When I moved to Detroit in 2016, Scott Benson, my city council representative, had recently been released from Oakland County Jail. He’d been caught operating a city-issued 2008 Crown Victoria with an open fifth of whiskey in his lap; he was convicted of driving way under the influence, in violation of what the State of Michigan has called its “super drunk driving laws.”
The conviction carries a maximum sentence of 180 days, but Benson served less than four days of a seven-day sentence. He explained to fellow council members surprised to see him back on the job so soon that his release didn’t arise from any special treatment extended to elected officials. It was simply part of a program to prevent jail overcrowding.
In a gesture meant to regain the trust of his constituency, Benson pledged himself to a regimen of walking and ridesharing even after his license was reinstated in 2015, only getting behind the wheel again when he won re-election last November with almost 64 percent of the vote. The landslide victory seems to have come about in the classic fashion of machine-backed politicians, with challengers’ yard signs yanked from lawns and Election Day volunteers milling about the polls at my precinct wearing Scott Benson T-shirts. His campaign had benefited from heavy advertising for a Community Benefits Agreement he’d crafted—an eleventh-hour, watered-down, corporate-friendly version of a similar proposal that had been submitted by actual communities concerned about redevelopment in their neighborhoods. Benson’s version won, although it represented a direct affront to his constituency.
Benson’s political staying power is due, in large part, to his expertise in real estate, which many see as key to city revitalization—even if promoting greater commercial development in the city is a myopic approach to tackling Detroit’s actual problem, poverty. In Benson’s view, no one loses when he shuts down a strip club in his district; in eliminating what he sees as a disreputable business, he’s also helping to boost the prospects for higher-end commercial occupancy, thereby increasing the city’s tax base—a win-win, in the mindset of the city’s ruling class.
But since Benson’s district is also my district, I see a different sort of economic retrenchment taking hold. Dancers put out of work by such efforts have few other decent-wage employment options. In our part of town, the electricity still goes out for days after a storm. Potholes on the highway off-ramp up the block destroy axles weekly. Property taxes are absurdly high in comparison to home assessments. And when my neighbors need the police, they call the ones from Hamtramck, the next city over, because unlike Detroit’s finest, they actually show up.
I failed the phone test, but one interviewer kindly suggested that I’d make an excellent candidate—once I save up $10,000.
Benson and his office are friendly enough when aggrieved constituents bring these matters to the councilman’s attention, but they rarely follow through with solutions. Researching solutions is how I discovered Article 9, Chapter 1 of the Detroit Charter—ratified in 2012, but shelved until the emergency management system, installed to see the city through bankruptcy, was ousted in 2014—which allows for the creation of a Community Advisory Council (CAC). This body has the mandate “to improve citizen access to city government,” made up of members who serve four-year terms and “receive no compensation.”
Here, it seemed, was a promising opportunity for a concerned outsider—me, perhaps?—to get involved in the nuts and bolts of local government. At the behest of my neighbors, I contacted Benson’s office to learn how the CAC might function in his district, but received no response. I looked into it further and resubmitted my queries: Has the CAC in this district even been established yet? Is anyone on it? Can I talk to them? How many signatures are required to run for the position? Again, no one in Benson’s office, or in Detroit’s wider network of activist groups, had any answers. I talked to members of CACs in other districts, local professors of civil law, and key activists in the city and state—and still, no one seemed to know how I might move forward.
Failing the Phone Test
Things started looking up—although only in this regard—when Donald Trump took office. The day after his inauguration, an army of ladies in hand-knit, rose-colored hats were decreeing themselves the heiresses apparent to the 2018 midterms. Organizations like She Should Run, Emerge America, and EMILY’s List declared themselves to be at the vanguard of ensuring that a new cohort of female candidates win public office at all levels of government. Other groups popped up, too, all intent on promoting women candidates for the 2018 cycle. The Pink Wave!
I set out to surf it. After filling out a flurry of questionnaires I got replies from two groups offering to interview me for their candidate training programs. I prepared by shoring up support at neighborhood meetings up the block and at cocktail parties downtown—and by drafting platform papers while scrolling through professional attire in shades of navy and maroon online. Yet hopes for a sisterly reception were quickly dashed. Neither organization had any information about the public office I was seeking, which didn’t surprise me after my own stalled efforts on that front. What surprised me was that neither organization seemed interested in locating the information.
