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 Aug. 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 reelection in November. She read the note a few times before the reality of the threat set in. Then she clicked the link.
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 organization 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.
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 behavior 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 don't 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 nearly 14,000 views as of Monday 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.
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 percent reported wide distribution of "extremely humiliating or sexually charged images."
Tactics such as sexualizing 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."
Before Hundley, Krystal Ball chose to speak out when photos of her were leaked during her campaign for congress in Virginia in 2010, in one of the first instances of this strain of online harassment to garner national attention. The photos were taken at a costume party when Ball was 22, and showed her and her ex-husband holding a sex toy. She'd faced an uphill battle as a 28-year-old female, Democratic candidate with an odd name, running in an overwhelmingly Republican district. When she thinks back to when she first saw the photos online, after having worked so hard to be taken seriously, the horror still seems fresh.
As with Hundley, Ball was advised to lay low or issue a denial, but she decided to go public. She didn't want to be cowed, she told The Washington Post. Despite having little TV experience at the time, Ball did a gauntlet of interviews to address the photos. On the drive to her first TV appearance, she remembers listening to The Shirelles, taking comfort as they sang, "Mama said there'd be days like this." She wrote an op-ed for Huffington Post, taking responsibility for the photos and slamming the efforts to embarrass her and make her feel "like a whore," because she saw a chance to set an example.
"I was thinking, 'What about when this happens to the next woman? What is she going to see about how to respond,' because certainly I'm not gonna be the last person this happens to," Ball said.
Ball was praised by many for her bravery and boldness. Although she lost her race, polling numbers showed she'd performed better because of how she handled the situation. Over the years, Ball has heard from many women that she gave them the confidence to run by showing that it was possible to endure such smear tactics with grace and directness, she said. Still, it pains her to watch other women go through similar things.
"Running for office is incredibly exposing for anyone, but when you're a woman it's doubly so." Ball said. "There's a model for how male politicians are supposed to be, but there's no model for when you're a woman."
When Hundley made her response video, she wasn't familiar with Ball's story. She wasn't following a precedent -- she was just angry, and wanted to model "radical transparency." Still, the nerves were intense. On the morning of Aug. 20, before the video was posted, Hundley was so anxious that she vomited.
"I wasn't sure if this was going to blow up in my face," Hundley said.
But the outpouring Hundley has felt from her community and beyond 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 is coming from people who are 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."
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)