By Sandra Fluke on September 11, 2014
It Matters That I Run. It Matters That You Do Too
I’ve always been a fighter for the public interest, making a difference through my work as an attorney and legislative advocate, but I never planned to run for office. To impact women’s underrepresentation in elected office, I joined groups like Emerge California and EMILY’s List, which are designed to train and support the next generation of women elected officials. I’ve campaigned for Representatives Julia Brownley and Lois Capps in California and strong women like Senator Elizabeth Warren on the national stage. But when I was asked to run myself, I felt that if I was going to campaign for women candidates, and work with programs designed to encourage women to run, I needed to seriously consider that request.
Women make up 53 percent of voters, but only 24 percent of state legislators. There are real consequences that result from our underrepresentation in legislative bodies, and it’s reflected in the laws that are passed in state houses across the country. Just this year, state after state has taken up measures to limit a woman’s right to access health care. Unfortunately, this is just one in a long list of examples of how women are impacted when we don’t elect women to office.
If we are ever going to begin to address the disparities with wages, healthcare, and education that women face, we need more women at decision-making tables where these important policies are being discussed. When women don’t have a seat at the table, we miss out on the conversation about access to contraception, reproductive healthcare, and other family wellness policies. Women are disproportionately caregivers for our families, whether it is young children or aging parents or sick relatives, so healthcare policy profoundly impacts women. Policies around education, from early childhood to affordable higher education have a similar impact on women. As women are increasingly the breadwinners or the sole-earners in their households, early childhood education is not just a good investment in a lifetime of learning- it could allow women to return to work so they can continue to support their families. So of course women are particularly well equipped to address issues like healthcare, university sexual assault, pay inequity and childcare. But we need a seat at the table.
All these things factor into why I decided to run for office. As a candidate for the California State Senate, I’ve been able to harness my passion for giving voice to the voiceless, and utilize my public interest advocacy and policy experience. Voters are telling me about issues they care about, from student loan debt to minimum wage increases, and from health care access to early childhood education. And time and time again, I’m reminded that a wide variety of issues disproportionately impact women and their families, which is why we desperately need more women to step up and run for office.
By no means do I want to sugarcoat running for office— the process is not an easy one.Women consistently have to prove they are more experienced than their male counterparts. We’re scrutinized on superficial characteristics that male candidates don’t have to worry about, and there are real fundraising challenges for female candidates. There is somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy that women candidates face: They might seem less viable to major donors and important political groups because we’re all less accustomed to seeing women in office. Not having a foothold in donor circles and insider political networks makes it extremely hard for women—especially young women—candidates to break through.
Addressing the closed-door nature of politics, particularly political fundraising, won’t be easy. Incredibly wealthy individuals continue to have a disproportionate influence on campaigns because of their ability to prop up candidates through direct donations and Independent Expenditure loopholes. Women tend to give less, and big-dollar donors are more likely to be men, which means women candidates need to rely more on grassroots support. I’m not suggesting that is a bad thing—I think running a campaign that relies on grassroots support allows elected officials to maintain their independence and responsibility to represent their constituents, not just a handful of mega-donors and special interests. But relying on donations that come in the form of five dollars or 20 dollars means women candidates have to spend a lot more time working on their fundraising, and that puts them at a disadvantage against a candidate who can rely on a few big checks.
But in a world where women are less likely than men to donate to political candidates, and the amounts they give are also less, we need to step up. Putting our dollars into supporting other female candidates is critical to ending the disparities in candidate fundraising. Supporting women who campaign, not just for statewide races, but for local elections, helps us all in the long run. We need strong women at all levels of government, because as we’ve seen too often, the decisions made on the state and local level are the ones that often most directly impact our lives.