A woman MP has become the latest high profile female campaigner to be targeted by internet trolls after speaking out against the marketing of pink toys for girls.
Chi Onwurah described how she was subjected to “aggressive” and “sexual” on-line abuse when she raised the issue in Parliament earlier this month blaming corporate sales tactics for colour-coding products and reinforcing gender roles in very young children.
The shadow Cabinet Office minister and former engineer is part of a drive to persuade more girls to choose careers in science and technology. But she told The Independent that women who campaigned on controversial matters were often more likely to be personally attacked than men.
“Women who do speak out do tend to attract a certain kind of aggression on the Internet,” she said. Ms Onwurah said she found the remarks, which were “often personal and often quite sexualised”, to be “surprisingly undermining”.
“What really annoys me is, say, when a woman puts her head up and she is trolled and then there is a response which says 'don’t feed the trolls – don’t engage with the people who are insulting you'. I think that is wrong.
“You should argue with them. The Internet space is a public space and women’s voices not only deserve but must be heard in there,” she said.
“The Internet space is also a legal space if you like. This idea that it is the Wild West and that different laws apply – our laws apply in cyberspace and in the physical world,” she added.
The latest incident follows outrage over trolls who made death and rape threats against journalist and feminist Caroline Criado-Perez who successfully campaigned for writer Jane Austen to appear on the new £10 note.
A man and woman were jailed for sending threatening messages to Ms Criado-Perez in January. Police also investigated after fellow campaigner Labour MP Stella Creasy received sexually violent messages.
Ms Onwurah was targeted by the far right when she successfully won her seat at the 2010 election to become Newcastle’s first black MP.
But the Labour politician, who this week received a boost in the campaign when retailer Morrisons announced it was to change the way it sells girls and boys toys, said it was her gender that had now become the issue.
After recently highlighting the fact that women were disproportionately absent from the video gaming industry she was again on the receiving end of misogynistic comments online.
“I was pointing this out and somebody commented – and I won’t use the language he used – 'What the hell are you complaining about? Women can get laid whenever they want. Yet men have to wait for you to put out,' basically,” she said.
In her Commons speech Ms Onwurah, who recently became an auntie to twins, said the demarcation of pink and blue toys had become worse in recent decades.
“At some point over the past three decades, the toy industry decided that parents and children could not be trusted to figure out what to buy without colour-coded gender labelling - that means Science museum toys being labelled “for boys”, whereas miniature dustpans and brushes are “girl stuff”, according to SportsDirect,” she told MPs.
“What happened? Did someone dye the Y chromosome blue in the ’80s or force the X chromosome to secrete only pink hormones? No. This aggressive gender segregation is a consequence of big-company marketing tactics.”
Ms Onwurah she said she would not be put off supporting the Let Toys Be Toys campaign which is seeking to persuade retailers and manufacturers to sort play items by theme or function, rather than by gender. She said she has not contacted the police over the trolls.
“The people who want to be nasty, they will be aggressively nasty but the people who want to support what you are doing are not necessarily so aggressive about it but I think it’s very important that they make their voices heard as well.
Otherwise the public debating space gets taken over by the most aggressive, the loudest and the most metaphorically violent,” she said.