineffectual and too willing to compromise on authentic conservative values.

In this last way, many Tea Party women were natural allies with Donald Trump, whose disruptive candidacy in the GOP primaries was based partially on uprooting the Republican Party status quo.  Moreover, Trump’s nationalistic themes, which included harsh stands against undocumented immigrants, also appealed to many conservative women, who were willing to overlook his misogynistic rhetoric. Although support for Trump among Tea Party activists was mixed during the primaries—many initially endorsed Texas Senator Ted Cruz—once the campaign moved into the general election, the goal of defeating Hillary Clinton ensured that Tea Party support was firmly behind Trump’s candidacy.

With Trump in the White House and both houses of Congress under control of the Republican Party, are conservative women now poised to become leaders within the GOP?  Can right-wing women convert their electoral influence into recognizable policy gains?

In answering these questions, it is important to delineate between descriptive representation—meaning simply that more women have a seat at the political table—and substantive representation, through which, regardless of the gender of political elites, women’s policy interests are addressed.

The Trump administration is failing in the first: descriptive representation. Unlike either the Clinton or Obama administrations, both of which prioritized diversity in their cabinets, Trump’s selection of four women to his cabinet is closer to the number of women George W. Bush nominated in his first term. None of them are in Trump’s “inner cabinet”—the most prestigious positions heading up the Judiciary, State, Treasury, and Defense departments.  Whether Trump is primed to nominate more women is an open question, but as of mid-March, just 27 percent of the openings in his new administration were filled by women.

Two women—Kellyanne Conway and “First Daughter” Ivanka Trump—serve in high-profile advisory positions within the White House. Conway has studiously avoided the promotion of policies specifically geared to women’s interests, famously quipping that “all issues are women’s issues,” whereas Ivanka Trump has made working women a major theme of her time in the White House, announcing a joint task force with the Canadian government to promote women entrepreneurs and advocating for federally mandated paid parental leave (to this point: Ivanka Trump has had difficulty in securing congressional sponsors for such a bill, and her father’s silence on the measure appears to doom its prospects).

If paid leave for parents is typically a Democratic policy, limiting access to abortion is a “women’s issue” policy long-championed by social conservatives.

In this respect, Trump’s selection of Charmaine Yoest, who previously led the anti-abortion organization Americans United for Life, as Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at Housing and Human Services (HHS) and Teresa Manning, a former lobbyist with the National Right to Life Committee, as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Population Affairs at HHS, will likely find favor with most Republican women. My analysis in Tea Party Women shows that a robust two-thirds of Republican and Tea Party women believe abortion should not be legal in nearly any situation.

Trump’s Education Department is also signaling a desire to change how Title IX rules—the federal civil rights laws that prohibit sex discrimination in public education—are interpreted, including how they are applied to sexual violence on campus. Previously, the Obama administration urged college campuses to lower the threshold of evidence under which alleged perpetrators of campus rape could be held responsible.  More recently, the department’s acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Candice Jackson, faced backlash for her remarks that most college sexual assault accusations are the result of drunken encounters and bad break-ups.  She later apologized for her choice of words, but not for the sentiment: she is among a group of conservative activists who believe that the Obama administration’s Title IX guidelines deny due process to (mostly) men accused of assault and over-hype the presence of rape culture on college campuses.

In Congress, Republicans are committed to defunding Planned Parenthood and repealing the Affordable Care Act—moves championed by conservative women’s organizations such as Concerned Women for America and the Independent Women’s Forum.

My research in Tea Party Women finds that many Tea Party women activists strongly oppose the Affordable Care Act because they believe it represents an overreach of federal power that could potentially usurp their families’ medical choices.

In terms of women’s substantive representation, then, the Trump Administration is doing well in the eyes of conservative women. In terms of descriptive representation, however, it is unlikely that any changes holding gender dimensions will be led by a new cadre of women appointees in the bureaucracy or by an influx of women into Congress. In fact, Republican women’s representation in Congress—and in state legislatures—has actually declined over the past decade, while the share of Democratic women has increased.

