Swanee HuntFunding Serious Change(WOMENSENEWS)–When you grow up as I did with a father zealously committed to political change, it gets into your blood.


Dad was a Texas oilman with far right-wing politics. He relished this work and pulled his children into it when he could. My sister and I sang patriotic ditties to visiting dignitaries, and I sometimes delivered warnings about Castro’s communist threat as a warm-up to his speeches. In 1964 I accompanied him to the Republican convention at the Cow Palace in San Francisco; like a young Hillary Rodham, I was a banner-waving Goldwater Girl.

By that time our nation had already plunged into a sequence of social movements that would reshape my politics: civil rights, anti-war, environmental and women’s movements were underway. Dad died when I was 24, and my inheritance allowed me to become a philanthropist.

Five years later, in 1979, I made a reservation for a table in the male-only Main Dining Room of the Dallas Petroleum Club. (With a name like "Swanee," no one knows. . .) At the door, the stately but flummoxed black maitre d’ had to turn me away or lose his job. He and I had more in common than met the eye: Neither of us were welcome in the hallowed mess hall where deals might be made. I moved on.

Worked in the Grassroots

By 1992, I’d become a grassroots organizer and funder, steeped in a different sort of politics in my new home, Colorado. My work to reform mental health services in Denver introduced me to Federico Pena, who became Denver’s mayor and, eventually, the U.S. secretary of transportation, then secretary of energy. For Gov. Roy Romer I created, then chaired, a statewide commission on housing and homelessness. I also co-chaired Mayor Wellington Webb’s Human Capital Initiative, which made recommendations for every aspect of Denverites’ lives: employment, security, education and health care.

During those years I contributed to national campaigns, but never in a big way. Yet, in 1992 I met Bill Clinton in the home of a friend. His views and values were consonant with my own, and I left behind a check five times larger than the admission price. I was still a spectator, but I began pondering: What knight in shining armor am I waiting for to sweep me up into political action on a scale commensurate with my ability?

The Republican convention pushed me over the edge that year. In the wake of the Los Angeles riots sparked by the police beating of Rodney King, GOP speakers demanded a religious war to take back our cities. I was offended by the mean-spirited, ad hominem attacks on Hillary Clinton and the jeering of crowds as one right-wing speaker spewed hatred against homosexuals. "It was probably better in the original German," I remarked dryly to my husband.

Planning for Something Big

In the weeks that followed, I began talking with my friend Merle Chambers about our doing something big. She and I decided to put together a million-dollar fundraiser in the form of an issues-oriented symposium featuring Hillary and Tipper Gore, to make the point that women were an untapped fount of ideas as well as resources.

I thought I would stretch and make a $20,000 contribution; 10 times more than I’d ever given to a political cause before. Merle stopped me right there: $200,000, she said.

That’s what friends are for. I would sell some stock. Once I wrote the check I’d pretend I’d never had the money.

Now that I was committed, I crisscrossed the country, raising money. The event met our financial goal but, more important, we created a new template for fundraisers that was based on conscious values and intellectual curiosity rather than showing off shoes and rubbing shoulders.

My mega-contribution led to attention I wished I hadn’t had in the national media (I was listed in the New York Times on a short list of the largest contributors), but also the astounding–and unexpected–opportunity to join the Clinton administration. As U.S. ambassador to Austria, I supported the advancement of women’s leadership across Eastern and Central Europe.

Later, at Harvard’s Kennedy School, I founded the Women and Public Policy Program, working around the world to spread policies with the greatest benefit for women. It’s gratifying work, because when women are significantly represented (somewhere around 30 percent) in a governmental body, priorities shift from military overspending to investments in education and health care.

Giant Step for Women

Needless to say, Hillary Clinton’s candidacy this year meant the world to me, and given my work in 50 countries, I mean that literally. As she ran, the global population imagined a woman as president of the United States, and whether it was a hope or fear, that image opened doors. One giant step forward toward respect for women.

But then four steps back. A woman of much, much less gravitas has been popped through the opening, straight onto the Republican ticket. Now, in what I would describe as a pandering ploy, an examination of her distortions and weak record is labeled harassment. But those of us who have worked for decades for women’s opportunities don’t confuse overconfidence with competence.

For women to move into politics, they need preparation and education. But research shows that, unlike men, they also need inspiration. That’s why in Denver in August, during the Democratic convention, I staged Unconventional Women, a symposium for 3,000, inspiring women to political leadership. Serious issues. Serious women. Serious change.

Getting women into political leadership is my own political passion. Fortunately there’s a growing number of women who are putting not only their time and talents but also their financial resources toward political progress.

Money is key. At all levels we must go beyond the traditional envelope-stuffing and phone-bank managing to supporting political change with the power of the purse. When serious women support serious issues with serious money, that’s serious change.

Swanee Hunt is the Eleanor Roosevelt Lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She has authored a memoir: "Half-Life of a Zealot," as well as "This Was Not Our War: Bosnian Women Reclaiming the Peace," a winner of the PEN New England Award. Her foundation, Hunt Alternatives Fund, is known internationally as "provoking change for good."

This essay is part of a series on female political donors and fundraisers supported by the Sister Fund.

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