As co-founder of Higher Heights for America, Kimberly Peeler-Allen has spent the better part of a decade trying to boost black women in politics. Despite her efforts, Peeler-Allen found herself feeling frustrated by the sluggish pace of change. When she turned to fellow advocates working to elect women to office, she heard a similar concerns.
“Even with all the resources that have been put into electing women, we haven’t seen the gains that we have all hoped to have seen,” Peeler-Allen recalled. “So we said it’s time to try to do something different.”
That “something different” became ReflectUS, a groundbreaking new effort to increase the number of women running and winning up and down the ballot — and across party lines . The coalition, which launched at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, is bringing together eight organizations with a goal of closing the gender gap in American politics. By combining resources and know-how, the coalition hopes to craft and promote evidence-based best practices for electing more women, keeping momentum going beyond the critical 2018 midterms.
“The palpable energy and excitement among women candidates is infectious, but the massive hurdles women face to achieve parity cannot be surmounted in just one year,” Anne Moses, founder and president of Ignite, a ReflectUS partner that trains young women for leadership, said in a statement. “[We] recognize that the only way to achieve gender parity in our country is to foster meaningful, structural changes.”
The gender gap problem in American politics is well documented. Despite being half the population, women make up 20 percent of Congress. Six of the country’s 50 governors are female. And of course, we’ve never elected a woman to the White House. The gap persists at the local level, too. Just a quarter of the more than 7,300 state legislative seats nationwide are filled by women, and one in five mayors of large cities are female. The numbers are even worse for Republicans and women of color.
Refinery29 published a piece that Anne Moses and I co-wrote about the importance of medium and long term strategies to advance women's representation and win parity that are necessary to secure balanced representation for women for generations to come:
If we’re serious about increasing the number of women in politics, we have to stop asking ourselves if there will be another “Year of the Woman.” It’s time to turn our attention toward a more urgent question: What will it take to achieve enduring gender representation for women in politics, and how are we going to do it?
We know that women are more likely than men to back legislation that helps American families; they are also more likely to collaborate and seek compromise, forging personal and professional relationships that cross party lines. Electing women to public office isn’t just good for women – it’s good for everyone and it’s good for democracy.
That’s why for the first time, eight preeminent nonpartisan women’s political organizations have joined together to tackle that question and achieve equal gender representation in our lifetimes. Our coalition, ReflectUS, is unlike any other before it. It’s bigger, more comprehensive, and it includes women with a diversity of ideological perspectives working to achieve political representation for all women everywhere.
What we have collectively learned through our work is that if we really want to elect more women, it’s not enough to recruit women to run and throw millions of dollars at campaigns. We must change our tactics. We need and have devised a 360-degree strategy aimed at electing women at every level of government – from school boards, to city councils, to state legislatures, and to Congress.
Even with the record-breaking number of women planning to run this year, they still only make up less than a quarter of all likely congressional candidates in the 2018 cycle, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. And there's a significant disparity between Democrats and Republicans. Of the 494 women who have said they’re running for the House and Senate this year, 76 percent are Democratic candidates.
“It’s obviously in response to the 2016 election of Donald Trump. That has activated and energized a lot of women particularly on the Democratic side,” said Christine Matthews, a longtime GOP consultant and researcher. “What it has done on the Republican side, if it’s done anything, it has dampened enthusiasm. It’s a tough time to be a Republican woman right now, let’s be honest.”
The imbalance carries over to Congress, where about three-quarters of all female lawmakers are Democrats. Matthews attributed the discrepancy to more female voters identifying as Democrats than Republicans. She also said that unlike on the Democratic side, where a bevy of women’s groups, most notably EMILY’s List, are at the ready to assist candidates, Republican women considering a run for office don’t have the same level of support.
“They make a big difference on the Democratic side," Matthews said, "and there’s not a comparable organization on the Republican side.”
In 2013, the Center for Responsive Politics produced a report documenting recent trends in giving by female donors and raising money by female candidates. Since that time, the political landscape for female candidates has shifted — Hillary Clinton was the first major party candidate at the top of the ticket, and we now have more women serving in federal elected office than ever before. 2017 was also a significant year for female activism, beginning with the Women's March on Washington and ending with the #MeToo movement. Given these developments, we document here donations by women in the most recent election cycles and show a major increase in the number of viable female candidates seeking to serve in Congress.
The 2018 election cycle largely shows increased participation by Democratic women to the benefit of Democratic candidates, both female and male. Republican candidates have received no more support from women than they had historically. Given that 42 percent of women voted for President Donald Trump, Republican women are certainly not a small fraction of voters, but their activism does not appear to be reflected in political candidacies or in their donation patterns.
In this report, we will discuss the gender balance of the 2018 candidate pool and then explore the number of donations — and amount of money — from female donors to federal candidates, parties and political action committees. As was the case in 2013, we do not have information about the race of political donors or candidates, but we are hoping to have access to data on the race of female candidates in the coming months. Women voters do not behave monolithically, and so we recognize that writing about them as such is a limited approach. As data become available, we will incorporate it through updates to this report.
According to numbers compiled by the party, the number of Democratic women running for county and state positions has increased 44 percent this year — to 545 from 378 in 2014. The number of women seeking state Senate seats doubled to 36, and the number running for the House of Delegates increased by nearly 60 percent, from 67 to 107.
But that is not enough, Matthews said in an interview.
“Even though you have roughly twice as many women running for office in Maryland, you still have more men running for office than women,” Matthews said. “We’re not at gender parity in terms of the broad pool of candidates.”
The Democratic National Committee has required equal numbers of men and women on party central committees for decades. But in many places, that often meant party leaders appointing nonvoting “gender-balance” members to address disparities among elected committee members.