Instead, the interviewers cut straight to what I later learned is called the phone test: “Take out your cell phone, scroll through it, and figure out who to call first about your campaign,” I am told. I naively mentioned the heads of community organizations who had urged me to seek office, business leaders of my acquaintance, a handful of left activists, and of course my future constituency, my neighbors. Wrong. That first phone call is meant to raise a seemingly arbitrary threshold of donor funds—$25,000.
“For a volunteer position?” I ask, “That I’m beginning to suspect has never been occupied?”
Needless to say, I failed the phone test, although one interviewer kindly suggested that I’d make an excellent candidate—once I saved up $10,000.
Luckily, my financial ineptitude didn’t bar me outright from democratic participation. Shortly after my interviews, I was placed on the fundraising lists of these two organizations and a wide array of other groups that support women’s campaigns—evidence that my email address was promiscuously sold to the many groups on the entrepreneurial side of the Pink Wave. For many long months afterward, I fielded an avalanche of fundraising appeals from at least a dozen such groups—daily reminders of the true cost of, and profit to be made from, democracy.
Up through the 2018 midterms, the “Pink Wave” has never been presented in the press as the great mustering of cash that it proved to be in my experience. Indeed, the term might be best applied to the bubbly, rosé-hued headlines that prematurely declared victory for a brand new electoral contingent of energized, knit hat-wearing feminist activists. “Women are owning 2018,” NPR announced in June. By July, Vox was on board: “Democratic women are picking up momentum.” “If 1992 was ‘The Year of the Woman,’” ran a Newsweek caption, “2018 is shaping up to be its long-awaited sequel.” (For younger readers, “The Year of the Woman” was a pigpile of trendspotting articles in the wake of the Clarence Thomas hearings and Bob Packwood scandal, which pointed to a then-record number of female candidates for national office—twenty-nine in Senate primaries alone, although only four won seats.) The Atlantic noted the “rise of motherhood as a campaign asset,” while Time declared women “the face of the Democratic Party in the first national election of the Trump era.”
Only Politico held out, with the headline, “2018 Year of the Woman? Not so fast.” In a bracing numerical corrective to all the rose-colored coverage, Politico noted that women still made up “less than a quarter of all House candidates”—so even a 100 percent win rate for the Pink Team could only shift the percentage of female office holders so much. But the idea of a woman-led anti-Trump backlash was irresistible to politics editors across the nation. Stories that impressionistically connected the Women’s March, the #MeToo movement, and Trump’s egregious statements about grabbing vag or wanting to bed his daughter continued rolling in clicks—even as some of us scoped out the campaign trail for more prosaic reasons.
To be sure, the sheer numbers indicated that the mustering of female political hopefuls was more than hysteria. “Around 400 women, mostly Democrats, are planning to run for the House,” The Economist noted in February, “at least 50 for the Senate and 79 for governor. That is far more than have previously stood for any of those offices. At state and local levels, the picture is the same. In 2015 and 2016 around nine hundred women consulted EMILY’s List about standing for office; since Mr. Trump’s election, over 26,000 have.” Erin Loos Cutraro of She Should Run, a nonpartisan nonprofit that supports women candidates, told Viceland that a normal campaign year sees 150–200 women every month seeking support. By early 2017? “Close to six thousand,” she says, curly blonde hair framing her big blue eyes. The Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers lists over four thousand total women candidates this year for congressional, gubernatorial, and state-wide seats. Axios reported that by the end of Trump’s first year in office, fifteen thousand women had contacted She Should Run.