Moreover, Tea Party Women finds that just one in four American women identify themselves as Republicans; far fewer—about 5 percent as of 2016—consider themselves part of the Tea Party.  So, the pool of women on the right from which to draw new leaders is not nearly as big as it is on the left.  Nor is a commitment to gender diversity a priority of the Republican Party.  Indeed, PRRI found last October in a national poll that only 37 percent of Republicans—including just 42 percent of Republican women—believe “the country would be better off” with more women holding public office.  (By contrast, 77 percent of Democrats agreed with this sentiment.)

So, while conservative women played an instrumental role as movers and shakers in the Tea Party, they appear less likely to translate this leadership into roles within the Trump administration or among Republicans in Congress.

The policies that Republicans are hoping to pass will no doubt please many of these conservative women, but are unlikely to be met with widespread support among the majority of American women. Given this confluence and the diversity of women as a political force in the United States, substantive political representation may be well out of reach for many American women under the Trump Administration.

–- Melissa Deckman, Louis L. Goldstein Professor of Public Affairs and Chair of the Political Science Department, Washington College

— Photo by Susan Adams

Aging in the Eyes of Others: Black Girls Aren’t Given A Chance to Be Girls, with Painful Consequences

How does a 19 year old, 5 foot 2 inch, 120-pound girl get mistaken for a 6-foot tall 170-pound bald adult male?  Since when do police require a 15 year old girl’s mother and father to prove that their daughter is allowed to use a student Metrocard on the subway? The answer may lie in the findings of a new Georgetown Law study, which exposes that adults view Black girls as older, more adult-like, and less innocent.

On a daily basis Black girls experience the world differently than their peers. Data show that from the schoolyard to the classroom, to the streets and into the juvenile justice system, adults treat Black girls differently than their white peers. Black girls are vulnerable not only to stereotypes, biases, and perceptions based on their race, but as importantly, based on their gender.

Recognizing the significant impact that adult perceptions can have on children, researchers at the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality set out to examine for the first time whether adults view Black girls as possessing qualities that render them more like adults—and less innocent—than their white peers.

The study surveyed 325 adults from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds and educational levels across the United States. Participants completed a nine-item questionnaire. Respondents were not informed of the survey’s purpose, but instead were asked to complete only a questionnaire about their beliefs about children’s development in the twenty-first century. Each participant was randomly assigned either a questionnaire that asked about the respondent’s perception of Black girls, or a questionnaire that asked the same questions about the respondent’s perception of white girls. Even though the online questionnaire responses were self-reports, the respondents were unaware that their responses about black or white girls would be compared with the other race, thus lowering the risk of respondents hiding their own biases and skewing the data.

As outlined in the report, Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood, researchers found that adults view Black girls as more adult than their white peers at almost all stages of childhood, beginning at the age of 5, peaking during the ages of 10 to 14, and continuing during the ages of 15 to 19.

Girlhood Interrupted specifically reveals that adults perceive:

  • Black girls to be older than white girls of the same age.
  • Black girls to need less nurturing and protection than white girls.
  • Black girls to need less support or comforting than white girls.
  • Black girls to be more independent than white girls.
  • Black girls know more about adult topics, including sex, than white girls.

Across the four age brackets examined, the most significant differences in adult perceptions were found with respect to girls in mid-childhood (ages 5-9) and early adolescence (10-14), with differences continuing to a lesser degree in the 15 to 19-year-old group.  Thus, adults appear to place distinct views and expectations on Black girls that characterize them as developmentally older than their white peers, especially in mid-childhood and early adolescence—critical periods for healthy identity development.

The significance of the findings lies in the possibility that adultification acts as a contributing cause for the documented harsher treatment that Black girls receive when compared to white girls of the same age.

Simply put, if authorities in public systems view Black girls as less innocent, less needing of protection, and generally more like adults, it seems likely that they might also view Black girls as more culpable for their actions and, on that basis, punish them more harshly despite their status as children.

Thus, adultification may serve as a contributing cause of the disproportionality in school discipline outcomes, harsher treatment by law enforcement, and the differentiated exercise of discretion by officials across the spectrum of the juvenile justice system.

Future research should explore whether the same or similar forms of bias are manifested with respect to other girls of color. New research will help shape the contours of various reforms to policy and practice, inform the development of trainings, and address the far-reaching negative consequences that stereotypes, biases, and perceptions can have on girls and young women.  But as it stands, the findings summarized here indicate a need to improve our training of public officials  – teachers, police officers, even bus drivers — to better recognize the biases they may hold so that Black girls are not singled out unfairly.


