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Why Are There No Female Sheldon Adelsons?

The real reasons for the absence of free-spending women political donors

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This week, Politico asked why women give so much less as political donors than men do. In a story called “The Money Gap: Why Don’t Women Give?” Anna Palmer and Tarini Parti reported that so far in the 2014 election cycle, the top ten male donors have given a total of more than $51 million, while the top ten female donors have given only around $8 million. “For all the progress women have made in Congress and in elections,” Palmer and Parti write, “they are practically sitting out the new game that is redefining American politics: big money.”

What’s more, according to Politico, political fundraisers are “bump[ing] up against deep cultural, strategic and logistical challenges that contrast markedly with how money has always been extracted from men.” These include the facts that women apparently respond to “a personal touch,” and “want more of a relationship with the candidate...” and that chicks are more likely to “mention the problem” of having overlapping commitments to family work and community, more than male donors do.

Right. It does not surprise me that women mention that problem more than men do.

A few of Politico’s interviewees even mention the major factor the piece leaves largely unexamined: The fact that in a country with a persistent wage gap and huge wealth gap, women simply have less money to give. “There are very few women who are able to write the big checks,” Boston philanthropist and political donor Barbara Lee tells Politico. (Joan Walsh at Salon has done a more thorough run-down of the contemporary economic realities of the giving gap.)

But in laying out the different giving patterns of women without really digging into the history or psychology behind them, the Politico piece may leave some readers with the impression that differences between how women and men spend political money may be tied to some vague, Men-are-from-Mars-Women-from-Venus reality, as if wealthy women just really need their political candidates to whisper softly to them and gently touch their hair or have some weird lunar-governed resistance to giving away huge wads of money to politicians.

The piece, while interesting, leaves out some crucial and fascinating context. The relationships between women, men, money, and politics is an important part of the story of women’s public, economic, and political progress in this country. It turns out that both women and men are from Earth, and their time sharing this planet has been marked by terrifically imbalanced scales of possibility!

We often forget how strongly the past undergirds the present. And we also often forget that until very recently, women in this country did not make their own money, certainly not in quantities large enough to make them political fundraising machers. Poor women have always worked for wages, but largely in order to subsist, not to fund, say, the gubernatorial campaigns of politicians likely to pass legislation that makes it even harder for them to subsist. When it has come to the possibility of amassing wealth, money-making has been a pretty exclusively male game until just a few decades ago. Women, with their severely limited access to funds, spent centuries having to forge dependent relationships on men—their husbands, fathers, brothers, and male employers.

Because of this, men have known for generations how to use money to exert influence and buy access, shape policy, and make inroads into the world of electoral politics. Women, by contrast, historically saw money not as a means to expand public power, but to ensure personal or familial security, survival, perhaps a slim chance of independence. There are many phrases for the small caches of money that women stash away: pin money, mad money, the Yiddish word knippel, which means a secret sum of money that a wife siphons off in order to protect herself and her family in case she loses the husband on whom she has had to depend. These phrases exist—and almost always refer to money used for the literal safety and protection of women—because money was so scarce for women, and chances to replenish funds lost on a bad bet or ill-timed investment were non-existent.

It’s not crazy that, in a contemporary context, throwing money at politicians and policy-makers would still be an easier, looser, more practiced move for wealthy men than it would be for even wealthy women, who we like to think of as having clambered over all the gendered obstacles of the past, but who—with 95 percent of CEOs still male—remain a very small exception to very long-standing male rule.

There’s plenty of research, according to Shauna Shames, an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers-Camden, that tells us that even when women gain access to money today, “they don’t think of it as theirs; they think of it as their family’s. So giving money to a politician is like taking money out of their children’s mouths.”

The question of women’s seemingly innate—but in fact, hard-learned—reluctance to part with the money came up more than a decade ago in philanthropic circles. In a 1999 article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, one female philanthropist told reporter Holly Hall, “I see it all the time … Women are paranoid about parting with money.” Another woman told of addressing a room full of potential female donors, asking how many were worried about ending up homeless and watching nearly every hand go up. “We all see women who get divorced and lose everything or end up in poverty,” she said. “We must overcome this fear.”