Still, for someone of my own admittedly extra-outsider pedigree, the media spectacle was more than a little discomfiting. The efforts to stem local corruption and consider the livelihoods of sex workers that drew me toward the idea of office-holding seemed far afield from the excitable press surrounding the cresting Pink Wave. Indeed, a distinct whiff of locker room brio hung in the air—the women’s, of course, the same one where all the #MeToo allegations festered before their public airing-out, as if gals could finally trot out cocktail-fueled snap-backs in the light of day. Dana Nessel’s campaign for Michigan attorney general, for example, was announced in a video spot asking, “Who can you trust most not to show you their penis in a professional setting?” Her answer: “Is it the candidate who doesn’t have a penis? I’d say so.”
I’d happily retain that as an aside, a laugh line, or even stump-speech boilerplate, but the trouble with it as the highlight moment of a campaign announcement is the tacit equation of penislessness with policy, as though an unprecedented number of lady electeds would, de facto, govern better. Few party leaders and media commentators got the memo that more men were also running for office during this year’s midterms—28 percent more than in 2016, in fact—which somewhat changes the read on the 2018 campaign insurgency from “Pussy Bites Back” to “Apparently Anyone Can Do This.”
Yes, unprecedented numbers of women did in fact stand for office in 2018. But those of us who remember the original Year of the Woman and its aftermath know better than to expect the hubbub to translate into significant shifts in American political culture, let alone meaningful policy shifts. Had there been such a sea change back in the 90s, the brute fact of Trump’s election would have been unthinkable now—and it presumably wouldn’t have taken another full political generation to oust the odious Harvey Weinstein. So I’m left wondering now: Who stands to gain from the tirelessly hyped notion that women are the future of US government?
Kneading the Dough
EMILY’s List was started in 1985 to “elect pro-choice Democratic women to office,” the group’s mission statement explains. It was founded by Ellen Malcom, who’d inherited a sum of money at 21 she would only concede was “vast” to fawning Washington Post reporter Amanda Spake in 1988. “Women Can Be Power Brokers, Too,” the reassuringly patrician headline read; the body of the piece described both Malcolm’s discomfort with her own wealth and the dawning realization that she could use it to lead women to campaign victory.
EMILY’s List was an innovation and, much like the old-fashioned ladies auxiliaries in both major parties, a marked step toward the still-elusive goal of gender equity. Registered as a Political Action Committee (PAC), the group differs from most PACs in that it doesn’t exclusively collect money from donors and then allot funds. Instead, it curates a list of candidates and then asks members to provide direct donations to the group’s preferred roster of political hopefuls. Federal election laws confine PACs to donations of $5,000 per candidate in federal elections, and limit individual donations at $1,000. But because EMILY’s List functions both as curator and funder, the group’s collective, campaign-bundled support can go well beyond those limits.
On paper, the totals are impressive: $6.5 million from individual donors so far this year and another $12.2 million through its Super PAC, according to Time in June. That Super PAC, Women Vote!, has allotted half its funds so far this cycle for media buys—mailers, websites, and ads, according to campaign fund-tracker Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). The group’s largest media buy—a cool $2 million—went to a company called AL Media. That was before the primaries, when totals were already a leap from previous campaign years. During the 2014 midterms, for example, EMILY’s List shuttled $4.7 million to candidates during a run-of-the-mill Year of The Man. There seems to be no ceiling, not even a glass one: Over the last 33 years, the group’s pulled together more than half a billion dollars for female campaign hopefuls.
In the early days, the EMILY’s List face-to-face donor strategy didn’t seem all that revolutionary; to go by the Washington Post’s account it was more like a Chardy-pardy for campaign widows to idly compare Rolodex entries. “The ultimate Tupperware party,” one attendee enthused to the Washington Post. Nowadays, though, the party’s moved online: the organization’s Twitter feed boasts nearly 150,000 readers; its Facebook page has more than 450,000 followers. Email blasts are a major boon for the endorsed.
Yes, unprecedented numbers of women did in fact stand for office in 2018. But those of us who remember the original Year of the Woman and its aftermath know better than to expect the hubbub to translate into significant shifts in American political culture.
Still, the most prophetic note was sounded by the founder’s investment counselor, Phillip McLaughlin. “She would make any capitalist proud,” he told Washington Post reporter Spake of Malcolm’s proficiency at wealth accumulation, “even a Republican like me.”
