Jan Schakowsky

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)–Seeking entree into what she calls “an untapped constituency” of women contributors, Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat called in 1997 every single female law partner in the greater Chicago area asking for donations to her first campaign for Congress.

The strategy paid off. The-now House member Schakowsky raised 57 percent of her campaign funds from women donors that year–a higher percentage than any other congressional candidate in the 1998 election cycle.

Schakowsky’s fundraising prowess caught the eye of Rep. Nita Lowey, a veteran New York Democrat and now the first woman in history to chair the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee–the House Democrat campaign team. In 1999, Lowey founded Women LEAD, a fundraising subsidiary of that team to target women donors and contributes to women candidates. After assuming the chair of the entire team, Lowey tapped Schakowsky to succeed her at Women LEAD, deeming the political newcomer a rising star in the Democratic caucus.

House Democrats aren’t alone. Sen. Patty Murray from Washington, the first woman in history to chair the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, launched a similar program in 1999 called Women on the Road to the Senate, which helped elect four women senators in 2000.

Whole Untapped Constituency Ready, Waiting

This year, the program, now called the Women’s Senate Network and headed by Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, has raised $1.3 million as well as some $2 million through separate events. Stabenow has a goal of raising about twice that before Election Day.

With women heading the House and Senate Democrat campaign teams for the first time ever, a woman–U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)–newly elected to be the party’s whip, and an ever-increasing number of women winning elective office, Schakowsky says the time is ripe to tap into women’s wallets.

“Party operations have for too long been viewed as mostly a man’s arena,” Schakowsky said. “We want women to be actually investing in candidates and in the party. When you make any kind of investment, you definitely feel more connected. I think there’s a whole untapped constituency out there that is ready and waiting to be engaged.”

As Democrats mount a nationwide campaign to take back control of the House next November–they’re six seats away from a majority–Democrats are already reaping the dividends of Schakowsky’s leadership.

As chair of Women LEAD, Schakowsky raised $7.3 million from women last year, about 20 percent of the $34 million House Democrats raised in 2001. Schakowsky has higher hopes for this year. She plans to raise another $8 million for a total of $15 million in preparation for the 2002 midterm elections, a figure that would far surpass the $6 million Lowey raised during the two-year 2000 election cycle.

To reach her goal, Schakowsky has planned a number of fundraising events. She is also making a concerted effort to target minority women who, she said, tend to give less to political parties.

As part of Women LEAD, for example, Schakowsky formed an ad-hoc steering committee of Asian American women, from whom she solicited advice and contributions. It was the first of what she hopes will be a series of political empowerment workshops across the country targeted to minority women, according to Shamina Singh, a former White House aide and president of Bridge to 2050, a consulting firm.

“This is a very small first step but it could be a major shift in the way we do things,” Singh said, noting that minority women give less than their white peers mostly because they aren’t asked to contribute. “But as we move toward a more diverse [country], they’re going to have to do things differently.”

Republicans Getting in the Game

Not to be outdone, Republicans are also getting in on the game. In July, the Republican National Committee launched Winning Women, a Web site and program designed to to attract more women to the party by communicating the compassionate conservative message to them.

Unlike the Democrats, however, the Republican House and Senate party committees say they are not preparing any women-oriented events in preparation for the 2002 midterms.

While they vote in slightly higher numbers than men, women from both parties have been more reluctant to make political contributions and engage in party operations.

Studies indicate that men and women contribute for different reasons and therefore should be approached differently. Women, for example, are more likely to contribute for ideological reasons whereas men are more strongly motivated by material incentives and access to elected officials.

Pat Carpenter, executive director of the WISH List, a political action committee that supports pro-choice Republican women for elected office, agreed that the population of women donors is growing. She said that women are being asked more often to contribute and are forming habits that will translate to larger donations in the future.

A longer-term study conducted by four political scientists confirmed that women’s contributions to political parties are growing.

In 1978, women accounted for approximately 17 percent of the individuals who contributed more than $200 to House and Senate candidates, the study showed. In 1996, 23 percent of those contributors were women–a 35 percent increase in an 18-year period.

A study conducted by The Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan campaign watchdog group, found that women contributed roughly 25 percent of hard dollar contributions of $200 or more in each of the past four election cycles. Women donors accounted for about one-seventh to one-eighth of soft money contributions, the unlimited, unregulated donations for party-building activities that tend to come in higher dollar amounts.

“Donors tend to be very affluent and highly educated,” explained Doug Weber, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, noting that women as a group are less financially able to make contributions.

But Ellen Malcolm, president of EMILY’s List, a political action committee that contributes to Democratic, pro-choice candidates, called the study “a huge fallacy,” because it fails to take into account donations less than $200. The Federal Election Commission does not require individuals to report contributions of less than $200. But Malcolm notes that women tend to repeatedly write checks for smaller amounts than men. She notes that with 68,000 members, EMILY’s List has grown to be largest PAC in the country and raised over $9 million, almost entirely from women, in the 1999-2000 election cycle.

Still, when it comes to politics, the gender gap persists.

“We are 14 percent of the House and 13 percent of the Senate,” Schakowsky said. “And we are a long way from being able to match men dollar for dollar” in political contributions. “When it comes to politics we’re not as fully as engaged as we ought to be.”

Allison Stevens covers politics in Washington, D.C.

For more information:

The Wish List:

Jan Schakowsky:

The National Journal, June 16, 2001
“The New Bosses”:

Winning Women:

Women Big Donors Mobilized in Congressional Elections:

The Center for Responsive Politics
The Gender Gap in Campaign Contributions”:

EMILY’s List
Welcome from Ellen Malcom:

Federal Election Commission
Guide for Citizens: