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The attack on Nancy Pelosi's husband shows women — and democracy — remain in danger

OP/ED: The current extremist climate is a threat to women. We must do more to stop it.
UNITED STATES - APRIL 29: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., conducts her weekly news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center on Friday, April 29, 2022. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)
UNITED STATES - APRIL 29: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., conducts her weekly news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center on Friday, April 29, 2022. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)Tom Williams / AP

The recent attack on Paul Pelosi, and attempted assault of his wife, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is the latest horrific episode in a rising tide of violent threats against women in positions of power.

Such hostility and aggression against elected women can no longer be attributed to lone, deranged individuals. It must be understood as a symptom of the organized, tacitly condoned misogyny that undergirds a dangerous far-right ideology. And it poses a clear and present danger — not just to women — but to democracy and all of us.

According to the Justice Department, suspect David DePape told authorities he intended to break the lawmaker’s kneecaps. “By breaking Nancy’s kneecaps, she would then have to be wheeled into Congress, which would show other members of Congress there were consequences to actions,” he told investigators.

DePape has pleaded not guilty to a long list of charges, including attempted murder and false imprisonment.

The eerie similarities to the Jan. 6 insurrectionists' hunt for the speaker — including using their exact language, "Where's Nancy?" — is not a coincidence.

Many of the radical groups that fueled the anti-democracy violence during the Capitol attack have made the sexist vilification of Pelosi and other powerful women part of their ongoing calls to arms.

In fact, threats against women in Congress have surged since the Jan. 6 attacks. And they have also increased at the state and local level. The Anti-Defamation League has launched a tracker of threats of violence against public officials and found women are targeted 3.4 times more often than men.

It is no wonder that Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., spent $59,000 for private security in 2021 and Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., nearly $233,000, according to OpenSecrets, the non-partisan research group that tracks money in U.S. politics. Meanwhile, armed men showed up at the home of Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wa., and New York Democrat Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez was harassed on the steps of the Capitol. GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine has also been the subject of threats and had a window broken at her home this summer. Thankfully, the plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was thwarted and the men involved convicted.

As a local elected official in Westchester County, I also have experienced the culture of intimidation that disproportionately affects women. In 2021, I was targeted by online groups that threatened to come to my house and “teach me a lesson” because they disagreed with a decision I had made as part of my job. Social media companies refused to take down their content because it didn't break their rules and there was nothing local police could do either. My only option was to leave town until the worst of the vitriol died down. It was a scary experience that gave me a small glimpse of what more high-profile women go through every day. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

In 2018, the Anti-Defamation League issued a warning that groups including the alt-right, incels and other rising anti-government violent extremists embraced violent misogyny as a core organizing principal. Alt-right leader Andrew Anglin posted on the Daily Stormer, a now-defunct neo-Nazi website, that “when you give women rights, they destroy absolutely everything around them, no matter what other variable is involved... Even if you become the ultimate alpha male, some stupid b---- will still ruin your life.”

Trump of course bears some of the blame, here. Many of his ardent supporters have themselves been accused of violence against women. He was elected despite, or perhaps because, he bragged about assaulting women in the "Access Hollywood" tapes. From Roy Moore and Josh Hawley to Herschel Walker, Tucker Carlson and Jerry Falwell, too many men in his orbit seem to have contempt for women or have, like Trump himself, been accused of violence against them.

Even more alarming, misogynistic views are shockingly mainstream. Just last week, polling by PRRI found that 68 percent of Republicans agree with the statement “society as a whole has become too soft and feminine.” That kind of regressive worldview has helped fuel the ultra-macho culture of Trumpism and ultimately can inspire the kind of violence we saw on Jan. 6 and the attempted attack on Pelosi. As Harvard Professors Erica Chenowith and Zoe Marks put it recently, “misogyny and authoritarianism are not just common comorbidities but mutually reinforcing ills.”

One thing is incontrovertibly true. The current extremist climate is dangerous for women and for democracy itself. All of us who care about both need to do more to stop it.