When Yeast Goes Bad
That a pro-choice, Democratic women’s political organization can play well enough in the capitalist sandbox to make a Republican man glow with pride is why EMILY’s List has drawn a good deal of vitriol from activists and candidates on the left this primary season. The name is an acronym for Early Money Is Like Yeast (“it raises the dough,” Malcolm has said, helpfully), conjuring the placid image of homemade bread and other domestic delights, not the stinging redness of infection. It’s an eloquent social statement of its own for a political women’s group to adopt as its foundational metaphor the nineteenth-century era domestic sphere over, say, the collectivity involved in the traditional feminine practice of quilting, or women’s mass and ongoing participation in the labor force of the garment industry. EMILY’s List sees itself, and the women it supports, as solitary, but the problems that plague the group have spread—yes, itchy and rash-like—to groups like She Should Run and Emerge America, not to mention the state-level groups founded on the EMILY’s List model (Ruth’s List in Florida, the Georgia WIN List, and Lillian’s List in North Carolina) or GOP-focused efforts like Maggie’s List and Winning for Women. Now the whole system for promoting women in politics is painfully infected.
Broadly speaking, the recent disenchantment with EMILY’s List echoes a good deal of the complaints critics have lately lodged against the Democratic party establishment at large: that it’s institutionally averse to candidates with reform agendas, and dismissive of issues that motivate a younger generation of left-leaning activists. And much like the national leaders of the Democratic party, the funding mothers of EMILY’s List have accumulated a bracingly dismal track record in the one sphere where they like to claim exclusive expertise—identifying and grooming serious talent to lead toward a more populist vision of how power is held and exercised by national Democrats. Under the sway of the donor-driven electioneering exemplified by EMILY’s List, the erstwhile party of the people has made a habit of sacrificing congressional majorities at the earliest possible opportunity, while sinking to its lowest level of overall representation in state and national government since 1924. To envision a different, and more effective, brand of gender-justice-minded campaign politics, we need to take full stock of just how and why the group has abetted so many trends that now hamstring the crucial struggle to revive a viable left feminist politics in the age of Trump.
To begin with, there’s the well-documented myopia of interest-group fundraising. Particularly when it disburses funds through its abortion-rights Super PAC Women Vote!, EMILY’s List has long made support for access to the medical procedure a litmus-test issue for the group’s backing. There’s nothing wrong with that as an organizing principle by itself, of course. But the exclusive focus on abortion as the criterion of first resort can, and increasingly does, muddy the selection process when other issues come into play—particularly when such support is cast in the centrist, equivocal term the group prefers, “choice.”
This is particularly crucial when the cultural defense of abortion as individual choice cuts against the socioeconomic advocacy for reproductive freedom as part of the struggle for full gender equality, the rights of trans people, and women’s self-determination. Sometimes the group backs “one pro-choice woman against another,” as disgruntled candidate Stacey Evans put it to the New York Times, after she had lost EMILY’s List support to Stacey Abrams in Georgia’s Democratic gubernatorial primary. Abrams may well be, by the time you read this, the first Black woman governor in US history—the best outcome for all concerned in many ways. At the same time, Evans had worked as a lawyer granting free legal assistance to Georgia women seeking abortion, and so it was hard to suss out the case for EMILY’s List interceding on the side of either candidate.
Consistency, at any rate, is not the group’s strength. In Illinois this year, EMILY’s List backed Marie Newman against incumbent Democratic House Rep Daniel Lipinski, an anti-abortion conservative, late in the race. Newman lost, and many were angered by the delay. Then there are occasional straight-up failures: female Democratic candidate Juanita Perez Williams won EMILY’s List backing for her 2017 campaign for mayor of Syracuse, NY, despite a clearly articulated anti-abortion position.