Thalia González is an Associate Professor of Politics at Occidental College. Dr. Gonzáles is a nationally recognized expert in the field of school-based restorative justice, and is a Senior Visiting Scholar at the Center on Poverty and Inequality at Georgetown University Law School

— Photo by Russell Mondy

Rethinking “Trans Panic Defense” Policies

The National LGBT Bar Association put forth a resolution in 2013, urging federal, state and local governments to outlaw the “gay panic” and “trans panic” defense strategies, which attempt to reduce sentencing for a person accused of killing an LGBT person. These strategies are used by defense attorneys to argue that their clients’ crimes were not pre-meditated but a reaction to an unwanted sexual advance from an LGBT person or to the “discovery” of a person’s trans status, thus they warrant lighter sentencing. Such tactics have been in play as mitigating factors in sentencing since the 1960s. Today, California is the first state to have banned them; the National LGBT Bar Association is hopeful that other jurisdictions will follow in its footsteps. On May 31, 2017, the Illinois House of Representatives approved a Senate bill banning the defense. The bill is expected to be signed into law by Governor Bruce Rauner. A similar bill was introduced in the District of Columbia in February 2017.

While banning the trans and gay panic defenses seems to move in the direction of justice for LGBT people, legal scholar Cynthia Lee thinks this is the wrong approach.

Lee explains that banning the gay and trans panic defenses does not fundamentally challenge the roots of violence against LGBT people, nor does it eliminate bias in juries. To Lee, these defense strategies ask juries to consider extending empathy to men (predominantly the defendants in these cases) who react violently to alleged unwanted sexual advances from other men or to the discovery the woman they are interested in is transgender, so banning them makes the animating logics behind the crimes invisible. Lee suggests instead that prosecutors should be trained to break down the defense’s arguments, challenging the inherent homophobia and transphobia embedded in them.

Lee’s intervention, then, underscores the role of bias in courtroom decisions and could represent an important step toward denaturalizing violence against LGBT communities. However, this approach must be part of a broader policy initiative that challenges the roots of violence before it occurs.

Murder and violence against LGBT people, especially against trans people, is a growing problem in the United States.

As of July 2, there have been fifteen reported murders of trans people, the majority of them young black trans women, in 2017. From 2013-2016, there were 74 reported killings of trans people (click on map below for more details on each). Of those, 93% were people of color, 90% were women, and 75% were aged 35 or younger. The New York City Anti-Violence Project has described violence against trans women of color in the U.S. as an epidemic—contagious and excessively prevalent. But this violence is not new. It is rooted in the long-standing devaluation of the lives of black, female, gender non-conforming, queer, disabled, and poor people in this country. A policy that bans the trans and gay panic defense strategies does not fundamentally disrupt violence against these communities—it only changes the conversation after an LGBT person has been victimized, and it silences and buries embedded biases.

To combat these legacies of violence, organizations should push for policy changes that address the structural inequalities that influence violence, such as the criminalization of sex work, drugs, and non-violent crime in communities of color. Decriminalizing sex work, for its part, would increase safety for trans sex workers. A 2015 Open Society Foundations report explains, “Fear of arrest and police abuse limits the time and methods that sex workers can use to conduct safety screenings of clients without detection by police.” Because sex work is criminalized and stigmatized, clients and police alike can take advantage of sex workers’ vulnerable status to harass and abuse them. With this change, even trans women who are not sex workers may be protected, because so many are assumed to be sex workers (as Monica Jones was in 2014). Decriminalization of sex work would help proactively rather than reactively value trans lives.

A second cultural shift must seek to lessen the stigma attached to sexual attraction toward trans women.

In June 2015, in the midst of the worst year on record for trans homicides, trans actor and activist Laverne Cox remarked that men who date trans women are “probably more stigmatized than trans women are.” When straight men are encouraged to reject, rather than desire, trans women, their shame can lead to violence. Cultural shifts, of course, require a number of concurrent and coalescing forces—education, purposeful and positive media representation, and institutional condemnation of violence against trans people—but policies can be enacted to move these shifts along. For instance, where the emergence of “bathroom bills” has served to stigmatize trans women in particular (and allow for public debate over the alleged risks their bodies pose), policies that preemptively protect trans bathroom access could reduce some of the stigma against trans women. Alongside multiple other interventions in spheres large and small, we might see an aggregation of acceptance.

