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Seattle councilwomen stand up to sexist backlash

The majority of the Seattle City Council voted down a developer's bid to build a NBA arena and unwittingly triggered a gender war.

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City Councilwoman Sally Bashaw explains her no vote on the issue of whether to vacate a stretch of road where an investor hopes to eventually build an arena that could house an NBA team. The city council voted 5 to 4 against the the proposed 'Street Vacation.'

Genna Martin/AP

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Five Seattle councilwomen are defending themselves this week after receiving a wave of sexist backlash from an unpopular land-use decision.

A majority of the Seattle City Council voted against selling a street in the SoDo District to developer Chris Hansen, who hoped to build an arena in the area. Because the SuperSonics left Seattle for Oklahoma City in 2008, Mr. Hansen and his supporters saw the arena project as an opportunity to bring the NBA back to Seattle. But the vote was split 5 to 4, with the council's five women voting against the arena and the council's four men voting in favor of the arena.

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"By coincidence, five 'no' votes were cast by women – each for different reasons – and four 'yes' votes by men," the five female councilwomen write in an op-ed for The Seattle Times. "What we did not anticipate was the bombardment of threats, of sexual and other physical violence, hateful language and, in come cases, racist rhetoric and accusations of incompetence rooted in our gender identity. We were deeply troubled by this level of vitriol – exposed over a land-use decision – was lying just beneath the surface."

The five women were also surprised to find that well-meaning commentary presumed a causal relationship between the council members' gender and their subsequent opinions about the development.  

"Equally surprising was the way journalists, local and afar, immediately took to characterizing the vote as a 'boys-versus-girls' issue. We need to hold ourselves to a higher standard," add the councilwomen. "To belittle our votes and policy considerations as 'emotional and naïve' is not only an insult to women, it impacts our community. The misogynistic backlash to our vote is an attempt to communicate a dangerous message: Elected women in Seattle do not deserve the respect necessary to make tough decisions without the fear of violence and racially and sexually charged retaliation."

And while Mayor Ed Murray supports Mr. Hansen's arena project, both Mayor Murray and Hansen have condemned the sexist backlash. 

"While we may not agree with the council's vote, misogynistic insults, vile comments and threats are unacceptable and need to stop," Hansen said in a statement. "We should all show respect for our elected officials and the legislative process, even if we disagree with their decision."

Despite being considered a financially progressive city, with a $15 minimum wage upheld in court earlier this month, the state of Washington has not faired well in gender pay equality.

"Median earnings for men in Washington were $54,358 compared to $41,926 for women – an earnings ratio of just 77 percent, or 36th out of all states and the District of Columbia," says the American Association of University Women (AAUW) in a 2015 report.

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In the Seattle metro area, women only earn 73 cents for every dollar: the worst pay gap in the nation. With the hopes of combating these statistics, Mayor Murray set up the Gender Equity in Pay Task Force in 2014. 

This report includes material from the Associated Press.