“That Woman From Michigan”: Gretchen Whitmer and Violence Against Women in Politics
By Mona Lena Krook | October 26, 2020
Mona Lena Krook is a professor of political science at Rutgers University.
On October 8, 13 men were arrested in connection with a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, allegedly in retribution for her actions to stem the spread of COVID-19. At court hearings, the FBI outlined its case for the six men facing federal charges. The evidence showed that the men had remained in steady communication over several months about their plans to “grab” the governor, both securing weapons and scoping out potential locations for the attack.
Coverage of these events has largely focused on political motivations behind the kidnapping scheme, as well as the political back-and-forth regarding who is to blame. Michigan leaders from both sides of the aisle condemned the plot, while members of the Trump administration criticized Whitmer herself, with the President tweeting she had “done a terrible job” as governor.
However, some commentators highlight a different dynamic, describing the conspiracy as “a window into American misogyny” and “centered on Whitmer’s gender and authority.” These observations echo rising concerns around the world that, as women enter politics and assume more high-level positions, they face violent and vitriolic backlash to their political participation on gendered grounds.
Are Political Spaces Inherently Violent?
In a new book, Violence Against Women in Politics, I explore these emerging debates. For some, politics has always been a hostile and dangerous place. According to Machiavelli in his influential political treatise, The Prince, the “art of war is all that is required of a ruler.” More recently, these expected aggressions have turned metaphorical, with belligerent displays in political debates amounting to the “theatrical delivery of violence” to the opposing side.
And yet, not all forms of violence in political spaces are equivalent. Research and activism on electoral violence, for example, contends that using force to achieve political ends poses a threat to democracy and, as such, is illegitimate. This work argues that violence is not justifiable when the aim is to damage a political adversary to impose political aims. Violence harms democracy when one side gets “its way through fear of injury or death,” rather than through dialogue.
Emerging global discussions on violence against women in politics suggest that problematic forms of violence in political spaces are not just issue-based. They may also be identity-based, targeting women by questioning their rights as women to participate in the political process at all.
Zeroing in on Identity-Based Political Violence
Documenting violence against women in general is notoriously difficult. Proving that gender discrimination is a motivation is also complex. Women as a group are highly diverse, with their experiences in politics potentially informed by other inequalities, like race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, and gender identity.
In my book, as well as in my co-authored work with Juliana Restrepo Sanin, we turn to the hate crimes literature for guidance. Hate crime laws impose a higher class of penalties when a violent crime targets a victim due to perceived social group membership. These crimes are deemed to be more severe because, in addition to the crime in question, they involve group-based discrimination.
While violence against women in politics does not always involve criminal acts, hate crime frameworks list a range of empirical measures that could indicate that bias played a role in a particular incident. We draw out five of these criteria, to which we add a sixth measure to capture instances of implicit bias – where individuals may believe they are not prejudiced, but nonetheless think or act in biased ways.
Gender-Based Violence and the Plot to Kidnap Gretchen Whitmer
Applying this lens to the kidnapping plot against Gov. Whitmer, it becomes clear that the planned attacks were not only political in nature: they also involved significant elements of sexism and misogyny.
The offender made oral comments, written statements, or gestures indicating bias.
The presumed leader of the group, Adam Fox, was quoted in the FBI criminal complaint as describing Whitmer as a “tyrant bitch” who “loves the power she has now.” Slurs like “bitch” dehumanize and discredit women to silence their voices and stifle their participation in public discourse, serving as a “tool of containment” in American politics by framing women’s power as unnatural and threatening.
The offender left bias-related drawings, symbols, or graffiti at the scene.
The conspirators were caught before they could carry out the kidnapping plot. However, the FBI complaint notes that several members met during protests at the Michigan state capitol in the spring. In addition to anti-government and racist symbols, these demonstrations featured an effigy of Whitmer, a naked brown-haired doll hung by a noose.
The victim was engaged in activities related to his or her identity group.
Gov. Whitmer has spoken out against sexual harassment and misogyny in American politics, and during an appearance on The Daily Show in April, she wore a t-shirt printed with the words “That Woman from Michigan” as a rejoinder to Trump’s refusal to call her by her actual name. Her work to address COVID-19 is also implicitly gendered: steps to control the spread of the virus – like wearing face masks – are increasingly framed in public discourse as inherently unmanly.
The offender was previously involved in a similar incident or is a hate group member.
The suspects facing federal charges had connections to several anti-government and white supremacist groups. According to the Anti-Defamation League, white supremacy and misogyny are deeply intertwined, with “a deep-seated loathing of women” acting as a “connective tissue between many white supremacists.”
A substantial portion of the community where the event occurred perceived that the incident was motivated by bias.
When asked about the spring protests at the Michigan state capitol, Gov. Whitmer described them as “racist and misogynistic,” involving “calls to violence” that are “certainly not an exercise of democratic principles.” One female state legislator tweeted she and other colleagues were wearing bullet proof vests in the chamber, while a Black state representative was escorted by armed guards so she could attend meetings “without fear of intimidation.”
The victim was evaluated negatively according a double standard.
Double standards entail attacking politically active women in ways and for reasons not used for men who are politically engaged. Whitmer is not the only Democratic governor who has introduced strict lockdown measures in the wake of COVID-19. She is the only woman, however – and the leader most singled out by the president and other political opponents for vitriolic criticism.
Tackling Violence Against Women in Politics
This analysis illustrates how resistance to gender equality may transform women into targets of political attacks, not simply because of the policies they promote – but because, as women, they dare to participate in politics at all.
While sexism and misogyny permeate many aspects of public life, there are a variety of actions being taken around the world to combat this problem, as outlined in my book. These range from legislative reforms to party rule changes to individual and collective efforts calling out violence. However, a shared strand connects all these strategies: a call to reject violence as the cost of doing politics and assert women’s equal rights to participate – freely and safely – in all aspects of public life.