In the Line of Fire….excerpt from “The Colorado Women”
Meet several Colorado women legislators —-featured this month in 5280, the Denver Magazine—who are intelligent, inspiring, dedicated, resilient and just plain gutsy.
Read below the real story of a few who dared to stand up and speak out because they advocate for saving lives from gun violence. We should ALL grow up to be just like them.
by Lindsey B. Koehler and Kasey Cordell of 5280, The Denver Magazine
IN THE LINE OF FIRE
courtesy of www.5280.com
When the state Legislature’s female leadership took on gun control in early 2013, everyone knew the debate would be red-hot. But no one predicted the sexism and violent threats that would be fired at some of Colorado’s most powerful women on their way to victory. By Megan Feldman
Editor’s Note: This article contains strong language and may be offensive to some readers.
It had been a long day. Heck, it had already been a long month—and it was only the fifth day of March. But Evie Hudak knew she should check her email one more time before she turned in. Hudak, the state senator from Colorado’s District 19, opened her laptop and perused the list of unopened emails. One looked unfamiliar. It was from someone named David and had no subject line. She clicked on it.
I am going to stick a knife up your cunt and tear your heart out through there. If you have one.
Hudak physically recoiled at the message, but she continued reading.
You’re a fucking disgusting piece of shit, and you deserve to be gang raped until your guts fall out of your rotten old cunt, you worthless sack of shit. Go fucking die.
As she read the words, she knew this was not a bad joke or spam. The person had very intentionally sent these vile sentences to her. Although the email had not said why David was so angry, Hudak knew. During a legislative session the day before, she had been speaking in support of a proposed bill to ban concealed-carry weapons on college campuses. A rape survivor testifying against the bill said she would have perhaps not been victimized had she been carrying a firearm. Hudak had countered that statistics didn’t support the likelihood of prevailing over an assailant while armed. Her remark hadn’t been well received at the time—and it was clearly still inciting a negative response. Hudak closed the laptop, slipped into bed, and tried not to cry as she lay next to her husband. She reminded herself: As a politician, she was supposed to have thick skin.
Hudak, 62, did her best to brush off David’s email as she drove to the Capitol the next morning. She’d decided she couldn’t let one foul-mouthed wacko bother her so much. But when she got to her desk and opened her email, there were more:
From DW: Listen up you cunt fucking whore, You need to be gang raped, you cunt fucking whore!!!!!!!!!!
The messages—both phone calls and emails—piled up throughout the day, including one note that called her a “stinking fat nasty dike.” That night, she cried herself to sleep.
After the mass shootings in Aurora and Newtown in 2012, the national gun-control debate exploded. In Colorado, where residents had suffered through two horrific massacres in 14 years, the discussion was particularly heated. In early January, state Representative Rhonda Fields announced she would seek to pass new restrictions on guns, and she began to host stakeholder meetings with gun-violence victims, law enforcement representatives, and gun-control advocates. The movement gained momentum from there, and by the end of February, legislators were running seven gun-control bills—all of which were sponsored or co-sponsored by women, including Hudak. If passed, the proposed bills would have banned high-capacity magazines; required background checks for private and online gun purchases; added liability for sellers and owners; banned legally concealed weapons on college campuses; eliminated online gun training; mandated that gun purchasers pay for background checks; and expanded the ban on weapons for domestic violence offenders.
Within weeks of announcing the legislation, the bills’ sponsors—both male and female—and their aides noticed a spike in the amount of feedback they were receiving from constituents. But they also noticed a difference in the responses: Those directed at the female gun-control bill sponsors had a distinctly violent and anti-female sentiment. “I got called ‘slut,’ ‘bitch,’ ‘whore,’ and ‘stupid,’ and ‘I hope you get raped’ was a repeated phrase,” says state Senate President-elect Morgan Carroll. “I started seeing threats of physical and sexual violence, and some direct and indirect threats like, ‘I have a gun, and I’m not afraid to use it.’ After Gabby Giffords, we have to take that seriously.”