The group tends to be more consistent when it comes to backing candidates who are pre-anointed by the broader Democratic donor machine—and who are apt to lay out funds for establishment Democratic consultancies. This winter, for example, EMILY’s List backed anti-labor corporate lawyer Lizzie Pannill Fletcher over activist and journalist Laura Moser in Texas, the creator of popular Anti-Trump text-messaging app Daily Action. The debacle included a DCCC-funded attack ad accusing Moser of shady deals with her husband’s campaign consulting firm—even though the DCCC is itself rife with such cozy-intraspousal consulting arrangements, as the Intercept noted in February. The DCCC’s independent expenditure director, for example, is married to a partner at consulting firm BluePrint Interactive, who retained both Fletcher and EMILY’s List as clients, according to the Intercept. Indeed, a former campaign director with EMILY’s List itself was married to the founder of consulting firm New Media, Inc., who handled a number of clients the group had recommended. (That Fletcher handily defeated Moser in the primary made the aggressive intercession of the Democratic establishment all the more puzzling, as though they recognized the threat of their own atavist political instincts somehow coming fully to light, and decided to overcompensate on an enormous scale.)
That consultants’ list is surprisingly central to the group’s offers of support. Karen Mallard, a public-school teacher who ran for Congress in Virginia, met with EMILY’s List early on, but was only offered that list of consultants. (Mallard told The Intercept, and presumably her EMILY’s List contact, that she couldn’t afford a consultant.) Lucy Flores, backed by the group in 2010, 2012, and 2014, has complained that a great deal of pressure comes with such lists, so the hiring of consultants becomes part of the endorsement package. AL Media, one of this year’s consultants-of-choice, includes among its top-ten client roster (after Super PAC Women Vote!) the groups Alma Adams for Congress, Lindsey for Congress, and Elissa Slotkin for Congress, according to CRP. All are, or were recently, backed by EMILY’s List—which means that the bulk of AL Media’s income derives from placement on that list. Of course the consultants listed are vetted and trusted: AL Media Partner Ann Liston was previously in the employ of both EMILY’s List and the DCCC.
None of this is illegal, and may not even meet a strict definition of nepotism. But consultancy allows establishment Democrats a central role in decision-making as they funnel cash and expertise toward fresh-faced candidates’ campaigns. That hiring them is so significant to inclusion on EMILY’s List raises questions regarding whether the group truly seeks to support candidates or the consultants that sit atop the Democratic Party food chain.
In addition to bigfooting many strategy discussions among its candidate client base, the group also at times disburses its agenda-setting treasury so as to hamstring the chances of insurgent candidates. It often stints on providing the “early money” promised in its acronym, waiting in some cases until well past the primaries to weigh in with support, which then may come in the form of attack ads instead of the seed money and early endorsements that contribute to building a strong, popular base. In New York, EMILY’s List has refused to weigh in on several races pitting reform-minded pro-choice women against anti-choice candidates, leaving some to wonder how dedicated the group is to its own stated mission.
Regardless of mission, the group is provably more interested in money than message. Lucy Flores lost EMILY’s List support during her 2016 campaign for Nevada’s fourth congressional district. The group backed philanthropist Susie Lee’s campaign for the seat instead of Flores, who is Latina. An email from staffer Lucinda Guinn obtained by the Las Vegas Review-Journal explained that Lee “currently has over half a million dollars more in her campaign account than Lucy, who hasn’t built an operation capable of communicating with voters this time around.” (Flores lost the primary—but did beat out rich white lady Lee, who came in third.
Charges of white privilege bear significant weight. The group does not extend enough funds to women of color, Black women in particular. Women of color make up only 15 percent of the group’s early-August list of featured candidates, yet get name-checked at almost every turn—a move that comes across as tokenistic in the absence of more sustained recruiting of, and support for, nonwhite candidates.
Given the group’s desire to back winning candidates, you’d think EMILY’s List would be doing more to support women of color seeking to win elective office. Higher Heights for America and CAWP found in a joint report that Black women candidates for congressional seats did better than women overall in 2016. The greater appeal of pro-abortion women of color is even borne out by the group’s own math; EMILY’s List staffers are quick to point out that 40 percent of the women they’ve helped elect to Congress have been women of color. All of which makes it harder to explain why so few of the group’s current top-level roster lists are Black women candidates.
