Why Women Should Wage War on Big Money in Politics
By Blaire Bowie
They’re warring for, against, on, and with us. They’re assembling all-male expert panels, they’re swamping our email accounts with fundraising requests, they’re shouting on the airwaves. The pundits and late night comedians are going wild. There’s no doubt that the battle for the prized “women’s vote” is lots of fun for us all.
Meanwhile, real women are facing the realities of this political circus every day. We still have to make choices about and find ways to pay for birth control, we still confront glass ceilings, and we still face the threat of domestic violence.
Women are not a single voting bloc and we do not all agree on the best policy solutions for our so-called “issues,” but we can all agree that an adult conversation, not a political sideshow, is needed on Capitol Hill. And we agree that in order to be more taken seriously in Congress, we need more women in Congress.
Unfortunately, according to the updated Vote with Your Purse report, we are moving in the wrong direction. She Should Run, the group behind Vote with Your Purse, has been reporting for years on the correlation between women elected to Congress and our political giving. This year’s update, found that in 2010, women made up just 26 percent of recorded federal political contributions, down from 31 percent in 2008 and 30 percent in 2006. 2010 was also the first time since 1990 that women made no numerical gains in Congressional composition.
What the Vote with Your Purse report did not mention is that, in 2010, we also made no progress on the wage gap between men and women. In fact, if you examine a chart of the percentage of women in Congress alongside a chart of the wage gap, they have eerily similar plateaus:
— Between 1990 and 2010, the wage gap closed less than 6 percent but only by 1 percent from 2002-2010. In 2010, there was no statistically significant drop in the wage gap.
— Between 1990 and 2010, the number of women in Congress rose from 6 percent to 16.6 percent, but only about two percent of that occurred from 2002-2010. 2010 was the first year since 1990 women did not make gains in Congress.
While Vote with Your Purse makes useful recommendations for bringing women into campaign funding, there is more to the discrepancy in women’s political giving and political power than can be explained by the notion that we, as individuals, are simply not opening our pocketbooks enough.
The campaign finance system favors big money, and this makes it fundamentally stacked against women. From 1990 to the 2008 election we were making steady progress on both the wage gap and the number of women in Congress, but since 2010 and the Citizens United decision, we have begun to lose ground.
Our democracy has always given undue influence to wealthy special interests, but Citizens United dramatically and dangerously increased this disparity by leading to the rise of Super PACs which effectively circumvent federal contribution limits. The new dominance of Super PACs exaggerates the power of those with money, making the wage gap between men and women even more politically significant.
Consider that in 2006, when 30 percent of federal political contributions came from women, the average campaign contribution to a Senate candidate was around $800 — 2 percent of the average salary for women at the time and 1 percent of the average salary for men, a difference of 1 percent.
In 2011, the average individual contribution to a super PAC was $8,460. That’s 23 percent of the average salary for women and 18 percent of the average salary for men, a difference of 5 percent. Of the 196 donors whose contributions made up 80 percent of all individual contributions to super PACs in 2011, 20 have ostensibly female names and their contributions accounted for 6 percent of the total value.
It’s said that there are two types of power: people and money. However, those two are not weighted equally. So despite being a coveted “voting bloc,” as long as women earn less than men, we lack the political power to even control the conversation about our own “issues.” Perhaps this is why mega-donors like Foster Friess can get away with telling us to put aspirin between our knees on national television.
We can’t rest our hat on making slow, incremental gains in Congress, laboriously closing the wage gap, and inching towards gender equality in political giving. We need women’s groups to get serious about reforming the campaign finance system.
The environmental community learned years ago that as long as the political system is so easily skewed by those with the cash, green groups will always face an uphill battle against multinational corporations. That’s why major environmental groups like the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and Rainforest Action Network actively engage with the campaign finance reform community and make getting big money out of politics a key plank in their platforms.
It’s time for women’s rights groups of all stripes and political inclinations, from EMILY’s List to Susan B. Anthony List, to do the same.