Hall, still an editor at The Chronicle, said that though she has not been keeping close track of women’s specific philanthropic patterns, she has a sense that “things have really changed very little since 1999.” Economic researchers often refer to something called “bag lady syndrome”: the persistent fear among women, even the high-earning, that they will someday be destitute. One 2013 study of more than 2,200 women between 25 and 75, all making over $30,000 a year, found that half still feared homelessness, and that even amongst those who made more than $200,000 a year, 27 percent harbored the same anxiety. Women are only now emerging from centuries in which the death or desertion of a spouse or male provider did often spell destitution for themselves and any children that they might have. 

This isn't just some atavistic fear: Women still remain the more economically vulnerable gender, the sex that earns lower wages in lower paying fields, that is not guaranteed any paid leave to do the work of tending to children and sick family members that often falls to them; women are the ones still likely to live longer, be widowed early, to not have enough saved for retirement.

The irony is that these economic risk factors are part of what makes women more likely to vote—if not to make political donations—than men, according to Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers.

“Women out-vote men, and one of the reasons for that is because women are more dependent on the government, because they’re more economically vulnerable,” said Walsh. “They can see themselves or their families, at some point in their lives, needing to rely on the government: for family leave, for health insurance, for social security, disability, Medicaid. They have developed a real connection to the government and that’s why they participate [as voters] at a higher level; but the very reasons that they participate make it less likely that they’re going to have the means to give away money to it.”

Rather than giving money, women's political work has often been more about doing the unpaid work of organizing, demonstrating, writing letters and volunteering for causes crucial to their communities.

“In the past women have had a lot of civic power,” said Shames, the political science professor who has also worked for NOW and the White House Project, citing the battles for abolition, temperance, and suffrage as examples of women-driven movements. “Women had a whole civic voice but they did not work through straight politics, which is why we have this problem right now. Partly it’s the wealth gap—you can’t donate if you don’t have money—but it’s also about incentive.” Shames’s research has shown that “even if women have means they are probably not giving money to politics for a very good reason, which is that they don’t trust politics. Women tend to see politics as being about old white men shouting at each other, so it’s not really solving problems. The history of exclusion from formal political power meant that they were more comfortable exerting civic power, through volunteerism.”

But today, she continued, with women across classes working in professional spheres and continuing to bear the brunt of domestic responsibilities, those nasty second (and third) shifts make it much harder for women to enter politics through unpaid civic agitation—the time crunch Politico mentioned in its article. 

This would help explain the places women do give: to organizations like EMILY’s List, which aims to decrease the numbers of shouty old white men. It also explains a bit about Politico finding that women want their politics to come with special relationships. “Women often appreciate a relationship,” New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand told the paper.

But it’s worth remembering, as Debbie Walsh points out, that “men want relationships with politicians too!" She explains: "Think about how fundraising works! You give a bigger ticket item so you go to a private reception where you have a warm fuzzy interaction with a candidate. That’s why they go to Las Vegas and court Sheldon Adelson! He wants a warm fuzzy relationship."

With men, we don’t talk about it in terms of trust and personal connection, because it’s just power, networks, access—the stuff that public life and influence is built on. It’s only when it’s women who want to form bonds with the people they give money to that it gets cast as personal.

But really, Walsh said, “politics is all about relationships. And it is the nature of campaign fundraising. The more and more you give, the better the relationships can be.”

And here is where there is an element of self-fulfilling prophecy in all this: If women don’t give big money, politicians will become no more likely to pull those women in close, to touch their hair and consider making better policy that does have an impact on their lives.

It’s a pattern that has long been discernible when it comes to female candidates: Once women begin to run, and begin to win elections, it becomes far easier for other women to win elections. Only after women begin taking the risk of paying out in politics will their money begin to have any impact, and will it begin to pay off for other women to give more money. 

In other words, it may not make rational sense for women to spend their money on politics, but if they don’t, it never will.