Rape threats and abuse are ‘part of public life for women’ Councillor reveals trolls made her ill as council marks centenary of women’s vote
ABIRMINGHAM councillor became so ill from the stress of abusive online threats that she collapsed and ended up in hospital.
Single mother-of-three Nicky Brennan revealed her daughter had to call an ambulance after finding her passed out in the kitchen in the days after a particularly abusive anonymous email.
It warned her: “You’ll get what you deserve bitch.”
The councillor spoke about her experience of abuse during a lively council debate about women in democracy, to mark the 100-year anniversary of the women’s vote.
Sparkhill councillor Brennan said: “It made me feel very unsafe. I was not sleeping, not eating, I was in panic mode.
“It brought back a lot of thoughts and fears [about previous domestic abuse incidents]. I collapsed because I was so exhausted and stressed out.”
Police advice to the councillor was to ‘lay low’ while they investigated the threat. They even offered to provide an escort for her the next day when she took her children to and from school, an offer she declined.
“The police advised me not to go out in public, cancel meetings and stay home. But I did not want anyone to think they could scare me off,” she said. “We don’t have enough women in politics, enough young women in politics and enough working class women in politics.”
It was not the first time the councillor has endured online abuse.
She said: “It seems to be a regular feature of being in public life for women. I have been threatened with rape and violence, called stupid, called all sorts of swearwords.
“I’ve had hardcore pornography sent to me, usually when I’ve been talking about domestic violence, or rape, or sexual assault.”
Cllr Brennan praised her ‘amazing’ constituents who rallied round and ensured she was never alone when carrying out surgeries or attending public meetings in the days following the email incident.
“They really looked after me, it was amazing,” she said.
She told the council: “The culture of politics must change to encourage more women.
“We need more BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic] women, disabled women, LGBT women and especially more working class women.
“A lot of decisions are made by people who don’t know what impact they are having.
“I’m going to reference a bit of ‘grime’ which I don’t think we have had in the council before. As Skepta says ‘We need some more girls in here’.”
Cllr Brigid Jones, deputy leader of the council, said the Suffragettes would be ‘turning in their grave’ at the lack of women in politics as she presented an action plan designed to address the underlying deterrents.
Just one in three members on the city council are women – 34 out of 101 – similar to the national ratio.
The problem has been exacerbated by the Boundary Commission’s recent changes which saw singlecouncillor wards introduced in Birmingham, argued Cllr Jon Hunt (Lib Dem group leader, Perry Barr).
The proportion of female councillors fell by 19 per cent from 42 out of 120 councillors following the local election earlier this year. The council has followed up on recommendations made in two recent national reports to come up with an action plan.
It also comes after a parental leave policy was approved earlier this year which has already benefited two councillors.
Further proposed measures include reviewing the code of conduct to include a directive that councillors ‘ must not sexually harass colleagues’.
Other ideas range from working with police to tackle social media abuse and exploring the possibility for attending meetings remotely and voting via Skype, although that would first require a law change.
The council already ensures that women make up 50 per cent of the cabinet and scrutiny chair positions
But Cllr Deirdre Alden blasted the council’s plan branding it ‘hurried’ and ‘badly written’ declaring that ‘women deserve better’.
She stated that she had never experienced sexual harassment in politics, arguing it must only be an issue within the Labour party and described the idea of mandatory female representation as ‘patronising’. Cllr Alden added: “I hate the idea that women are victims or hard done by or need special help. “I do not consider women to be second-class citizens who need a helping hand.” Cllr Jones (Lab, Bournbrook and Selly Park), who is also the only woman sitting on the West Midlands Combined Authority cabinet, had the final word on the debate. She said: “I can’t disagree more with your view that there is not a problem here. The evidence is staring us in the face. “You said women deserve better than this report. Well, they deserve better than us burying our heads in the sand.”
It seems to be a regular feature of being in public life for women. Councillor Nicky Brennan
> Nicky Brennan, councillor for the Sparkhill Ward, pictured on the Stratford Road in Sparkhill.