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Women Don't Hold the Cards in Campaign Contributions

At yesterday’s Equal Rights Amendment rally, Republican Congressman Richard Hanna offered some intriguing advice:

I think these are very precarious times for women, it seems. So many of your rights are under assault. . . I'll tell you this: Contribute your money to people who speak out on your behalf, because the other side -- my side -- has a lot of it. And you need to send your own message. You need to remind people that you vote, you matter, and that they can't succeed without your help.

So far, so good. Hanna’s bipartisanship is refreshing – a pro-choice, (ostensibly) pro-woman conservative is such a rarity nowadays. His frankness, particularly regarding conservatives’ immense wealth, should be lauded. But his views on women’s monetary power in politics leave something to be desired:

This is a dogfight, it's a fistfight, and you have all the cards. . . I can only tell you to get out there and use them. Tell the other women, the other 51 percent of the population, to kick in a few of their bucks. Make it matter, get out there, get on TV, advertise, talk about this. The fact that you want [the ERA] is evidence that you deserve it and you need it.

So, ladies: this sounds nice, doesn’t it? Maybe if we all pitch a few dollars in the basket and start talking about the ERA around the water cooler, it’ll get passed, just like the olden days when sisters were doin’ it for themselves! 

If only that were so. Unfortunately, money in politics has evolved a bit since those days of yore. With the advent of the super PAC, a dollar in the basket has no way of competing with a tiny contingent of the super-wealthy. Consider the Center for Responsive Politics’ numbers on the gender gap in campaign contributions. Its listings of top individual donors (many of whom undoubtedly give to super PACs) contain only one woman donating independently of a husband or corporation: Microsoft's Ruthann Lorentzen. Furthermore, CRP data illustrate that once donation denominations surpass $2500, large-scale male donors outnumber women by two or three times.

The conclusion? Super-rich donors are still mostly men. Women simply don’t have that kind of monetary power in large enough numbers yet. Fortunately, there are exceptions. EMILY's List has raised $86,008,668 since its inception in 1985. Yet total amounts given by women have continued to stagnate since that time. According to the CRP, the amount given by female political donors has hardly changed in the past 22 years; WCF Foundation places it at around 31 percent.

Though the sisters-doin’-it-for-themselves model makes for a feel-good rally speech, it comes off as disingenuous in the current political landscape, where a small, super-rich group of overwhelmingly male donors creates more change than a dollar here and a dollar there ever could. So no, Representative Hanna, women don’t hold all the cards. But perhaps the Equal Rights Amendment, along with a healthy dose of campaign finance reform, could change that.