Editor’s Note: Marianne Schnall is the author of “What Will It Take to Make a Woman President? Conversations About Women, Leadership and Power” and the founder of Feminist.com and the What Will It Take movement. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
A record six women are running for president on the Democratic side: Sens. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand and Amy Klobuchar, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and motivational speaker Marianne Williamson. This unprecedented number, along with the historic surge of women who ran and were elected to office in the 2018 midterms, is a hopeful indication that women are beginning to make headway on the long and difficult path toward parity in politics.
But when it comes to fundraising – which, like it or not, is often synonymous with a candidate’s viability in our current political system – female candidates have historically struggled to raise as much money as men.
While the 2018 midterms showed us that the tide may be beginning to turn in terms of women’s fundraising efforts, we must be aware of the challenges women still face when raising money – and what we can do to make the presidential playing field as even as possible.
The state of the 2020 race
When comparing some of the first-day fundraising totals of the 2020 candidates who disclosed their numbers, the male candidates came out far ahead of the female candidates. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke made headlines as he brought in the largest first-day haul out of any 2020 Democratic candidate so far. Raising $6.1 million in the first 24 hours from donors in all 50 states, O’Rourke bested Sen. Bernie Sanders for the title of having the most first-day donations.
While there is an apparent fundraising gap in the first-day totals, things look a little more gender balanced when examining the top two first-quarter fundraising totals for the Democratic presidential primary candidates. Though Sanders is at the front of the pack with $18.2 million, Harris rose into second position with an impressive $12 million.
Historical challenges to fundraising for women
As I explored what stands in the way of more women entering politics in my book, “What Will It Take to Make a Woman President?” I found that men and women alike identified fundraising as one of the most significant contributors to the lack of women in political office.
Whether because of cultural biases against women in leadership positions, female candidates viewing the prospect of fundraising as a significant hurdle to running, women feeling uneasy asking for money or general incumbency challenges, women have been at a disadvantage on the fundraising front.
As renowned feminist activist Gloria Steinem reflected during our conversation on her own experience fundraising for female candidates, historically women have struggled to raise funds: “Money is a huge barrier. I’ve raised money for candidates who, if I’m raising money for them, probably are all the same on the issues. But if I’m raising money for a man running for the Senate, someone will give me $1,000; if it’s a woman, they’ll give me $200 or $300. Not consciously, but unconsciously.”
Signs of a shift
There is reason to be hopeful. A recent report by the Center for Responsive Politics concluded that, at least for House Democrats, women raised more money than men overall by the end of the 2018 midterm cycle. But, the report cautioned, black women still faced clear disadvantages in fundraising, particularly from large individual donors. That said, the fact that Harris has raised $12 million so far may be a sign that gender and racial biases are beginning to shift.
We are seeing further evidence of this positive trend of increased political interest and support for female candidates of color (and their growing influence as organizers and voters) play out in races across the country and in countless milestones achieved. Just look at the historic wins for women of color in the midterms election and the recent election of Chicago’s first black female mayor.
We’ve also seen what can happen when women’s collective power and potential are tapped. In Hillary Clinton’s 2016 bid for president, she raised $47.5 million during her first 2½ months as a presidential candidate, and of the more than 250,000 contributors who donated to her campaign, 61% were women. Although Clinton is an extraordinary example and her numbers may be an exception, her campaign showed us that contributions from female supporters can make a big difference.
But there are also the more recent notable examples of females, such as Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, who won their 2018 primaries even though they raised far less than their opponents. Ocasio-Cortez raised $300,000, while her opponent, Joseph Crowley, raised $3.4 million, and Pressley was at nearly a 2-to-1 fundraising disadvantage against Michael Capuano. These remarkable wins suggest that money may also be losing some of its influence in politics.
How to even the playing field
That said, if we want to maintain the momentum behind fundraising efforts for female candidates, there are concrete steps we can take.
Be aware. Let’s be careful not to assume that women don’t still face inequities and unique challenges when running for elected office. We need to be aware of – and raise awareness about – the cultural and structural obstacles, including sexism, biased media coverage and a lack of access to adequate funding, that still put female leaders at a disadvantage.
Contribute to campaigns. Voters must step in not only to help with campaigns but also to make financial donations to female candidates they believe in. Women voters already seem to be increasing their political engagement and giving, as evidenced in the 2018 election cycle. Though men still made up the vast majority of donors, there were significant increases in women’s contributions: 34% of congressional campaign contributions to all candidates came from women, and 45% of campaign contributions for Democratic female candidates came from women.
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Push for campaign finance reform. Changing the value structure in political campaigns is critical to opening up opportunities for more women to run and win. A long-term solution is campaign finance reform – a movement to reduce the involvement of money in politics and restrict the amount of money that individuals and interest groups can contribute to political campaigns – which would help to ensure that we do not determine candidates’ worth or potential primary success based on their fundraising numbers alone.
As Rep. Barbara Lee told me, “This environment of money and politics is obscene. We have to get the public financing of campaigns to level the playing field. … It’s been a man’s world and so they have the access to the resources, in many ways, much more than women. So, we’ve got to have a campaign finance system that really allows for equality.”
We all have vital roles to play in creating equality in political races. And we can do this by advocating to reduce the influence of money in politics, encouraging more women to run for office (if not making the leap into politics ourselves) and supporting women candidates we believe in.