Hudak received such a surge of vicious, sexually explicit, demeaning emails that her staffers created a folder labeled “Threatening” and filtered them from her inbox using key words such as “whore,” “bitch,” and “cunt.” The senator agreed it was unproductive to read any more of the messages. She had already spilled too many tears over them. Plus, she believed in the legislation, and nothing in those emails was going to change that.
Senate staffers may have shielded their bosses from the flow of hostile mail, but the need to do so was troubling. While the majority of the messages were standard fare, the fact that an extreme and vocal faction felt comfortable using sexist insults and threats of sexual violence to try to influence public officials raised important questions: At forty-one percent, Colorado boasts the highest percentage of female state legislators in the nation, but what does it mean that they’re experiencing this level of gender-based vitriol? Can this type of menacing have a chilling effect on American democracy? As Carroll puts it: “Who’s going to be willing to serve if, when you need to debate a policy issue, you’re going to subject yourself or your family to threats of violence?”
Some social scientists theorize that as women occupy more leadership posts around the world, a certain slice of the male population is launching a backlash. “There’s a perception out there that women are taking over, and, especially among extremely conservative men, that can raise concerns about masculinity,” says Nancy Ehrenreich, who teaches a class on race, class, and reproductive rights at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law. “Any group, when it perceives a threat to its power, can get angry.” Sexual epithets and threats of rape have long been common strategies used to hold power over women. Yet sending sexually explicit, threatening emails to female politicians—or shooting them, in the case of Giffords—is obviously not representative of the actions of men, broadly speaking, Ehrenreich says. It is representative of how, in a few men, broader cultural trends “get turned into something really extreme because of their own personal dynamics.”
The hate mail endured by many of Colorado’s female legislators during the 2013 session echoes threats fired at female activists in developing countries such as India. In that country in 2012, a prominent women’s activist was threatened with rape by someone using the handle @RAPIST during an online chat about violence against women, and a well-known journalist stopped tweeting about rape when someone tweeted her daughter’s age and classroom location. “I’ve met women [working in politics] from places like Egypt, and they’ve always talked about threats of rape and physical violence as one of the hurdles [for women in political positions], but that didn’t really happen here,” says Faith Winter, 33, Westminster mayor pro tem and executive director of Emerge Colorado, a nonprofit that trains women to run for political office. “Now, it’s something to think about.”
Fields experienced the backlash against female leaders firsthand in February. As the House debated the gun measures, Fields, who was elected to represent Aurora in 2010—five years after her son was shot to death before he was due to testify in a murder trial—was checking her email during a break. She opened a message that turned her stomach. It addressed her as “Hey Nigger Cunt,” then added that both she and fellow gun-control legislation sponsor state Representative Beth McCann needed “a good fucking” and he hoped someone would “Giffords” them. She showed the note to McCann, they both shook their heads in disgust, and they did their best to put it behind them. But within days, a member of the Colorado State Patrol asked to speak with Fields: The officer showed her a letter that had been intercepted by an aide. The author claimed he knew where Fields lived and mentioned her daughter by name. “I keep my 30 Round Magazines There Will Be Blood! I’m Coming For You!” it read.
This time, Fields was afraid. “I’d already lost a son,” she says. “You’re calling me the N-word and the C-word and mentioning my daughter? My son was threatened before he was killed, and he dismissed it. I could no longer dismiss it.” Police tracked the message to Franklin Sain, a 42-year-old IT executive from Colorado Springs, who was arrested and charged with harassment involving ethnic intimidation and attempting to influence a public servant. Five months later, in July, Fields dropped the charges against Sain, saying she didn’t feel prosecution was necessary because the harassment had stopped and the gun-control laws had passed.
Observers who read about Sain’s threats in the newspapers may have been tempted to write him off as a lone extremist, but he wasn’t the only one to use sexually explicit words and intimidation tactics. One nonpartisan staffer told Carroll that while she was helping witnesses testify during a March hearing, a male opponent of the bills shouted at her to, “Shut up and sit down!” Annmarie Jensen, an independent lobbyist who represents the Colorado Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said that later, after hosting an event to support legislators targeted by a recall effort resulting from their pro-gun-control votes, she received an anonymous call from someone who said Jensen’s home address had been posted on the “Rants & Raves” section of Craigslist in an attempt to goad opponents to arrive on her doorstep. And around the same time that Fields received the threats from Sain, gun-rights advocate Nick Andrasik—who went on to become the spokesman for the recall effort aimed at state Senators John Morse and Angela Giron—posted online comments in which he called Fields “a vacuous cunt” and state Representative Brittany Pettersen a “stunning cunt.” (Andrasik later apologized, saying the statements “in no way” represented the opinions of the recall supporters. He was later replaced as spokesperson.)
