In recent weeks, we’ve seen increasing proof that as candidates and as elected officials, women are finally coming into their own.
Women currently hold a record 98 seats in Congress, according to the Center for American Women and Politics, and five governorships.
Former Secretary of State and first lady Hillary Clinton is among the most talked-about potential contenders for 2016, and last week, the group EMILY’s List recently launched its “Madam President” campaign to put the first woman in the White House.
Meanwhile, writing in this month’s Atlantic, Molly Ball interviews a slew of both Democratic and Republican political strategists who believe women candidates are more electable than men. These strategists, Ball writes, “prefer female candidates for a simple reason: voters, they say, tend to assume women are more trustworthy, less corruptible, and more in touch with everyday concerns. In a white-male-dominated political system, women are seen as outsiders.”
Despite these strides, however, women are still falling behind on one crucial dimension of political power—and that’s as donors. And until they catch up, women’s political might will never equal that of men.
According to OpenSecrets.org, women contributed just 30 percent of all political donations made in the 2011-2012 campaign cycle, and among donors who gave more than $200 to candidates, men outnumbered women 2 to 1.
Not surprisingly, women were more likely to give to Democrats—they made up 43% of donors and 40% of contributions. Nevertheless, this still means that the bulk of the donations that went to such rock star female candidates as now-Senators Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin came from—men.
Moreover, among the top 25 overall individual donors in 2012, only one was a woman giving in her own name, while the rest were spouses of such male mega-donors as Sheldon Adelson and Jeffrey Katzenberg. (In contrast, eight men—including George Soros and Michael Bloomberg—donated solo.)
Political giving by women in 2012 was also slightly lower than in 2008, when women made up nearly 35% of donors and contributed 31.5% to the total amounts raised.
No doubt, some of this is due to the fact that women still earn less than men. In 2011, says the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, full-time working women made 77 cents for every dollar earned by men.
But She Should Run, a group that’s been urging more women to give, points out that women often make the purchasing decisions in many households, and that women are twice as likely as men to give to charity.
Their 2012 pre-election report, Vote Your Purse, points to a different set of explanations for the disparity in political giving between women and men:
[W]omen do not necessarily think their money matters in showing support for a candidate’s campaign and the issues she champions. They do not tend to connect political leadership with positive, productive social change. Women also do not view political giving as a civic responsibility, like voting or volunteering for a campaign.
Given the current dysfunctional state of American politics, women can hardly be blamed for believing that giving to political campaigns is a waste of money. (And in many cases, they’d be right.)
Still, there’s no denying the reality that for those who don’t hold elected office on their own, the expression of political power is through money. Money buys not just access to candidates and elected officials, it buys message and policy.
The aforementioned casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, as well as the famed Koch brothers, Charles and David, are among the nation’s most powerful – and unelected – political figures, thanks to their massive donations to candidates, super PACS and other political organizations.
In 2012, Adelson (and his wife) spent $93 million on various GOP candidates and causes, making him, according to the New York Times, the “biggest single donor in political history.” The Kochs, meanwhile, are major supporters of such influential libertarian organizations as the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, and the Cato Institute, which the brothers helped found.
While there are far fewer women who can match the Kochs or Adelson in wealth (only 138 of the 1,426 billionaires on Forbes’ 2013 list of “world billionaires” are women), their collective might, if harnessed through such women-centered organizations as EMILY’s List, could easily match a Koch or two.
The Republican Party in particular, could withstand an infusion of women donors committed to changing the course of their party on issues of concern to them. In 2012, just 28% of Republican donors were women—is it any wonder that the party positions are more hostile to women?
No doubt that in 2016, women will once again be viewed as a vital constituency to be dissected, analyzed and courted. And with any luck, a woman could be at the top of the ticket. But this time, let’s go in as full partners in the political process—as a potent power not just electorally but financially too.