While banning the trans and gay panic defense strategies may send a message that violence against these communities is unacceptable, it may also enable homophobic and transphobic biases in jurors to prevail in deliberations.

Arguments for hate crime laws draw upon a similar justification: proponents of the designation “hate crime” allege that these laws send a message that crimes enacted out of discrimination or hatred toward a particular group are not condoned. However, hate crime laws may not reduce violence against marginalized people—there is even evidence that they may increase violence in multiply marginalized communities, such as communities of color that are also queer, trans, immigrants, disabled, and so on. Cynthia Lee’s suggestion for prosecutorial training is a step in the right direction to reduce cultural acceptance of trans homicides, though her criticism of the National LGBT Bar Association’s strategy has not halted jurisdictions from attempting to ban the trans and gay panic defense strategies nor spurred the implementation of anti-LGBT bias trainings for prosecutors. National LGBT civil rights organizations and legislators should be concerned about the rise in trans homicides and critically examine the roots of this violence, enacting policies that proactively improve the lives of trans people and destigmatize desire for trans women. Their very lives depend on it.

— Lars Z. Mackenzie is a PhD candidate in Feminist Studies at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him @larszmac

— Photo by Ted Eytan

Missed Opportunity to Support Retirement Equity

On May 17, 2017, President Trump followed the Senate’s lead, signing a resolution rescinding an Obama administration regulation allowing states and cities to automatically enroll private sector workers without an employer-provided retirement plan in Individual Retirement Accounts (auto-IRAs). These accounts use payroll deductions to create savings that grow tax-free until retirement – with contributions made using payroll deductions. And the administration’s move puts current and proposed state and local programs in jeopardy.

Research suggests that government-run auto-IRA programs could help address significant racial and gender disparities in retirement assets (which, themselves, are due in part to differences in access to employer-provided retirement savings plans), which see married women and all men better positioned, financially, for retirement than single women and people of color.  According to the US Department of Labor, of the 63 million wage and salaried women (age 21 to 64) working in the United States, just 44 percent participated in a retirement plan in 2015.  The 2016 Retirement Confidence Survey by the Employee Benefits Research Institute and Greenwald and Associates shows the roughly 55 million single women in the U.S. are in a far more precarious position than married women – and all men – when it comes to retirement savings.

There are some fairly straightforward explanations for these gaps. First, according to the US Department of Labor, women are more likely to work in part-time jobs that don’t qualify for retirement plans. And working women are more likely than men to interrupt their careers to take care of family members. Therefore, they work fewer years and contribute less toward their retirement, resulting in lower lifetime savings. According to the 2016 Annual Transamerica Retirement Survey, women’s retirement savings have remained flat over the past four years, while retirement savings for men have grown significantly over the same time frame (Figure 1).  Finally, on average, a woman retiring at age 65 can expect to live another 20 years, 2 years longer than a man who retires at 65. That is, women’s longer life expectancy means they have smaller savings that must be spread across more years.

Disparities at the Intersection of Race and Gender

Several studies have documented racial disparities in wealth and retirement savings, as shown in Figure 2. The gender pay gap is even larger for many women of color; and African American women and Latinas are more likely to live in poverty and more likely to care for children without financial support from a spouse, limiting their ability to save for retirement.  Thus women of color face a double disadvantage.

Segregation in low-wage work also effects access to retirement vehicles. African American women and Latinas are more likely to work in the service industry (20% white women, 28% black, 33% Latina) in jobs that, according to Global Policy Solutions, are “generally lower paying, seasonal, part-time and hourly… [and] often offer less in the way of workplace benefits and support.” Indeed, 68% of all workers have retirement plan benefits, compared to just 45% in the service sector. African American and Latino workers are much less likely than White workers to have a retirement account, in large part due to differences in access to a workplace retirement plan (Figure 3). As a result of all these factors, women of color are more likely than white women and all men to rely exclusively on Social Security during retirement (Figure 4).