Questions of representation and agenda aside, there’s also a mounting sense that Emily’s LIST just isn’t all that good at what it professes to do—i.e., grooming and supporting viable candidates in female-flippable congressional and state races. The lip service is generous but the results, stingy: Disillusioned women candidates complained that the group offers, but fails to provide, functional support. Promises of introductions to funders or DCCC insiders never materialized, and thousands—likely tens of thousands, if we compare the numbers of backed candidates to the numbers of women who sought assistance from such groups—submitted applications for support without response.
Who stands to gain from the tirelessly hyped notion that women are the future of U.S. government?
There are other blunders. In April, EMILY’s List donated $5,000 to Deidre DeJear, a Democratic candidate for Secretary of State in Iowa—where it’s illegal for a PAC to donate to candidates for state office during an election season. (DeJear returned the funds.) And the candidates backed by the PAC can be real doozies. Minnesota’s Democratic frontrunner for governor and current Attorney General Lori Swanson, for example, stands accused of pressuring the state’s AG office staff to “volunteer” on her campaign—work for which they were rewarded with hefty raises, according to an Intercept investigation. And the spies! Former CIA agents Abigail Spanberger (running for Congress in Virginia) and Elissa Slotkin (who’s running in Michigan)—the latter an intelligence officer during the war in Iraq—have their “progressive” bona fides confirmed by inclusion on EMILY’s List. (If nothing else, the group’s self-description as “progressive” might prompt some long-overdue critical thinking on that callow political descriptor.)
Then there’s Michigan gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer. I like the way she’s run her campaign, and even a long-dead squirrel would do less damage than Trump-backed GOP nominee Bill Schuette, Michigan’s current attorney general. But Whitmer’s tendency to trash single-payer health plans jibes well with the interests of BFF Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, where her father was CEO until 2006. The company’s PAC hasn’t donated directly to her campaign yet this year (as it has in years past) but it did send out a request for donations to eight thousand members, according to the Detroit News. Campaign finance records reveal this brought in nearly $145,000. (EMILY’s List has so far donated $250,000.) Whitmer’s establishment candidacy also defeated insurgent left candidate Abdul El-Sayed, a physician in the public health sector, who ran on a plan to introduce single-payer coverage in Michigan, and benefited from zero support from either the insurance industry or establishment Democratic donors.
Due in part to the group’s reputation for mixed-at-best follow through, EMILY’s List is no longer the only Tupperware party in town. Several newer women-in-politics organizations boast bright-eyed mission statements and brandish ambitious plans to heighten the number women officeholders while advancing a left-reform policy agenda. Higher Heights for America is a training and campaign research organization that supports Black women; Emerge America, a training and networking organization in support of Democratic women candidates; and nonpartisan She Should Run is a 501(c)(3) that supports women’s campaigns for public office.
There’s also Raising Our Sisters’ Assets Political Action Committee, ROSA PAC, dedicated to fundraising for women of color running for Congress. The National Women’s Political Caucus primarily offers training to genuinely left-leaning, pro-choice, female candidates, and funds campaigns with its PAC. Women’s Campaign Fund trains bipartisan women candidates and manages a PAC. Nonpartisan, youth-focused organizations Ignite and Running Start seek to support future candidates in high school or college with educational opportunities and DC meet-and-greets.
Even Our Revolution, the progressive organization Bernie Saunders supporters founded after the 2016 campaign, told the New York Times they were considering a women’s campaign support arm called Our Revolution(ary) Women. (Really? Women as owned entities instead of agents of change? Come on, dudes: This is why you get called brocialists.)
There’s also a less formal cabal of ladies who lunch who support women candidates—people like Nancy Beeuwkes in Massachusetts, or members of the Women Donors Network, a national group of left-reform feminists. But even independent donors take cues from EMILY’s List. The group is “one of the best ways to know who the good people are coming along, and I always ask if they have been approved,” Concord-based Beeuwkes told the New York Times this spring.
In other words, while EMILY’s List may not be the only Tupperware party in town, most of the latecomers are dealing in the same machine-molded plastic—hardly a surprise given the mobbed-up character of campaign funding in the wake of the Citizens United ruling. And despite the emergence of more groups competing for lower-level complements of women’s campaign cash, EMILY’s List still has powerful branding appeal in the wider scrum for fundraising from big-money Democratic donors. “Women who have run for office say that when they make calls to women donors, the first question they’re asked is often, ‘Are you an EMILY’s List candidate?’” notes The Intercept. “If the answer is no, they’re told to call back when they are.”
