The threats arrive by mail, email, voicemail and social media. Hateful comments are shouted out of a car window or in line at the grocery store. More than ever before, the threats come home, in the form of protests or strangers circling the block.
As women make significant inroads and their numbers grow in politics, so too have the number of threats and acts of intimidation against them. Threats have long been an troubling aspect of elected life. But in interviews, women throughout Minnesota politics described a rise in vitriol and a worsening atmosphere.
"Women in elective office have become the go-to target," said Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., who has served at the local, state and federal levels during more than three decades in public life. "Women in this country still do not get the equal respect that their male colleagues do. In other words, women are easier targets, they're softer targets. And I think that that puts all of us in a much greater place of danger."
The COVID-19 pandemic and falsehoods about the 2020 election have increased hostility toward politicians overall, culminating in the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6. But the violence and threats directed at women in politics are distinct and threaten the progress they've made in government, said Mona Lena Krook, a Rutgers University professor who wrote a book about violence against women in politics.
"In the U.S. we've never had so many women in politics and women of color in Congress. It goes to the roots of identity-based violence," said Krook. "It's really about who does and doesn't look like a politician to some people."
Rep. Kaohly Vang Her, DFL-St. Paul, said she has struggled with sexism and racism as an Asian American woman working in the finance and nonprofit sectors, but she never felt unsafe until elected to the state House in 2018.
After carrying a bill and testifying in favor of a fifth-tier income tax increase, cars started circling her home in St. Paul as well as a farm property her parents live on in Stillwater. Several people got out of the car and asked her father if she lived there, claiming to be friends of hers. She didn't know them.
"It is those types of things that are really unnerving," Her said. "I also know that the work is too critical for me to be afraid to not do it."
In December 2019, someone left a voicemail at an office of Second District U.S. Rep. Angie Craig saying, "If you don't vote no for President Trump's impeachment, you're gonna die, bitch." Months before the 2020 election, Craig's Burnsville office was evacuated because of a bomb threat. In the last year, Craig said she's seen a substantial increase in the number of threats against her and her family.
In one message she shared, someone wrote in an e-mail that "Jan 6th was a practice run. You commie clowns aren't gonna see the next step coming." She has a bulletproof vest in her D.C. office, and has added what she described as "significant additional security" to her home.
"I've got four boys, I've got a family," said Craig, a Democrat. "I'd be lying if I said that they aren't concerned about my safety. I've got a new grandson. Sometimes you look at yourself and you say, how much? How much is it worth?"
The threats made against women in politics are often about identity, not issues, Krook said. They focus on the gender, race, sexual orientation or physical appearance of the woman they are directed at.
State Rep. Marion O'Neill spent more than two years living next door to someone in Maple Lake who threatened her and yelled at her on a nearly daily basis, singling out the fact that she was Republican and a woman. He once left a bird he shot in his yard on her front porch.
"Those are horrible, really threatening things," she said. "You have to have a really thick skin and strong support system to be a woman in politics."
Duluth Mayor Emily Larson has been in politics for a decade, but more recently the threats and intimidation have become a constant presence in her life. She's become more cautious about her physical whereabouts and movements. Police have had to drive by and check in on her home, and her staff in the office take extra precautions.
The effort it takes is draining and consuming, sometimes taking her attention away from the work she ran for office to do.
"It's just honestly so frequent that it is no longer unusual to have to pay attention to that," Larson said, adding that LGBTQ women and women of color experience even more vitriol. "It is something you learn to live with. It is 100% part of being a political leader as a woman."
For years, many women in politics largely stayed quiet about threats they endured, worried about inspiring copycat threats, or that they'd be perceived as not being able to handle the pressures of politics.
But more women are becoming vocal about their experiences. The House voted last month to censure Republican Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar for posting an animated video that depicted him killing Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with a sword. In a floor speech before the vote, Ocasio-Cortez said "as leaders in this country, when we incite violence with depictions against our colleagues, that trickles down into violence in this country."
Later that month, Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar publicly shared a violent voicemail where an unnamed person said Omar "will not live much longer." The message came in the aftermath of recent anti-Muslim comments from Republican colleague Rep. Lauren Boebert.
"We have unfortunately seen consistent threats from my first to second term," Omar said in a statement. "In my case we have seen attacks and threats based on my gender, religion, ethnicity and race, which creates a compounding problem for women with intersectional marginalized identities."
Many fear the threats and intimidation will prompt some women to step aside from politics or decide against running for office in the first place, which could chip away at the historic gains they've made in Congress and state Legislatures.
"Women who want to lead have to go into it knowing that, unless they intend to sort of be a real status-quo politician ... they are going to draw that ire and it's going to have a special kind of point to it," said Sen. Jen McEwen, a freshman Democrat from Duluth who faced threats online after her support for an abortion measure was posted by Republican colleagues on Facebook.
As a former Planned Parenthood executive, U.S. Sen. Tina Smith sees an uptick in "evil and hateful" messages directed at her any time the issue of abortion is in the news. But Smith says the problem is getting more explicit — and it's system-wide.
"When we're talking about this, we're not talking about our ideas, and we're not talking about our accomplishments, we are not talking about what we want to get done for people," Smith said. "You reach a tipping point where you have to say something."