States Turn to Auto-Enroll Solution

To help alleviate the retirement wealth gap for women, particularly women of color, five states (Illinois, Maryland, Oregon, Connecticut, and California) are in the process of launching a program, and, according to the Pension Rights Center, another 25 states are considering state-run Auto-IRAs. Without further legal clarity following the Senate and the President’s moves to remove explicit federal permission, the permissibility of auto-enroll undertaken by public entities is in question. The states may even be open to lawsuits. As Bloomberg summarizes: “Without the federal government’s blessing, it’s harder to surmise how courts might rule on state auto-IRA programs …the Obama administration eased some doubts by issuing the new regulations, bolstering the plans’ legal authority.” Even if states and cities prevail in court, Bloomberg continues, the lack of federal-level explicit approval will almost certainly discourage others from undertaking Auto-IRA programs.

The Obama-era regulation would have put workers contributing automatically to a retirement account run by the government on par with their private-sector counterparts whose plans have been covered by similar regulations since 2006 (with the passage of the Pension Protection Act, PPA, under President George W. Bush). While the PPA addressed several areas of retirement savings concerns, two of its provisions granted employers the authority to automatically enroll employees in a defined contribution plan (e.g., 401(k) plan) and provided protections for investment options for these funds so long as they met the Qualified Default Investment Alternatives condition (including the now-popular lifecycle funds that automatically balance investment risk based on an individual’s target retirement year).


The Powerful Effect of Defaults

These two provisions of the 2006 PPA came in response to groundbreaking economics research showing the powerful effect of defaults—the outcome when no choice is made—on employee savings behavior. Madrian and Shea (2001) showed that changing the default provision guiding retirement plan participation from “opt-in” to “opt-out” increased participation by 50 percent among new hires. Individuals hired under opt-out rules were also more likely to persist at the default contribution rate (which was 3%) and the investment election (money market fund) as compared to those hired under the opt-in regime. Therefore, pairing automatic enrollment regulation with safe harbors for asset allocation (given that allocations with minimal risk, like money market funds, are unlikely to provide sufficient wealth for retirement) was seen as an important step in efforts to reduce later-life poverty.

Why is automatic enrollment so powerful? Retirement savings decisions are particularly vulnerable to inertia and procrastination. For most workers, retirement is something in the far-off future and has little bearing on financial decisions in the present. Interestingly, though, that long-horizon makes participating and saving early critically important for retirement readiness. Along with their penchant for procrastination, Americans systematically underestimate the power of compound growth (Goda et al. 2015). Consider the following scenario from a study by McKenzie and Liersch (2011):

Imagine that both Alan and Bill just started working and are going to retire in 40 years. Alan deposits $100 every month into his retirement account. Bill waits 20 years to start saving, but then deposits $300 every month into his retirement account. Both accounts earn 5% interest every year, compounded annually. Who has more money at retirement?

For this scenario, Alan would have more savings than Bill at retirement, yet only 36% of respondents thought Alan would have more.


Automatic enrollment likely mitigates the effect of procrastination and misunderstanding of compound growth, two widespread tendencies among Americans.   However, automatic enrollment also has a cost. As mentioned, in the study by Madrian and Shea (2001), workers who participated via automatic enrollment tended to persist at the default contribution rate and asset allocation. But if that default contribution rate is too low, the worker may not save enough for retirement.

An alternative route explored by researchers is financial education; while there is some evidence that financial education affects decisions (Song 2015, Goda et al. 2014), though, it is more expensive to administer than changing default rules.


Regardless, preventing states and cities from capitalizing on the power of automatic enrollment tends to place those workers who are not covered by employer-provided plans (disproportionately women and people of color) at a disadvantage compared to their peers with an employer plan. Opponents of auto-enrollment take issue with government involvement in this area and herald individual choice over mandated savings. Yet research shows that policymakers should focus on asset accumulation, particularly for never-married mothers, who are predominantly from communities of color and face compound barriers to building wealth.  Unfortunately, recent actions by Congress and the Trump administration create additional burdens and uncertainty for state and local governments that are defying Washington and moving ahead with their programs designed to increase economic security in retirement for more American workers – to the disproportionate benefit of women.


