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Sonoma Council member Rachel Hundley. Photo: YouTube / Rachel Hundley

California candidate Rachel Hundley was stunned when photos of her in underwear were posted online. Then she fought back

‘I am here today to tell my faceless bullies that I cannot be shamed into quitting because I am not ashamed’

As soon as Rachel Hundley saw the link, her heart sank.

A city council member in the small, quiet city of Sonoma, California, Hundley was working from home on August 13 when a message from an unfamiliar address popped into her inbox. What she read stunned her.

The anonymous email accused the 35-year-old Hundley of being “immoral and unethical.” It then suggested that she drop out of her race for re-election in November. She read the note a few times before the reality of the threat set in. Then she clicked the link.

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The now-disabled website, called “Rachel Hundley Exposed”, attacked Hundley for her stance on divisive issues while mayor of Sonoma. It contained photographs mined from Hundley’s social media accounts, including some showing her in a bra and underwear and working at Burning Man, the famed art and music festival.

The site, supposedly by an organisation called “Sonoma Citizens for Peace and Cooperation,” called Hundley a “cruel and demented person,” who was “a cancer” that needed to be cut from the community.

“I was stunned,” Hundley said. “It’s 2018. I thought we’d gotten past this.”

While unprecedented numbers of American women are running for public office in 2018, harassment and smear tactics that dig into the personal lives of female candidates are still fairly common. But when victims of these attacks, designed to tarnish reputations and derail campaigns, confront the attacker, it can actually spark outrage, inspire voter support and raise the candidate’s profile, experts and candidates said.

I was stunned. It’s 2018. I thought we’d gotten past this
Rachel Hundley

Over the years, public response to these types of attacks on candidates have shifted, especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement, said Jennifer Lawless, a professor at the University of Virginia who has spent years studying the intersection of gender and politics. Research shows women who push back and call out the behaviour are often rewarded. But the threat of such harassment can still deter women from running.

“I think it’s important to call out these kinds of examples and make sure female candidates or women in the political arena know they do not have to suck it up and remain silent,” Lawless said.

Hundley conferred with advisers and close friends – many of whom suggested that she ignore the threats. Instead, Hundley decided to address it head-on with a YouTube video, which has been viewed more than 97,000 times as of Tuesday afternoon. In it, she called out the “anonymous coward” for attempting to slut-shame her into silence, and put the threats against her in the broader context of the harassment and hypocrisy women in politics face. The purpose of the website was to make her afraid, she said. But she refused to be intimidated.

“I am here today to tell my faceless bullies that I cannot be shamed into quitting because I am not ashamed,” Hundley said in the video, eyes fixed on the camera.

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Most politicians deal with trolls and criticism, and in 2018, the platforms and methods for harassment are vast. A 2016 Inter-Parliamentary Union survey of women in legislatures around the world found that more than 40 per cent reported wide distribution of “extremely humiliating or sexually charged images.”

Tactics such as sexualising candidates are usually specific to women, Lawless said. For men, evidence of sexual prowess is often seen as a positive, a boon to their masculinity. But with women, it’s different, she said.

“Whether it’s slut-shaming or trying to humiliate a women because of something she did in her past that’s linked to sexuality, that kind of activity still happens more to women than men,” Lawless said. “Tapping into a woman’s sexuality is seen as a way to undermine her credibility and undercut her experience.”

The outpouring Hundley has felt from her community and beyond in response to her video has been entirely positive. She’s even had a wave of volunteers to help with her campaign, with people offering to put up yard signs and host fundraisers.

Hundley said the help was coming from people determined to keep attacks like the one against her from being successful, and Hundley is proud to be part of the change propelling women forward in politics.

“I believe that talking about this happening removes all of the power that it has,” Hundley said. “Once that video was released into the internet ether, I felt like I’d done what I needed to.”