'They wish I weren't alive:' N.L. women in politics facing sexism and abuse

·3 min read

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Sarah Stoodley figures she's already lost half a day of campaigning going back and forth with police about some of the disturbing emails she's received.

Stoodley, a Liberal, is running in the Newfoundland and Labrador provincial election to reclaim her seat in the St. John's district of Mount Scio. Before the election was called late last week, she was a cabinet minister responsible for three portfolios.

"Since I (was elected), I get lots of emails saying they wish I had cancer, they wish I weren't alive," she said in an interview Thursday. "Now I'm navigating that as a candidate, and that kind of stuff seeps into my candidate email."

She used to be able work with the security team at the House of Assembly when disturbing emails landed in her inbox. But now that the legislature has been dissolved ahead of the Feb. 13 vote, she doesn't have that protection — but Stoodley still wants to make sure her volunteers are safe.

Stoodley said she warns volunteers against knocking on doors of people who have sent her abusive emails. "I know certain addresses where people live, so I've alerted my volunteers, like, 'Do not knock on these people's homes,'" she said.

Politicians get all kinds of correspondence, ranging from angry and demanding to outright unhinged, she said. But women seem to get it worse, she added. "Some of the male colleagues said they've never gotten anything anywhere near that level of, I guess, hatred."

Stoodley said she doesn't feel threatened, but "it's always playing in the back of your mind."

On the Progressive Conservative team, Kristina Ennis says she gets questions about her age.

"I'm a younger candidate, I'm 30 years old," she said. "But the comment that gets me is just immediately asking, 'Are you even old enough to run in this election?' That always comes from men," she said.

"Calling my age into question is definitely rooted in some ideas of sexism that people have," she said in an interview Thursday.

Ennis said she doesn't think men her age in the same position would be getting those kinds of questions.

She has more than a decade of experience in the oil and gas industry, most recently as a research and development analyst with ExxonMobil. Working in a male-dominated environment, Ennis said she grew a thick skin and learned to speak up for herself without apologizing. "That's been coming in handy," she said, about the campaign trail.

Like Stoodley, Ennis said the best way people can support women and diverse candidates is to call out the abuse. If it's happening online, respond to it, and be clear about why it's wrong, Ennis said.

Gillian Pearson, co-chair of Equal Voice NL, a group working to encourage women and gender diverse people to enter politics, says she agrees with Stoodley and Ennis. Pearson, a former candidate with the provincial Progressive Conservatives, said the vitriol politicians face, online or otherwise, is disproportionately aimed at women.

"The criticism tends to be more personal, more cutting," she said in an interview Monday. "It can involve their appearance. And sometimes their personal qualifications, or positions on things, that might not necessarily be challenged with a male candidate."

As of Thursday afternoon, 37 of the 114 nominated candidates were women and at least one was non-binary. That's the highest number of women to run in a Newfoundland and Labrador provincial election, according to Pearson's tally.

The numbers matter, but what's most important is getting the women elected, Pearson said. "Are parties running these amazing women in districts that they have a reasonable shot a securing?" she asked. "That's something we'll have to discuss as time goes on."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 21, 2021.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press