To address these issues, we surveyed US mayors in 2017 and US state senators in 2019 and the results were illuminating. Firstly, we want to explain what we mean by abuse and violence.
Psychological abuse involves acts likely to harm the psychological wellbeing of individuals or their families by inducing fear or harm to their sense of self-worth or wellbeing. These include exposure to insistent and uninvited behaviour, attention, or verbal contact; seeing oneself or one’s family in images, or experiencing disrespectful comments in social media, traditional media, or at a public meeting; and threats of death, rape, beating, abduction, or similar acts.
Physical violence involves activities that directly harm one’s physical wellbeing or property, or the physical wellbeing or property of one’s family. Examples of this could include being slapped, pushed, or being subject to projectiles, shot, assaulted, or otherwise injured, and violence against property.
To understand gendered abuse and violence more deeply, we also identify sexualised abuse/violence as negative experiences that are sexual in nature, be they physical, psychological, or both.
Our findings start with reporting the experiences of US mayors. Overall, we found that out of all mayors, more than 80% experienced some type of psychological abuse, and about 13% faced some type of physical violence. This was most widely reported as originating from social media. In addition, about 12% of mayors reported episodes of sexualised abuse and violence. Gender differences among mayors who received this sort of abuse or violence were clear and persistent: female mayors face more abuse and violence in general than male mayors, including sexualised abuse and violence. In fact, when other factors were held constant in analytical models, gender was the most consistent factor explaining mayors’ experiences of abuse and violence and the sexualised types in particular. Interestingly, with regards to sexualised abuse, the experiences appeared to be of a more disturbing nature: the difference between being accused of an affair (male mayor) versus being stalked or called a whore (female mayors).
Further, intersectional analysis is illuminating. Although there were few differences between women of colour and white female mayors on measures of psychological abuse, there were meaningful differences on measures of physical violence and sexualised abuse and violence: women of colour reported greater numbers of incidents than white women. Political party also mattered as Democratic mayors were more likely to face physical violence and sexualised abuse than Republican mayors. There were no gender or party differences, however, in psychological abuse. Finally, power mattered. Female mayors with the most ‘power’ in cities—as measured by direct election versus election from among cities councils, and veto and appointment powers—faced more psychological and sexualised abuse and violence than the ‘weak’ ones.
Although the data analysis of US state senators reveals different patterns than for mayors, gender differences were still apparent. Similar to the levels among mayors, 84% of state senators reported encountering psychological abuse with 78% experiencing disrespectful content via social media. Additionally, 10% of state senators encountered some type of physical violence. Finally, 12% reported sexualised violence. The patterns of gendered abuse and violence are different, however, for state senators than mayors. Only on the physical violence measure were these differences significant. Intersectional analysis illuminates the ways in which race, party, power, and experiences of abuse and violence manifest among female state senators. First, women of colour reported far more psychological abuse and sexualised abuse and violence than white women. In fact, women of colour faced more abuse and violence than any other group. Second, Democratic women reported more sexualised abuse and violence than other senators. Third, as with mayors, power is an important consideration. Among female state senators, those holding a party leadership position were significantly more likely to have suffered physical violence, psychological violence, and sexualised abuse and violence than their male counterparts.
Overall, our research finds that mayors and state senators in the US encounter meaningful levels and types of abuse and violence. Most central to our research is the discovery that there is a significant gender difference in the experience of abuse: female mayors were more likely than men to face these situations. In fact, gender was the only significant factor associated with all types of abuse and violence. In contrast, the findings pertaining to state senators showed fewer overall gender differences, but intersectional differences based on race, party, and power were clear. It is possible that fewer direct gender differences among state senators than mayors may be attributed to variations in power between the two types of offices. Senators work in more collaborative institutions whereas mayors are the top executive of a hierarchical bureaucracy, often the most powerful political actor in town. In contrast, senators are one among many, whereas, mayors are executives with individual power. Together, these findings suggest that female mayors and state senators, especially those who hold the most power in their institutions, may face more abuse and violence than their male counterparts because they are perceived as transgressing gender norms and upending the status quo. This may be particularly true for women of colour who may not only threaten male power, but may also threaten white dominance of power.
The implications of abuse and violence against officeholders not only results in significant personal costs to officeholders and their families, it also costs the wider community. Officeholders’ willingness and ability to perform their public service as fully as possible may be compromised. Further, citizens may lose respect for their leaders and for democracy itself as their local leaders are attacked.
The central implication of our research focus on gender is that gender-differentiated levels of psychological abuse and physical violence, including incidents of a sexualised nature, may mean that more women than men leave office or avoid running for office altogether to avoid these outcomes. If so, reversing women’s under-representation in elective office in the United States may not happen in the near future. Under-representation and a higher cost of holding office for women matters for reasons of descriptive and substantive representation. Female officeholders have different policy priorities and different levels of engagement with elements of the political process as indicated by more than forty years of research, which could lead to overall poorer representation. Having fewer women in office has symbolic effects on present and future generations as each considers whether to pursue and sustain careers in politics.
Herrick, R, Thomas, S, Franklin, L, et al. Physical violence and psychological abuse against female and male mayors in the United States. Politics, Groups, and Identities (2019).
Herrick, R, and Thomas, S. Not just sticks and stones: psychological abuse and physical violence among US state senators. Politics & Gender (2021): 1-26.
Herrick, R, Thomas, S, and Bartholomy, K. Gender, Power, and Colleague Aggression in US State Senates. Political Research Quarterly (2021): 1065912920985313.
Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation
Oklahoma State University
Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation
P.O Box 7042
Santa Cruz, California 95060
 Our sample included few mayors of colour, so we want to emphasise that these findings are preliminary.