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The Complicated Politics of Reporting on Female Mega-Donors

Why are so few of our political mega-donors female? Last week, I was wrapping up a profile of Amber Mostyn—a wealthy Texan who’s helped bankroll Wendy Davis’s campaigns, and one of ladydom’s few major super PAC donors—when Politico’s Tarini Parti and Byron Tau asked this very question. The answers, as culled from female donors themselves, varied: there are fewer super-wealthy women than men; rich women proportionally favor other causes; and political operatives don’t seem to ask ladies to open their wallets as often as they do men.

Then again, when women do give, they don’t get nearly the attention of their male counterparts. Amber Mostyn said that she doesn’t speak to press as readily as her husband. Still, “No one really calls Amber,” Steve Mostyn said when I spoke to him last week by phone. “All the folks who have called to interview her have wanted profiles of the two of us.” Indeed, almost all of the 2012 donor profiles to mention Amber Mostyn were stories about the couple that focused heavily on Steve. There’s a noteworthy line early in Parti and Tau’s piece, too, in which they point out that although she donated $46 million to political candidates in the 2012 election cycle, “Miriam Adelson, a physician and drug addiction expert, wasn’t the one getting attention for hanging out with Mitt Romney in Jerusalem, actively speaking out against Obama administration policies, or being courted by politicians.”

There’s a material difference, of course, between there being few female super-donors, and there being little coverage of the few women who are active mega-donors. But just like in the corporate world, one thing that appears to be keeping women out of the super PAC game is a collective perception bias—few wealthy women or fundraisers naturally think of women as the political giving type. As Amber Mostyn asked, when the Washington Free Beacon did a hack job on her husband, why aren’t these few women getting the credit they deserve for flooding our political system with cash?

One obvious reason is that, of the women who crack the lists of top super PAC donors, nearly all of them gave alongside their husbands. And the investigative outfits that tirelessly compiled lists of 2012’s top super PAC donors tended to bunch husbands’ and wives’ contributions together. The Center for Public Integrity article that tallies up the Adelsons’ giving is titled “Donor Profile: Sheldon Adelson,” even though eleven of the 17 super PAC contributions listed read something like this: “$23 million to American Crossroads (pro-Republican), half of which is from his wife.” Their profile of the Democratic high-roller James H. Simons even attributed a $75,000 donation his wife Marilyn made to Planned Parenthood Votes to James.

This method of tallying made some sense back when the best way to skirt campaign finance restrictions was to max out under your own name and then donate through your spouse. But with fundraisers, according to Parti and Tau, reaching out to more women, and with super PACs allowing donors to give as much in their own name as they please, choosing to lump husband and wives’ donations together will become a more complicated choice. On the one hand, continuing to group Amber Mostyn’s donations with her husband’s belies the fact that Amber has her own job, her own cash, and her own priorities (as does Steve). You would never know from joint tallies that the couple have occasionally spent against one another in Democratic primaries. On the other hand, the Mostyns said that they make their largest contributions—like the millions they gave to Priorities USA Action—only after they’ve discussed it with one another. Grouping their donations reflects that this is probably how it works in most donor households. It’s also a nod to the reality that political operatives see husbands and wives with similar politics and free-spending tendencies as one unified cash cow.

And yet writing about the Mostyns, or logging their donations, as though they are one uniform source effectively means treating Amber Mostyn’s donations the same as Annette Simmons’s. The wife of Texas billionaire Harold Simmons, Annette gave $1.2 million to Rick Santorum’s super PAC and yet she typically reports her occupation as “homemaker.” Miriam Adelson, despite her professional accomplishments, acknowledges that she did not earn, in her line of work as a biomedical researcher, the $46 million she contributed to mostly Republicans in 2012; that money came mostly from Sheldon’s casino empire. And yet you can’t simply accuse Miriam Adelson of signing her name to her husband’s checks, at least not if you believe what she told a Fortune reporter about the Adelsons’ approach to political giving: “Sheldon and I share the same vision and beliefs, although we come from two different backgrounds. We are in full agreement on the causes we support, whether they are helpless people, drug addicts, or young people looking for roots in Israel. We don’t have arguments, or long discussions; it’s a quite fast discussion bearing in mind our common values.”

Steve Mostyn, by the way, doesn’t buy that. When I confirmed with him that he and Amber give from separate checking accounts—which itself could be construed as a pretty sexist question—this is what he said: “There is this perception with [Sheldon] Adelson, and I guess I share it, that his wife’s doing his bidding. But that’s not the case with Amber and me.”

Ignore for a moment that this quote is dripping with irony: reporters aren’t in the position to just presume, say, that Annette Simmons is just a name on a check, where Amber Mostyn is a political dynamo. The sticky domestic politics of who a couples’ income really “belongs” to have crashed into the world of campaign finance reporting—and there’s no politically correct way to untangle the two.

Molly Redden is a staff writer for The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @mtredden.