The young women in the room knew the story of the California legislator and first-time candidate who did the unexpected in 2018: She beat a Republican incumbent and became the first Democrat elected in her district in decades.
That could be me, they thought, reflecting on her victory. That was part of why they were there. They also knew what had happened to her after she won: the way her personal life was used against her. That could be me, too, they thought.
They were at a conference called Young Women Run, hosted in Denver late last month by the group Ignite, and they were all talking about Representative Katie Hill, the first-term congresswoman who was facing a House Ethics Committee investigation into allegations that she’d had a sexual relationship with a member of her congressional staff, a violation of House rules, which she denied. Ms. Hill’s nude photos, released without her consent, were roaming the internet.
Sara Guillermo, chief program officer for Ignite, an organization dedicated to grooming and training the next generation of women leaders, said that the anxiety in the room was palpable.
“There was already so much fear in running for office as a woman, because we’re not taught that we can do it enough,” said Ayah Zideyah, 22, the Denver fellow for Ignite, who attended the conference.
“And now there’s just so many different things that a woman has to worry about,” she said. “There’s this feeling of, ‘Who can we trust?’”
The women at the conference agreed that Ms. Hill’s relationship with a campaign aide, which she’d admitted to, had been unethical. But they were concerned about the fact that her intimate pictures and text messages had been allegedly distributed to conservative websites by her soon-to-be ex-husband, whom Ms. Hill called “abusive.”
The next day, Ms. Hill, 32, announced her plans to resign, becoming the first congresswoman to step down in the post-MeToo era for having an intimate relationship with someone on her staff. She is also a victim of revenge porn.
Groups that are training the next generation of women and L.G.B.T.Q. candidates are worried that the episode could deter women and minorities — who statistically face more online harassment and scrutiny — from running for office.
Online harassment of female politicians is nothing new. But as more and more young people enter the political arena, and as we rely on our cellphones more than ever, it’s “a whole different ballgame,” Ms. Guillermo said.
“The training that we’re providing them is reminding them that all of the stuff that they have on their phones, that they have on their computers, could get somewhere someday,” she added.
Ms. Zideyah said that she and many of the women who attended the Ignite training were aware that they had to be careful about their social media posts, but worrying about what was stored on their phones was new.
“As an online human, you don’t think that those kinds of things are going to be used against you or leaked, especially from people that are closest to you,” Ms. Zideyah said. “But I do think that now that sort of training has to be implemented, because what you should keep on a phone is becoming a serious issue.”
In her farewell address on the House floor, Ms. Hill, one of the first openly bisexual members of Congress, said that she was leaving “because of a misogynistic culture that gleefully consumed my naked pictures, capitalized on my sexuality and enabled my abusive ex to continue that abuse, this time with the entire country watching.”
“The release of these private photos would be traumatic itself,” said Elliot Imse, senior director for the Victory Institute, an organization dedicated to helping L.G.B.T.Q. candidates. “But the sexism and bi-phobia that has played into the commentary that surrounded all these photos only adds to the anxiety that L.G.B.T.Q. people, young people, women and minority candidates feel about running for office.”
Lily Herman, founder of Get Her Elected, an organization that offers campaigning help to progressive women candidates, sees what happened to Ms. Hill as a continuation of the backlash several progressive first-term women in Congress have faced since last year’s midterm elections, which saw historic numbers of women and people of color rise to power.
“Levels of backlash have increased, especially after 2018,” Ms. Herman said. “We see this all the time whenever people from underrepresented backgrounds gain a little bit of power.”
For Anne Moses, founder of Ignite, harassment has always been a concern, particularly since most of their prospective candidates are women of color, first-generation Americans and from lower-income backgrounds.
“They’re concerned about themselves, and they’re concerned about their families,” she said. She says she tells them that the “internet is a great equalizer,” and that “everyone has stuff in their personal backgrounds.”
But Ms. Moses said she feared that what had happened to Ms. Hill would make women think twice about entering politics. “It’s not going to encourage them to run,” she said.
Mr. Imse expressed similar concerns. “It’s always been a barrier to getting good people to run for office, and I think that Representative Hill’s situation only makes it more concerning for those who are on the fence,” he said.
In their training sessions, Ignite advises women to cultivate personal brands that are as “pristine as possible,” given the added scrutiny they are likely to face as candidates.
In a session called “Manage Your Reputation,” women are asked to imagine if their grandmothers would approve of their social media presences, according to a lesson plan provided by Ignite. Attendees are told to scrub the “things that Grandma would be upset about.”
That includes replacing “naughty” pictures with “nice” ones, avoiding profane language and discussions about drinking, smoking, drugs or sex, and generally being “kind to people and respectful.” Ignite also discourages sexting.
Andrea Colmenero, 23, said Ignite’s trainings had helped her become more conscious of her public social media presence. But she said she did not think it was fair to ask her to police what was on her phone.
“I think that it’s wrong to say, ‘you can’t even do it on your personal devices, or in your iCloud,’” she said. “I think that’s just invading privacy.”
Organizers do understand that “we all have stuff we did, that we prefer not to have photographic evidence of,” Ms. Moses said. “Be it at 14, or 28, or 33.”
“Very few people would walk away unscathed if their smartphone photos from the last 10 years were released to the entire world, and that is especially true for millennials,” Mr. Imse said.
A study by JAMA Pediatrics published in 2018 found that 1 in 7 teens send sexually explicit images through electronic devices. And according to a 2016 study published by the Data and Society Research Institute, around 4 percent of internet users have had someone post, or threaten to post, their sensitive images without their consent.
Soraya Chemaly, a feminist writer and activist and director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project, thinks that while it is a sad reality that young women need to take extra precautions, she finds the advice “disingenuous.” She said she wished institutions would support women candidates “in ways that are maybe not traditional” in this new phase of online harassment.
“Institutions need to understand how sexual objectification represents a political risk that they’re not taking seriously right now,” Ms. Chemaly said. “And if they take that sexual objectification seriously, then you can develop approaches that deal with a specific problem.”
Ms. Chemaly said her research has found that online harassment and revenge porn — and the warnings around it — limit freedom of speech and expression, especially for women.
While many of Ms. Hill’s congressional colleagues, particularly the younger ones, came to her defense, the Democratic Party’s leadership viewed her situation as a cautionary tale.
In a news conference, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Ms. Hill an “absolutely outstanding young public servant,” and condemned what had happened to her as “public humiliation by cyber-exploitation.” But she went on to add, “I do say to my own children and grandchildren — especially grandchildren — you know some of these, I don’t know what you would call them, appearances on, is it social media, can come back to haunt you if they are taken out of context.”
While Ms. Chemaly agrees that women “need to take precautions even if we resent them,” she said the advice usually comes from people who are in positions of power and have the ability to enact change instead.
“Having a political party, a network, a funding organization, get behind a woman candidate and declare that what happened is an egregious treatment of a woman is different than giving precautionary advice,” said Ms. Chemaly. “And that’s something that I just haven’t seen.”
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