When women in power take on a city’s beloved sports institution, shocking things can happen. Earlier this month, the five women who make up the first female majority on Seattle’s nine-member city council in nearly two decades voted against a street-use ordinance that would have helped bring a new basketball arena to the city. The women immediately faced a wave of misogynistic attacks, violent threats, and charges of gender-based incompetence.*
Some writers simply called the women names: “I fucking hate those BITCHES ,THERE NOT GONNA BE IN OFFICE IN 2 YEARS AND THEY SAY NO .. THEY CAN BURN IN HELL,” said one letter. Others said the council members lacked the intelligence to understand how important sports are to the city: “This is why women get paid less than men at this level.Irrational/emotional thinking takes president [sic] over reason in important decision making.” And one writer, a local attorney, signed his name to an email to all five women that read, in part: “As women, I understand that you spend a lot of your time trying to please others (mostly on your knees) but I can only hope that you each find ways to quickly and painfully end yourselves. Each of you should rot in hell for what you took from me yesterday.” (After a local activist filed a complaint with the state bar association, the attorney, Jason Feldman, issued a written apology. He didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
Perhaps only sports could bring this kind of ugly misogyny into the public conversation. Since Seattle lost the Sonics to Oklahoma in 2008, fans—mostly male—have rallied under names like Sonics Rising to bring the NBA back to the city. But women have always struggled to gain power in politics in this otherwise liberal city. Only one woman, Bertha Knight Landes, has ever served as mayor, and that was for a single two-year term in the early 1900s.**
For example: Twelve years ago, in a scandal known locally as “Strippergate,” three council members, one male and two female, took campaign contributions from a strip-club magnate seeking to expand his parking lot that had been illegally bundled. Although they returned the contributions and investigations found no evidence of wrongdoing, the two women were voted out of office in elections after ugly campaigns called their integrity into question.*** Groups like the National Women’s Political Caucus frequently wring their hands about the lack of women lining up to run for local office, and gender was a punch line at candidate forums last year, when a council candidate named John Roderick joked there were more candidates named Jonathan (three) than women (one) running for the two citywide council seats.
In interviews, most of the five council members who voted against this month’s street-use change—which would have handed control of a public alley over to a San Francisco developer who has vowed to “bring the Sonics back” to Seattle—say they weren’t prepared for the hundreds of emails, tweets, Facebook posts, and voice messages they received from angry sports fans, almost all of them male.
Sally Bagshaw, a soft-spoken, 65-year-old council veteran who voted in 2012 for an agreement to use public bonds to finance a future arena but opposed the street-use change last week, has been hit particularly hard by the misogyny firehose. After Bagshaw cast an initial committee vote against the change in April, she received irate phone calls which she summarized as follows. “You cunt. You whore. You bitch. You don’t know anything. You’re just having an emotional response. That’s why we need to have guys making these decisions.”****
“I cannot imagine anyone saying to a woman the kinds of things that they said to us. Do they say those to their sisters? To their mothers? To their wives?,” Bagshaw says. “I just got to a point last week where I’m going, ‘Holy shit, how did we get to this point in our community?’” A downtown Seattle resident for the past 16 years, Bagshaw says this is the first time she’d felt remotely afraid walking home without a police escort. “I thought, ‘What if a bunch of gooner drunks came out of one of the bars as I walked by and recognized me?’ And it made me mad because in all those years, I have never found myself in a position where I had to worry.”
Lorena Gonzalez, a freshman council member who cast the final, decisive vote against the alley measure, said that as a woman of color and the city’s first Latina council member, she was taken aback by the sexist comments; she’s more accustomed to racism. The backlash was a wake-up call that even in liberal Seattle, women have a long way to go before they’re fully respected as public leaders, she said.
“We have achieved a lot in the movement for women’s rights in our country, and certainly in our city, but that doesn’t mean that sexism is dead—it just means that it’s a sleeping dog, and when that sleeping dog is kicked, suddenly it bites you and you’re reminded that the dog has teeth,” Gonzalez says. “We cannot fool ourselves in this city, as progressive as it might be, into believing that sexism is a thing of the past because it is not.”
Council freshman Lisa Herbold adds that the five women's decision to oppose the measure is an example of a hardball negotiation strategy that's rare in Seattle. “We showed that we are willing to vote ‘no' if the deal being offered didn't meet our policy objectives,” she said. “Some men aren't used to women acting as tough negotiators to get what they want. They expect us to be conciliatory.”
Two days after the vote, after pressure on social media about his failure to promptly condemn the attacks, Mayor Ed Murray read a statement condemning the sexist comments at an unrelated press conference in a neighborhood far away from city hall. Only one female council member, Herbold, was present, and she says the mayor didn’t bother telling her he planned to make a statement, much less ask her if she wanted to speak for herself. The next week, with no formal statement from Murray forthcoming, the five women signed an op-ed in The Seattle Times decrying the sexist backlash.
Murray spokesman’s, Jason Kelly, said there was nothing unusual about his decision to speak up about the backlash at the end of a press conference without formal notice to the press. Murray “frequently speaks about other emerging issues, even if they are unrelated to the planned topic of the day,” Kelly said. “The mayor felt very strongly that as the elected leader of the city he needed to respond to the misogynistic comments about the councilmembers in the wake of the street vacation vote.”
One week after the vote, a representative from Bring Back Our Sonics, one of the mostly male groups that lobbies the council for the arena, stood up in council chambers.***** He implored the female council members not to forgive the comments, but to forget about them. They were, after all, a mere distraction from the “real” issue: the arena. “I would find it unfair if those comments were to cloud your judgment on the rest of the Sonics fans, [who] are passionate, full of class, and respectful to the council members,” the speaker, Joseph Chong, said. (This sentiment, which could be summarized as #notallsonicsfans, has also shown up on social media, where hundreds of male fans have jumped in to decry misogyny—and urge the council’s women not to let their emotions get the best of them).
After Chong spoke, another Sonics supporter, Josh Shea, stood at the microphone and for several minutes demanded that Gonzalez provide him with a detailed accounting of her “logic” in voting against the legislation. The off-topic speech violated council rules, but council president Bruce Harrell let it continue. Finally, after freshman council member Debora Juarez muttered, “This is bullshit” into a live mic, Bagshaw shut it down, calling it “inappropriate for this gentleman to focus on one of our colleagues. There are five of us who voted no for very logical reasons.” Not for the first time, the women had had to speak for themselves.
* The headline of this article has been updated to clarify that Seattle has a majority-female, rather than all-female, city council.
** This article originally stated that Bertha Knight Landes was mayor of Seattle in the early 19th century. We regret the error.
*** This article has been updated to clarify that the two female Seattle City Council members who accepted illegally bundled campaign contributions in 2003 were not charged with committing illegal activity.
**** This article originally stated that the hosts of the "Ron and Don" show gave listeners Bagshaw's number in response to her preliminary vote on the arena in April. In fact, the hosts urged listeners to call her during an unrelated debate over homelessness in February. After the May 2 vote, Don O'Neill actually stated his opposition to the deal, saying, "I agree with the ladies." To be clear, at no time did either host encourage listeners to use the sort of abusive language that Bagshaw reports receiving. We regret the errors.
***** This article originally stated that Joseph Chong is a representative of the advocacy group Sonics Rising. We regret the error.