According to Reeher and Jessica O’Connell, the executive director of Emily’s List, there are two key drivers behind the rise in women donors, especially for Clinton. First, for many, supporting Clinton represents a chance to make a social statement and elect the nation’s first woman president. Second, but equally as important, women voters see backing Clinton as a way to make women’s issues—including equal pay, paid family leave, and access to health care—priorities. “Issues that impact women are front and center,” says O’Connell, “which is why we’re seeing more women step up to ensure more women’s voices are at the table.”
Clinton’s history of speaking out on women’s issues, on a national scale, can be traced back for decades, a legacy that has made her, “emblematic of being a woman in politics” with “an identity that’s about breaking gender barriers,” says Reeher. “When Hillary went to Beijing as first lady and said women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights, that was such a breakthrough on the world stage,” notes Glenna Matthews, the co-author of Running as a Woman: Gender and Power in American Politics. Additionally, she says, “[W]omen have learned that women’s issues are the most salient to women politicians. At crunch time, if something has to give, it’s been women’s issues.” Matthews cites empirical research that backs up this belief and demonstrates that women in Congress are much more likely to reliably support and sponsor legislation related to women’s issues compared with their male counterparts. (Of course, not all voting-age women remember Beijing, and there have been marked differences between how older and younger women have related to Clinton. Many younger voters are less interested in breaking the glass ceiling and seemingly more drawn to Sanders’s especially progressive platform.)
On the right, Carly Fiorina is less likely to gain the same degree of support from women that Clinton has achieved, says Reeher, especially given her more recent entry into politics as well as her conservative views on topics that are important to women—like her stark opposition to Planned Parenthood. But even Fiorina has seen a slight boost in the proportion of her large donors who are women, marginally outpacing the other Republican candidates in this regard.
In the past, fundraising has been a greater struggle for female candidates than for male candidates. And even in cases where women are able to bring in similar amounts of money, there are still significant structural barriers they need to overcome in order to do so. Some of the main challenges women politicians point to are the advantages that incumbent candidates, most of whom continue to be men, have in gaining financial backing. Female politicians also highlight the exclusive connections to specific networks that male candidates often have access to. Plus, broadly, there is a mistaken assumption—that to win an election, women don’t just need to raise as much as male competitors; they need to raise more—that can tamper enthusiasm both by and for candidates. As more and more women join the donor class, they are directly addressing one of the main problems women candidates face: They’re helping expand the network that candidates draw from. “I think contributions do matter to the process—it’s not a one-for-one effect, but there’s also no doubt that candidates are aware of where their support is coming from,” says Reeher. “If you’re changing the composition of those contributions, then that is going to matter to the political process.” But, he is quick to add, “the thing that you also need to change the political dial is the composition of the actual elected officials.”
Despite comprising more than 50 percent of America’s population, in the Senate today women hold just 20 percent of the seats, and in the House, 19.3 percent. It’s even worse at the executive level: Out of 50 states, just five have female governors. More women contributing money could change this dramatically and put more women in positions of power—including the presidency.