The gender politics of assassination

The influence of assassinations – the killing of public figures for political reasons – is rarely understated. Rather, such acts are often viewed as heralding a sizeable shift in the future of communities, empires or the world. Every time a knife plunges into the back or a bullet hits the skull of a political leader and is described as an assassination, the use of such a term signifies that this death is important; this death should be noticed and remembered.

Largely due to the systemic disenfranchisement of women’s right to vote, lead and rule, the targets of such attacks have overwhelmingly been men, and the ways in which the word ‘assassination’ is employed today remain rooted in the imbalance of power inherent in the patriarchal structures shaping government, the media, the family and society at large. As such, even though women now have greater access to public platforms and have thus become more vulnerable to politically motivated killings, the word is still rarely attached to female public figures in discourse surrounding their murders. This gendered asymmetry in the usage of ‘assassination’ continues to deny women sociopolitical power and erase the legacy and longevity of women’s civic contributions.

The recent killing of UK MP Jo Cox is one such example. In no major news outlet in the anglophone world was her death labelled an assassination, despite substantial evidence suggesting the attack was ideologically motivated. Cox was allegedly murdered by Thomas Mair, who gave his name in court as ‘Death to traitors, freedom for Britain’ and was reported to have shouted ‘Britain first!’ repeatedly when he stabbed and shot the West Yorkshire politician after a meeting with her constituents. Considering her involvement in the campaign for Britain to remain in the EU, it is no great leap to conclude that her killing was indeed an act of violent political antagonism.

Yet, no more than a fortnight had passed before Cox’s death was seemingly expunged from popular consciousness. In the wake of Britain’s vote to leave the EU, headlines did not count her as a casualty of the fraught Brexit debate, instead citing David Cameron as its ‘first victim’. Similarly, UKIP leader Nigel Farage lauded the referendum result for being won ‘without a single bullet being fired’. Such ignorant language betrays insidious sexism. It is clear female parliamentarians have no place in the making (or remaking, as the case may be) of nationhood; we are in the midst of witnessing Jo Cox being literally written out of history.

In fact, Charles Moore explicitly sought to minimise the political significance of Cox’s killing in The Telegraph by arguing that the killing of MP Ian Gow in 1990 was ‘wholly political rather than mad’ and that Gow was ‘more important’ as a public figure than Cox. Moore, a Leave supporter, contends that ‘once upon a time’ the death of an MP would not have warranted suspension of democratic debate, and accuses Cameron of wielding ‘the body of Jo Cox’ as a political tool to halt referendum campaigning in aid of a faltering Remain movement.

This is highly hypocritical given that Moore, on one hand, demands commitment to debate while, on other, steadfastly refuses to acknowledge the far-right nationalism rooted in Anglo-supremacy that not only formed the core of the Leave campaign, but which also appeared to play no small part in Mair’s decision to assassinate Cox. Moore is culpable of using Cox to advance his own political agenda in the same way he condemns Cameron for exploiting her death to draw sympathy for Remain, although Moore attempts to do so via negation, dismissing the very idea that the death of a female politician could be political, that her work or what she represents could be important enough to incite attacks out of ideological hatred.

This toxic idea is not isolated to Moore alone. News broke in the aftermath of Cox’s murder that a number of female MPs had brought concerns about their safety to the attention of Downing Street, all to little effect. One MP made a submission more than a year ago warning of a ‘tragic fatality’ unless security was ‘dramatically improved’. The fact stands that Cox’s death was preventable had parliamentary authorities heeded the numerous statements from women fearing for their safety. Instead, we are yet again faced with the apparatus of institutional sexism that silences women, disbelieves them even when they do seek help, and stands idle as they are killed.

Coverage of Cox’s killing also took an ostensibly more benign approach to undermining the sociopolitical relevance of her life and death by orienting portrayals of her around her private as opposed to her pubic life. The Daily Mail, reporting on various memorials across the UK, wrote that one event ‘paid tribute to Mrs Cox’s “love, energy, passion, flair, Yorkshire heritage and belief in the humanity of every person in every place”’, and made no mention of her political or activist career. The article ended with a quote from fellow MP Rachel Reeves: ‘Batley and Spen will go on to elect a new MP but no one can replace a mother’.

Reducing women to the sphere of the family unit and the domestic functions they perform is far from a new phenomenon. As Kate Millett writes in Sexual Politics, ‘patriarchy’s chief institution is the family’ and there must women remain. Such sexist rhetoric can be found in relation to scores of other female public figures, including Swedish MP Anna Lindh, who was gunned down in 2013, days before a referendum to join the euro.

The parallels between Lindh and Cox are chilling, and extend to the ways in which media discourse following their deaths softened their political power in order to play up their conventional femininity. One reporter, writing for The Independent about Lindh’s legacy in her electorate, painted a homely portrait of a woman who ‘had a good record of attending parents’ meetings’ at her local school and was ‘one of the inhabitants, a family person’. While such portrayals appear harmless and even flattering, what we are being told is that a good woman, a woman worth mourning, is a loving wife and doting mother.

Comparatively, two days after Cox’s death, a young man struggled for a police officer’s gun at a Donald Trump rally in the US. He had allegedly been planning to murder Trump for the past year. Media response to this attempt on Trump’s life lay in stark contrast to how the deaths of Lindh and Cox were framed, most notably in the dismay of one Washington Post reporter at the failure of mainstream media to grant the rally incident wall-to-wall coverage. This outrage was ill placed; the incident drew continuing coverage from major news sources such as the Guardian, the New York Post and indeed the Washington Post itself. Each of these outlets framed the scuffle as an assassination plot, even though the man had no weapon, no shots were fired and his plan to kill Trump was far less grounded in political ideology than the intentions of the killers of Lindh and Cox appeared to be.

The liberal nature in which even failed attempts on the lives of male political figures are characterised as ‘assassinations’ valorises them, cementing and magnifying their sociopolitical relevance. The 1994 murder of NSW MP John Newman continues to be remembered as a cataclysmic event in western Sydney history. At the time, journalism surrounding his death focused on his tireless work for the community and his political career. His role as a ‘family man’ was an aside to his political work and community advocacy.

Twenty years on from his death, Newman is still described as the saviour of Cabramatta, an anti-drug campaigner who, despite repeated targeting by ‘Asian gangs’, denied the protection of police. Tim Priest’s book, On Deadly Ground: The Assassination of John Newman, builds on this legacy and paints Newman’s death as a journey to martyrdom:

A hooded figure emerged from the shadows and shot dead the fiery politician and anti-crime crusader, John Newman, in the driveway of his home. The shots echoed around the world as the murder became the first political assassination in Australia’s history.

Coupled with phrases like ‘anti-crime crusader’ and ‘fiery politician’, an aura of heroism is created around Newman that is largely absent for Cox and Lindh. There is no such mythology for female leaders like them, no nostalgic recounting of their deaths or celebration of their political achievements. They are instead fashioned as mothers and wives and remembered for their feminine symbolism, not the power of their politics.

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Image: Garry Knight

Alex Romano

Alex Romano recently graduated from the University of Queensland with a Bachelor of Arts/Law. He lives in Sydney and works as a solicitor.

Xiaoran Shi

Xiaoran Shi is a reticent law student and a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter @XiaoranShi.

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