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Facing Harassment As A Female Mayor


Heidi Harmon reached her tipping point in the pages of State and Local Government Review. That's a journal she reads as mayor of San Luis Obispo, Calif. And it published a study saying that American mayors who are women are twice as likely to face psychological abuse and three times more likely to be physically attacked than mayors who are men.

Heidi Harmon saw herself in those numbers. She wrote about it online. She joins us now from our member station KCBX in San Luis Obispo. Mayor Harmon, thanks so much for being with us.

HEIDI HARMON: Thank you so much for having me, Scott.

SIMON: You have been mayor of San Luis Obispo, that beautiful city, since 2016. Can you tell us what - some of what you've been through?

HARMON: The types of things I have experienced are comments on my looks, whether of a sexualized nature or body shaming and those types of things, comments on my economic status, calling me, for example, trailer trash - I had raised my kids as a single mom and as a house cleaner, really disparaging that type of background - calling me stupid, crazy, fat, you know, all of those things that women, unfortunately, are still having to deal with in 2020.

SIMON: Have you developed, Mayor Harmon, any kind of working philosophy as to what's behind these attacks?

HARMON: I think part of it is that I show up in the world from a very feminine place. You know, I think that we've seen women in any position of leadership over the last, you know, several decades really feel that pressure to come into their roles from the masculine. And with all the contentiousness that's in the culture, I think that mayors, because we are local - and those of us that are women in particular - are really bearing the brunt of the toxicity that's been, in many ways, created by the federal administration.

SIMON: Have you and the police had to take steps to protect you?

HARMON: About three hours after I made this initial post sharing my personal experience with all of the vitriol on social media, a man entered my office and jumped over our security wall, assaulted my staff and had to be taken down by my city manager, who fortunately has many years of martial arts experience and was able to handle the situation beautifully.

Everyone is OK, but the office is traumatized and, you know, I would say a huge distraction from the real work of the people of this community when we have to take time out to take care of ourselves because of these types of attacks.

SIMON: May I ask if - was the assailant local? Did he have a message? Was he deranged, or what?

HARMON: He is coming in the form, I think, of what would be legally and traditionally called a stalker. He has a romantic fascination, I guess you would say, with me. Most of the comments that I see online have that duality of sort of a sexualized violence to it. Even if they're not overt threats of actual violence, you see comments that are sort of - she's cute but stupid, you know? She's hot, but she's destroying the town. So there seems to be this real compulsion to tie those two things together, you know, which has been, I think, happening for women for maybe centuries, I'm sure.

SIMON: Yeah. There are, I believe, a record number of women in the U.S. Congress, number of big city mayors today who are women. Mayor Harmon, do you have any concern that accounts like these might at some level discourage women from getting involved as candidates?

HARMON: I have that awareness because I've heard that explicitly shared by young women and girls who have said exactly that. You know, I could never do what you do. It's too intense. I couldn't handle the criticism and the attacks and all of that. And, you know, I just want to say that, you know, there's a huge difference between robust, thoughtful, critical, truly curious sort of dialogue that is solution-oriented. People can disagree without being disagreeable, but we really don't need electeds (ph) with thicker skins. We need electeds with bigger hearts, you know, that are willing to be vulnerable and sensitive to people on the issues.

There's so much hope, and there's so many great examples of women in particular and other folks - trans people, et cetera - that are coming up and really taking their space, sharing their voice. And I hope that the people that are listening to this today will not hear this story and think, wow, I could never do that, but instead hear this story and say, huh, I think I could do that and be a part of creating communities that can move away from this contentiousness and instead create a more beautiful world.

SIMON: Mayor Heidi Harmon of San Luis Obispo, Calif. Good luck to you, Mayor.

HARMON: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.