Colleen Flaherty Manchester is an associate professor in the Work and Organizations Department at the Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota and Debra Fitzpatrick co-directs the Center on Women, Gender and Public Policy at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs

— Photo by Terry Chapman

Net Neutrality: Too Neutral on Online Abuse

While the Federal Communication Commission in the U.S. debates the elimination of network neutrality (which will widen the “digital divide”), in the U.K., new Crown Prosecution Service guidelines, in effect since October 2016, allow for prosecuting online offenses such as the use of derogatory hashtags, images altered to humiliate people, and “mobbing.” In Germany, the lower house just passed a bill to fine social media that do not remove content that obviously violates national law within 24 hours of its posting, with the German secretary of justice saying that following such laws was a “prerequisite” for freedom of speech online.

In the U.S., abuse cases involving online spaces appear in U.S. news media as regularly as discussions about how law should deal with such abuses.

For instance, in a pioneering lawsuit in California in May 2017 former Playboy model Dani Mathers was convicted of invasion of privacy for posting on social media the nude photo of a woman with a body-shaming comment. Even more recently California’s revenge porn law is being put to the test with reality star Robert Kardashian’s social media posts of sexually explicit photos of his former fiancée. These cases at the state level are still rare but promising starts. Yet, at the federal level a backlash against a similar Ohio law to prosecute online harassment is already underway: a recent lawsuit (filed in the U.S. District Court in Cleveland in May 2017) alleges that free speech is at risk should a prohibition of online harassment be enforced. This prohibition was signed into law in 2016 by Ohio Governor John Kasich (Sub H.B. 151), “expand[ing] the offenses of menacing by stalking and telecommunications harassment and prohibit[ing] a person from knowingly causing another person to believe that the offender will cause physical harm or mental distress to a family or household member of the other person.”

Despite the inclusion of specific language to prevent harm to free speech in many new laws, American critics continue to charge that even abusive online speech online must be considered protected free speech. Their “arguments” overlook the gendered and raced dimensions of online abuse, which disproportionately affect women, especially younger women—dimensions that are more readily understood, it would seem, outside the U.S. In Germany, for example, the German Association of Women Lawyers endorsed the new bill on social media, pointing to women as disproportionately affected by hate speech.

Misogyny toward and abuse of women who speak publicly online remain major problems while major swaths of the American public, social media operators, and law enforcement trivialize and dismiss these attacks and threats as jokes and their regulation as an assault on free speech.

The reluctance to fight such abuse can only be understood in the context of specific gendered histories of geek culture, troll culture, and rhetoric. All three demonstrate how the authority to speak in public has been tied to voices residing in male bodies. This means online spaces re-create and re-enact oppressive, normative social structures. World wide web inventor Tim Berners-Lee’s call to “press for every country to develop a digital bill of rights to advance a free and open web for everyone” remains utopian when gendered, raced hierarchies migrate online and shape intertwined online-offline discourses.

An emerging line of studies demonstrates these dynamics in detail across countries with high internet penetration. For my doctoral dissertation, I interviewed 109 women bloggers in the U.S., U.K., Germany, and Switzerland in 2013 and 2014 about their experiences with blogging and social media. Their ages ranged from 22 to 69 years; they included women who were differently abled, of transgender identity, and had varying sexual orientations and ethnic backgrounds (though the majority were white and straight). The most salient finding was that these bloggers experienced high levels of online harassment: 73.4% (80 of 109 women) reporting an unpleasant encounter due to their blogging. Percentages varied across the countries, but were a majority in each.

Of these 80 bloggers, 69 said they had experienced insulting, sexually charged, or threatening comments, including being called a “Feminazi” or “bitch” or being told that they “just need to be raped/fucked right.”

Twenty-six had endured trolling and/or so-called shit storms (an overwhelming number of insulting or angry online comments to/about a person in a short period of time). Twelve had received rape threats, and eight said they had received death threats. Forty of the bloggers noted that online harassment was accompanied by vandalism at their homes and stalking in their workplaces, plagiarism, doxing (the release of their private information online without consent), and having fraudulent profiles set up on dating websites.

Of the 80 women with abuse experiences nine (one in Switzerland, two each in the U.K. and U.S., and four in Germany) said they went to the police after being seriously threatened online or because a stalker harassed them via phone or in person. Four said police helped to stop three stalkers and took a case of child pornography seriously. Five said police did not help or respond to requests. One 39-year-old white U.S. feminist described a catch-22 when she contacted the FBI’s cybercrimes division, which sent her to local police:

[T]he people who are doing [online abuse] aren’t local.…[S]o the local police are not going to be able to do anything about it. …I contacted the local police chief about it, and he never responded …because the laws haven’t quite caught up to the internetbut …it is not really true that the FBI cares about this thing or takes it seriously.

