When Jan Schakowsky needed to raise money for her first run for Congress, in 1998, she opened up a directory of lawyers and started dialing the numbers of the women she found there.
“Hi, I’m state Rep. Jan Schakowsky. I’m calling successful women like you, who, I’m sure, would agree that at least one member of the Illinois delegation to Congress should be a woman,” Schakowsky said she told the women, over and over. “It was definitely a woman’s pitch to women.”
Schakowsky won that election, and every election since. This cycle, about 62 percent of the Illinois Democrat’s donations came from women — more than any other female incumbent in the House, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
The 2018 elections have earned the moniker the “Year of the Woman 2.0” thanks to the record-breaking number of women running for office. But women aren’t just becoming candidates. They’re also becoming donors.
As of late October, they’d given $389 million to 2018 congressional candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That’s a nearly 30 percent increase from the $286 million they gave in 2016 presidential election. Women’s donations also make up a bigger share of midterm giving than ever before: They donated 36 percent of all midterm money this cycle, compared to 27 percent in 2014. In 1992, the last “Year of the Woman,” women gave 26 percent.
With this year’s surge in small-dollar donations, which aren’t broken down by gender, that percentage could even underestimate women’s 2018 political giving.
The money is a good omen for female Democratic candidates, who, for decades, have leaned most on contributions from women to overcome the financial hurdles they often face getting into politics. For the first time, women gave more to Democratic female candidates than they gave to male candidates of either party. Democratic women running for the House raised almost $80 million from female donors, the Center found.
“A lot of women don’t picture themselves as political donors. They just see that as a world that is closed off to them,” said Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Katherine Clark, who received about 56 percent of her donations from women this cycle and co-chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's Red to Blue program, which aims to flip conservative districts.
When asked why that is, Clark had a simple explanation: “I don’t think people asked them.”
Of the 24 current House candidates who’ve received more than half of their donations from women, 21 are women. All are Democrats. (Of the three men, Georgia Democratic Rep. John Lewis pulled in the greatest share of his donations from women, with women’s dollars making up almost 63 percent of his donations.)
On the Senate side, four candidates — all Democratic women — received more than half of their donations from women.
"A lot of women don’t picture themselves as political donors. They just see that as a world that is closed off to them."
Women have long been less likely to give to politics than men are, studies show. Lacking disposable income and shut out of voting in the United States until 1920, women have often instead directed their activist impulses into social or civic causes, said Michele Swers, an American government professor at Georgetown University who’s studied women’s political giving.
“Generally, those really, really big-bucks donors are much more likely to be men than they are to be women,” Swers said. “Men have just always been more likely to give those larger amounts, and women are keeping a more fiscally conservative eye on their own budgets in terms of their disposable income.”
Clark’s mother, for example, never considered donating to politics until Clark ran for office. “And once she started writing checks, she loved it,” Clark said. “It was something that she had just never seen or thought of as a possibility.”
The Center for Responsive Politics may also be undercounting the amount of money that women have contributed this year, according to Sarah Bryner, the Center’s research director. Democrats have seen a flood of small-dollar contributions, thanks to groups like Swing Left and Act Blue. But donations under $200 aren’t individually tracked by the Federal Election Commision, so they can’t be split by gender. As candidates, women also historically rely more on small-dollar donations, while as donors, they give in smaller amounts.
“I think that as more and more candidates rely more heavily on small donations, the role that women play in giving those donations is only going to increase,” Bryner said.
But even this year, female candidates are still raising less than their male counterparts. Women who won Democratic primaries for the House have raised an average of about $185,000 less than men who did the same, the New York Times reported. That’s in part because women, who currently make up about a fifth of Congress, are simply more likely to be challengers; incumbents can call upon established donor armies to add to their years-old war chests.
Men also still out-donate women, just as they still outnumber female candidates. Men have given more than $708 million to candidates this year, according to Center for Responsive Politics data.
Paradoxically, that kind of lack of representation is likely propelling women to help female candidates out.
“The people who have felt most disconnected and disenfranchised recently are disproportionately women, so our volunteer base has been at least 60 percent women,” said Kyle Horton, a Democrat running for North Carolina’s 7th Congressional District. “Most of the people who attended events were actually women, and it’s a lot of women who had never been to political events.”
Horton didn’t realize that, after the third-quarter filing deadline in September, about 64 percent of her donations came from women, more than any other candidate for the House, including incumbents. (That percentage later dropped after another, mid-October filing deadline.)
Horton didn’t intentionally try to seek out female donors. Rather, she believes the issues she ran on — in particular, health care for families — and her background as a physician particularly spurred women to support her campaign.
“Many women realized that we need more voices and more women in Congress,” Horton said.
Still, Horton is facing steep odds on Tuesday. She’s raised about $771,000 and spent nearly $563,000 over the course of her campaign, according to the Center on Responsive Politics. Her opponent, incumbent Republican Rep. David Souzer, has raised $1.4 million and spent about $880,000.
By pouring money into women’s women’s congressional campaigns, women can help guarantee that the issues they care about most get on the national agenda, according to New Jersey Democratic Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, who hauled in 60 percent of her donations from women.
“Women giving — giving not just to women but to men, too, at a higher rate — encourages an accountability,” she said. “Particularly on the part of men, on the issues that are important to women: gun safety, women’s rights, education, obviously healthcare.”
When Schakowsky ran in 1998, just 54 women served in the U.S. House of Representatives. Today, there’s 84; more than 100 women could win seats on Tuesday. And Schakowsky no longer hears, “I have to ask my husband,” when she asked for donations.
“I would hear that all the time. That was sort of the chief excuse,” she said.
Now, when Schakowsky makes her pitch to women, they might write their own checks. Then they might ask their husbands to write one too.
Cover image: Democratic Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky, accompanied by Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, speaks about estate tax reform, Thursday, June 25, 2015, during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)