The Nobel prize-winning author Toni Morrison once said, “If there is a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” And as a young woman the “book I wanted to read” was a narrative where a black woman could be a member of the UK parliament.
It was an extremely unlikely aspiration. After the 1983 general election, out of 650 members of parliament in total, there were no black, Asian or minority ethnic MPs – and only 23 women. But I ignored the odds and was elected in 1987, the first ever black woman MP. The campaign was tough. A brick was thrown through a window at my campaign HQ. Many Labour party members worked hard to back me, others went missing. The Times had marked my selection by complaining about my “rhetoric of class struggle and skin-colour consciousness”. Judging by the wariness with which I was treated when I entered the House of Commons, many MPs agreed with the Times.
But suppose that someone had told me back then that 30 years on I would be receiving stuff like this: “Pathetic useless fat black piece of shit Abbott. Just a piece of pig shit pond slime who should be fucking hung (if they could find a tree big enough to take the fat bitch’s weight”). I think that even the young, fearless Diane Abbott might have paused for thought.
And this is not an isolated example. I receive racist and sexist abuse online on a daily basis. I have had rape threats, death threats, and am referred to routinely as a bitch and/or nigger, and am sent horrible images on Twitter. The death threats include an EDL-affiliated account with the tag “burn Diane Abbott”.
I have never written about all this before. I am well aware that there are people who will deny it happens, others who seem to think that sexist abuse is the price women pay for being in public life, and some who just don’t care.
But last week was a perfect storm. Parliament and the parliamentary Labour party were roiled by the vote on Brexit. There were journalists outside my house on a daily basis; a Tory councillor was suspended for retweeting an image of me as an ape with lipstick. And accompanying it all, a crescendo of blatantly racist and sexist abuse online.
The point of this article is not, however, how I am treated as an individual. In 30 years in politics I have never complained about that. But I went into politics to create space for women and other groups who have historically been treated unfairly. Once, the pushback was against the actual arguments for equality and social justice. Now the pushback is the politics of personal destruction. This is doubly effective for opponents of social progress. Not only does it tend to marginalise the female “offender”, but other women look at how those of us in the public space are treated and think twice about speaking up publicly, let alone getting involved in political activity.
Who needs their intelligence, motivation and personal appearance to be savaged in the tabloids and online? Better to stay silent or say whatever the men are saying.
Online culture has also had a marked effect on mainstream media, because facts are blurred so often online. Journalists for some “respectable” newspapers can be dismissive when you point out that they have printed something false and for which they have no evidence. And mainstream media coverage increasingly feeds off a misogynist online culture. This is an issue for all women in the public space, and it is particularly an issue for those of us who would like to see more young women involved in political activity and debate in the wider society.
All of this takes place with Brexit looming and with the dark shadow of Donald Trump cast across the international scene. There are lots of respectable reasons to have voted for Brexit. Tony Benn supported exiting the EU all his life and nobody could have said he was anything other than a staunch progressive and internationalist.
But if online commentary and the rise in racist incidents are anything to go by, there is a danger that Brexit could give some people permission to express sentiments that are anything but progressive and internationalist. And as the world adjusts to a Trump presidency there is also a danger that his misogyny and virulent anti-immigrant narrative will become normalised.
But despite these difficult times, Toni Morrison got it right when she said in a 2004 essay: “There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language.”
And we also do politics. Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see. Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010