Andrasik’s online comments highlight the difference between the vitriol directed at male and female lawmakers during the gun debate: He called state Representative Joe Salazar a “fucking retard,” which, despite being a despicable and offensive term, is not sexually explicit or gender specific. Morse, an advocate for gun control and a sponsor of one of the bills, was never threatened with violence. Speaker of the House Mark Ferrandino says the hate mail the female legislators received tended to be more personal than that sent to the male legislators. “I got plenty of nasty emails,” Ferrandino says, “but nothing to the level that Representative Fields got.”
n fact, only one male legislator reported a threat of sexual violence during the gun-control discussions in Colorado: State Senator Jessie Ulibarri, from District 21, received a call from someone who said they hoped his two-year-old daughter would be raped.
These acerbic anti-female campaigns might feel less disturbing if they were isolated to a single issue, like gun control. But they’re not. This past summer, an obscure political action committee dedicated to defeating Hillary Clinton as a 2016 presidential candidate launched an online game called “Slap Hillary,” in which players were instructed to smack a caricature of Clinton clad in a pink pantsuit. Around the same time, Texas state Senator Wendy Davis made headlines by filibustering an abortion measure and was derided by opponents as “The Abortion Barbie,” a not-so-subtle reference to her appearance. None of this is surprising to McCann, a former prosecutor and onetime manager of public safety for the city of Denver. Years ago, as she was trying to make the firefighter application process more amendable to women, someone mailed her a dead fish with a bullet in its eye. The accompanying note read that women “should stay in the bedroom and the kitchen.”
While caustic incidents are taking place across the political landscape, there’s no denying gun control incites amplified rhetoric. Ehrenreich says there could be a cultural reason why certain men waged such a venomous crusade against the women pushing gun regulations: The issue highlights cultural links between guns and traditional concepts of masculinity. “Guns in our society are associated with virility and strength,” she says, and a part of traditional gender roles involves men being stronger than
women. The prospect of having the right to guns circumscribed by women, Ehrenreich says, can be seen as a humiliating defeat and a sign of “failed masculinity” that leads to intimidation.
There could also be a less academic explanation for why Colorado women spearheaded the local gun-control argument and therefore took the brunt of the opposition’s tirades: “The geography of gun violence changed after Sandy Hook,” says Laura Chapin, a Democratic communications consultant. “Everyone talks about gun violence in urban Chicago, but suddenly, suburban moms were afraid to take their kids to elementary school.” That was a political game-changer. Chapin adds that female politicians are more adept at leveraging sympathy to advance policy initiatives—in this case, harnessing the losses of gun-violence victims in places like Aurora. “The emotional connection between the bills’ sponsors and the families was key in being able to get this done,” Chapin says. “Empathy tied to good data is an extremely powerful argument.”
But, these women say, people shouldn’t take their ability to empathize as a sign of weakness. McCann says standing up for what you believe in requires persistence and gritty determination—especially as a woman. “It was tough and unpleasant at times, but critically important,” she says of the gun-control bills. “We just decided we were going to do this and that we would hang together.”
For her part, Hudak admits she briefly considered quitting during the peak of the hate mail in early March, when she spent sleepless nights thinking about the deplorable way her fellow Coloradans had addressed her. But she quickly became even more dedicated to her goals. “I didn’t go through all I went through just to quit,” she says. “When people say you need a thick skin, they’re not kidding. But if you’re doing what you believe in and you think it’s the right thing to do, that’s what gets you through.”
Editor’s Note: On November 27, 2013, Senator Evie Hudak resigned her seat in the state Senate in the face of a recall effort stemming from her support of Colorado’s gun-control legislation.