Ignoring or trivializing threats and harm leveled against women has a long history in law. As Danielle Citron describes in her 2014 book Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, intimate partner violence and workplace harassment have long been downplayed as part of daily life, “understandable” in specific environments, or ultimately the fault of the victims. Now online hate speech and insults are labeled “part of online culture” and something women need to be able to “handle” if they want to engage in the internet.

Cases in the U.S. and U.K. have occasionally allowed for jailing online abusers, but these are exceptional and have not set new precedent. Even in Germany, where the problem seems to be taken more seriously, only 2% percent of cyberstalking cases lead to convictions. Part of this may be owed to the historically blurred line between legally permissible hate speech and speech that incites violence or otherwise violates law (e.g., libel), but the new bill in Germany may show a new, clearer way to deal with different categories of speech. It distinguishes between speech that clearly violates existing law and speech that is ambiguous and needs to be further examined by a newly established independent commission. The latter cases may be fertile ground to point to the need to amend or create laws.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., targets of abuse are largely—and literally—left to their own devices.

They cannot rely on existing or (slowly) developing laws and law enforcement. Social media sites’ frequently changing buttons to ban and report abuse(rs) are an interim solution at best; they depend on the goodwill of private companies that benefit from click rates and even the publicity hostilities create.

Today, the internet is a crucial tool; the U.S. Federal Communications Commission even  declared the internet a public utility in 2015 (though this rule is under attack by the Trump administration). The rule, as it stands, lays the groundwork for regulating fraudulent and abusive internet interactions in the U.S., as, in the long run, the country has not tolerated the abuse of other public utilities. Bills like the one just passed in Germany may serve as examples for how to start a more serious national-level discourse about online communication and about when, how, and why damaging speech should be prohibited. The bill may not be perfect, but such legislation represents a first step for an international conversation on how to balance freedom of speech with protection against speech that violates law in borderless online spaces.

Stine Eckert, Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at Wayne State University. Follow her on Twitter @stineeckert

— Photo by Georgetown Journal of International Affairs


Swept Up in the Crackdown: Immigration Enforcement and Gender-Based Violence

A new wave of “tough on crime” policy is taking shape in the U.S., driven by a presidential administration that tirelessly stirs fears of internal and external threats. The full consequences of this new crackdown will not be known for some time. But decades of research on the effects of aggressive law enforcement provide a strong basis for understanding the challenges that lie ahead. In political rhetoric, the law-breaking individual takes center stage. Calls for stiffer penalties focus on actions within the criminal justice system. In reality, however, the fallout from get-tough law enforcement spirals outward, reaching into all corners of targeted individuals’ lives and creating devastating collateral consequences for the people who surround them. In the case of undocumented immigrant victims of gender-based violence, aggressive law enforcement can counteract vital protections and supports.

Past pushes for “tough on crime” reform have already greatly undermined governmental support for individuals who have experienced criminal justice contact.

Consider how criminal justice growth has diminished the scope of the welfare state.

Under a variety of federal and state laws, for example, felony drug convictions can bar individuals from receiving critical forms of public assistance and justify evictions by government housing authorities. Such formal exclusions tend to be based on individuals’ prior run-ins with the law. But in an era of increasing collaboration between welfare and criminal justice systems, the erosion of social protections is just as likely to be based on forward-looking fears: all too often, the act of seeking help can initiate a disastrous process of criminal prosecution. For undocumented immigrant victims, seeking assistance from courts or police can mean exposure to increasingly pervasive immigration enforcement. An undocumented woman seeking a restraining order from an abusive husband may instead find herself in deportation proceedings.

These developments provide crucial background for understanding the intersectional politics of President Trump’s ongoing efforts to yoke immigration to the specter of criminality.

