What you’re about to read is a familiar story for any female activist with a Twitter feed.
Last week, I posted this tweet calling Theresa May my role model, and praised her for inspiring me:
Over the next 48 hours I couldn’t refresh my notifications, and I had hundreds of abuse messages hurled at me. This isn’t the first time this has happened, and I know it won’t be the last time. In fact, this is becoming an all too common pattern for women involved in politics.
I’ve dealt with my fair share of abuse before. If you google my name the first thing you’ll find is a series of articles about the abuse I receive. I even made the front page of the Belfast Telegraph for it. That’s not exactly how I imagined my first front page to go. This isn’t what I thought being a political activist would be like. I’ve had relatives ring my mum and say “I just saw this article online about Aine and I’m so sorry”. I’ve had family members ask if I’m really sure I want to keep putting myself out there. My family and friends have had to read the vitriol I get sent every day.
As much as I cringe at how this is what I’m known for, I know that I have a responsibility to speak out against it. I’ve spoken with other female activists across the political divide, and one thing I’ve taken away from our conversations still shocks me: “how can we look a young woman in the eyes and tell her to get involved in politics, when we know what it’s like on the other side?”.
The answer is simple. We do it because we need a culture change, and that will only come when the presence of a woman in politics is no longer something that people gawk at.
The newspaper coverage of Theresa May is more gendered than it was towards Margaret Thatcher forty years ago. How far have we actually came since Thatcher broke that glass ceiling when she got the keys to Downing Street? Not far enough.
As much as I wish my Google search history reflected my work and not the abuse I get, I know that it helps other women to see someone speaking out against it. I have young women come up to me at events and say they’re glad that someone is speaking out against this, that they know they have someone to go to when the abuse starts or when they question raising their head above the crowd.
I appreciate that I’m not the stereotype. It’s a blessing and a curse. My background doesn’t define me, but it’s an essential part of who I am. I’m a child of the Good Friday Agreement, with an Irish name and born into a hardcore nationalist community in rural Northern Ireland. This gives more than enough fuel to the trolls online. I even have to fight for the right to my own name. I get told I’m a disgrace, that I should change my name, that my parents clearly “messed me up” as a child.
I shouldn’t have to fight for something as simple as my name. I have people wishing for my death because I dared to praise Theresa May. I’ve been accused of wanting to restart the troubles and been told that it won’t be me who will pay the price, but my friends and family. I’m not a lone example of this kind of abuse. Everyday my timeline is filled with other young women dealing this sort of abuse and harassment.
As my notifications were going haywire, my friends were quick to reach out to me and make sure I was okay. To make sure I was blocking as much of it out as possible. To make sure I was looking after my own mental health because there’s only so much hate and vitriol you can read before you wonder if it would be easier to shut the whole thing down and hide in a dark corner for the rest of your days.
Our political parties, institutions and social media companies have a duty to tackle this. Otherwise we’re turning an entire generation of women away from politics. They see the abuse women at all levels of political activism and frontline politics receive. It’s on the front pages of our newspapers and it’s on our social media feeds.
The women in my party who reached out and supported me as I dealt with the backlash reminded me of Michelle Obama’s words, “when they go low, we go high”, and that’s the attitude we all have to take if we want to make politics a pathway that women can look at as a way to change society for the better, and not as something that will make them a target for abuse and vitriol.
We all have to do better. The next generation of female politicians are counting on us to do better.