Ms. magazine  -- more than a magazine a movement


MONEY | fall 2007

Vote With Your Pur$e
Time for women to put their money where their political hopes are

WHEN Ms. first hit newsstands in 1972, the famous Virginia Slims "You've Come a Long Way, Baby" cigarette advertising campaign was part of the national dialogue on women's rights. Mapping women's progress from the time of getting the vote to the new "freedom" to smoke in public, the long thin cigarettes were meant to symbolize that women had indeed arrived— economically, socially and, by implication, politically.

But Virginia Slims got it wrong. Although by 1972 women had indeed come a long way in many areas—with the passage of Title IX (see page 42), women began advancing in education and, thanks to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, were making gains in employment—they were going nowhere in politics. Women still lagged far behind men in political participation: Less than 3 percent of Congress members were women, with just 13 women in the House and two in the Senate. It would be 1986 before the first Democratic woman was elected in her own right to the U.S. Senate.

Although women edged men in total numbers voting in presidential elections, the proportion of eligible women voting trailed the proportion of adult men who cast ballots. That's why activist groups like the National Women's Political Caucus and NOW made women voter participation, and electing women candidates, part of their programs.

The challenge back then was twofold: getting political parties to understand the power of women's votes, and getting the men in charge of party money and political organization to take women seriously as candidates. As Ms. publisher Eleanor Smeal explained in her 1984 book Why and How Women Will Elect the Next President (Harper and Row), experts initially dismissed women voters as an unimportant part of the electorate. Even when women began to outnumber men in voting booths, those experts pointed out that a lower percentage of potential women voters were registered. Finally, the experts asserted that "women voted as the men in their lives did…women simply followed their lead."

The so-called experts were wrong. The gender gap—the measurable difference in the way women and men vote for candidates and view political issues—emerged strongly in the presidential election of 1980, when about 3 million fewer women than men voted for Ronald Reagan, an 8 percent gap. Reporters dubbed it "Ronald Reagan's women problem," and it has been a factor in every presidential election since, sometimes decisively.

Most recently, the gender gap played a major role in the congressional races of 2006. In those elections, women's votes were responsible for turning over the House and Senate to the Democrats.

In today's political scene, a new challenge confronts women voters: getting candidates elected who will make a difference on the issues women most care about. And that means getting those candidates funded. Like it or not, dollars drive elections, and women—whether candidates or donors—still are not behind the wheel of the campaign money bus.

The favorable gender gap in voting is counterbalanced by what one could call a "negative gender gap" in political giving, with men—and their very different priorities—firmly in the lead. Only 29 percent of direct contributions to candidates were given by women in the 2006 election cycle, and women's share of hard-money contributions to candidates, political action committees and party committees combined was just 27 percent.

It's not that women donors are stingy—far from it. In fact, they contribute to almost twice as many charitable causes as men, and bequeath money to such organizations in greater numbers than men. Women's donations have helped create the largest PAC in the country, Emily's List. And it's not that women candidates are poor at raising money. Hillary Clinton was the single highest money-getter in the 2006 election cycle, and women incumbents and challengers in both the House and Senate raked in plenty of dough. It just wasn't as much as that raised by men candidates, and the money didn't come primarily from women supporters.

With women still earning nearly 25 percent less than men, there's no question that women overall have less to give. But even that's not the real problem: Political giving in this country, even by individuals, is still driven by the good-ol'-boy networks such as big-time law firms (the highest-giving sector) and corporations. Law partners, board members and executives above a certain level are given the message that they're expected to "max out" individually on their donations to candidates—and most of those donors aren't women.

Despite comprising about 50 percent of students at law schools, women make up only 16 percent of top-level law partners today. Corporate America is similar, with women holding just 16 percent of top-officer slots, and it's even worse at the very top, where women hold a paltry 2 percent of CEO positions in the Fortune 500.

Calling the gender imbalance in political giving a "crisis of the checkbook," the Women's Campaign Forum Foundation wants to up women's ante in the 2008 election cycle. WCF Foundation is a new sister entity of the Women's Campaign Forum, a nonpartisan organization founded to support pro-choice women in politics. Their Vote With Your Purse initiative has two goals: increase women's political giving and increase the ability of women candidates to attract those dollars. Since elected women have a proven record of fighting for issues that are important to women (and stopping legislation harmful to them), the effort is worth supporting.

While acknowledging that campaign finance reform is a significant question to consider, the initiative is firmly rooted in current reality. “For better or worse, money is a critical factor in acquiring political power. When women lag behind in giving, it means their political will is not fully reflected, and their political power diminished," says Ilana Goldman, WCF Foundation president.

Upping women's political giving could make a big difference in light of a little-known rule by the Federal Election Commission: Candidates running for federal office can now draw a salary from campaign coffers equal to the job they gave up to run, or the salary they will earn if elected— whichever is lower. The rule will greatly benefit women candidates.

"Vote With Your Purse" is good symbolism. Like those slim cigarettes in 1972, purses are icons for what we have and what we'd like to have. But don't forget the matching shoes! Fundraisers often tell women they can make real change for the price of a pair of shoes. I don't know why everything we do has to relate to our bodies and their ornamentation, but the argument resonates. Next time you're tempted to take a look in a shoe store, whether Manolo Blahnik or Payless, pass it by. Instead, sit down and write out a check for the price of the shoes you skipped—payable to your favorite candidate. It gives a whole new meaning to voting with your feet.