From the outset of his campaign, candidate Trump sought to demonize Mexican immigrants in criminal terms: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” In rhetoric and policy, a similar equation of the foreign other and criminal threat has animated the Trump administration’s framing of Muslim immigration in terms of the War on Terror. The result has been a notable surge in nationalistic law enforcement and in the criminalization of immigrants. In May 2017, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that it had arrested 41,000 people in the first 100 days of the Trump presidency – a nearly 40% increase over the prior year. High-profile raids across the country have put communities of immigrants in fear.

For women who experience domestic violence, the aggressive ICE campaign has worked along two tracks to weaken state protections and increase risk.

Along one track, fears generated by aggressive immigration enforcement undermine the protections extended by the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (VAWA). The prospect of drawing attention from ICE officials can be terrifying enough to deter even the most desperate claims for protection. And the fears are far from unfounded. In February of this year, ICE authorities detained a woman at an El Paso courthouse immediately after she obtained an order of protection against an abusive ex-boyfriend. In other instances, prosecutors in Texas and Colorado have had to drop domestic violence cases because undocumented witnesses were fearful of appearing in court.

Along a second track, more aggressive immigration enforcement threatens to endanger domestic violence victims through exposure of private information. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), for example, has created a public online database called the Victim Information Notification Exchange (VINE), which promises to “help victims track the immigration custody status of illegal alien perpetrators of crime.” In their zeal to track “aliens,” however, database managers have exposed the identities and locations of undocumented immigrants who are themselves victims of domestic violence. Protection of identifying information can be vital to the safety of those who have escaped abusive partners. Yet in the name of law enforcement, VINE publicizes information about where individuals are being detained and when they will be released. In the process, it supplies abusers with reliable, up-to-date information about their victims’ whereabouts.

To demonstrate the risk, attorneys have used VINE to locate individuals who have filed VAWA self-petitions or applied for a special class of protected immigration processing through a U or T visa.

These application procedures were made available to undocumented victims of crime and trafficking precisely to shield them from deportation proceeding that might place them at further risk. Thus, as it exposes victims’ whereabouts, VINE operates in a way that undercuts federal protections for crime victims. VAWA and the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 specifically protect U, T, and VAWA applicants from such violations of confidentiality. When the latter Act was passed, it represented a breakthrough victory in addressing the ways immigration laws can effectively trap undocumented women in abusive and exploitative relationships. Today, though the Act remains on the books, an aggressive, criminalized approach to immigration is destabilizing and watering down its protections.

Not surprisingly, undocumented victims have never had an easy or simple relationship to the police.

In a 2000 survey conducted in the Washington D.C. area, 22% of battered immigrant women named fear of immigration authorities as their primary reason for staying with an abusive partner. Subsequent studies have supported this finding: ethnographic research conducted in Phoenix, Arizona revealed widespread fears among domestic violence victims that contacting the police would lead to their own arrest or deportation. Likewise, in a 2014 focus group study of undocumented Latina immigrants, the majority of participants reported that their immigration status held them back from reporting domestic violence.

Such findings underscore the vital role played by policies that visibly secure the safety of undocumented individuals who report crimes, including domestic violence. Indeed, as the Trump administration’s high-profile immigration agenda has run roughshod over these safeguards, advocates and law enforcement have begun to raise alarms about striking drop-offs in crime reporting. In March 2017, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck announced that sexual assault reports from Latinx residents were down 25 percent from one year earlier, with domestic violence reports down by 10 percent. Beck noted that similar declines had not occurred among other ethnic groups. Houston Chief of Police Art Acevedo reported even greater declines in Latinx reports of sexual assault, 40 percent less overall than last year. Corroborating these reports, similar chilling effects have been observed in other arenas of government assistance. For example, organizations that help families obtain SNAP nutritional benefits report substantial recent drops in the number of immigrant families seeking assistance – and even, in some cases, immigrant parents actively seeking to cancel their food stamps out of fear of deportation.

Government protections tethered to the threat of deportation are not, in the end, really protections at all.

Public policies and institutions rarely work in isolation. Shifts in one inevitably reverberate through others. For this reason, “tough on crime” policy is never just tough on crime. It also imposes serious risks and hardships on victims of crime in need of state protection. As immigration authorities spread out across governmental systems in search of “illegal aliens,” they sow powerful, well-grounded fears that unravel protections for undocumented victims of domestic and sexual violence.

-Victoria Piehowski, PhD Student, University of Minnesota Department of Sociology