Money for Nothing
Increasingly, the pool of unendorsed candidates includes many who both meet the group’s criteria and whose messages could stand a chance to connect better with voters than establishment Democrats—as, say, Laura Moser’s campaign might have in Texas, with proper support. But high-profile pro-choice Democratic women candidates who’ve run and won tight races without the group’s support may end up having final say: Democrat Christine Hallquist, the first openly transgender major party nominee for governor in Vermont, is notably absent from EMILY’s List. Cynthia Nixon, New York gubernatorial candidate, had built a strong campaign without establishment support. And most famously, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a young, first-time Democratic Socialists of America candidate, prevailed against Joe Crowley, a six-term incumbent groomed as the likely successor to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi should she regain the Speakership, in a race that EMILY’s List conspicuously sat out. Ocasio-Cortez bluntly outlined the organizing theme of her campaign in a viral video: “This race is about people versus money. We’ve got people, they’ve got money. It’s time we acknowledged that not all Democrats are the same.”
Incumbent women lawmakers are also coming to question how well a laser-sharp focus on fundraising prepares women for public office. Rhode Island State Senator Gayle Goldin has been vocal about the need for support structures for elected women—a critical project to work out long-term policy agendas, but also one that doesn’t interest groups that only curate candidates and fund campaigns.
Goldin wrote in Glamour of the internal struggle women politicians face: “Is it more important to gain your colleague’s support on legislation than to remind him that he should stop calling you ‘one of the girls’ when he’s talking to you?” She notes that, “if you start speaking truth to power, power talks back—by killing your bills, changing your committee assignments, and smearing your reputation.” The issues she describes—microaggressions, we’d call them, if the term didn’t slight the macroaggressive impact they have on policy that affects women’s lives—can’t be rectified by a clever attack ad or fundraising email.
In an interview, Goldin explained that she’s not a detractor of establishment fundraising for women candidates; she previously got support from EMILY’s List, and has offered candidate training via several other women-in-politics groups. “Everything those organizations do is critically important,” she tells me over the phone. “Often women find fundraising the biggest hurdle.”
But it’s also clear from the policy-driven work that she’s taken on in the Rhode Island legislature that campaign funding represents only the first hurdle for women looking to produce meaningful political change. That’s part of the reason she helped found the Rhode Island Democratic Party Women’s Caucus. “It’s designed to get women involved,” she said. “Not necessarily in office, but to shape the party.”
Goldin is also clear about the gendered trials that come with holding public office. “A male colleague once stopped me in the middle of a policy discussion with another senator to tell me I looked pregnant,” she writes in Glamour. “Work-related events involve alcohol served by women in low-cut shirts and plenty of ‘locker room talk.’ Colleagues interrupt me and tell me to stop asking questions, to calm down, to be helpful.” If she pushes back in any way, she invites the ostracism of her male peers in a host of ways, from getting left off the guest list for informal networking events to getting shut out of bill sponsorships. She suggests over the phone that it’s too much for some women, who may not stay in office once they’ve won elections.
The network of party pipelines and big-money fundraising appeals aren’t enough anymore. “The system worked for a lot of years,” Goldin tells me solemnly. Again, she won’t say a word against EMILY’s List, She Should Run, or Emerge America. But her use of the past tense is notable.
Filling the Donor Gap
The vast stacks of cash, though, can be hard to see beyond. A rough count of the reported sums raised among the cohort of women-in-politics donor outfits indicates a haul of collective haul of around $12.5 million—which doesn’t count either bundled donations or Super PAC contributions, both of which can go quite high since no one regulates or otherwise keeps tabs on them in the wake of Citizens United. Regardless, that figure will be well shy of what the final post-midterms count will likely be this year. By any reckoning it’s an impressive share, especially considering that the bulk of funding comes from individual women contributors—who still pull in, by the way, 80 percent of what men do, on average. Yet women are outpacing the wage gap to fund women candidates. The CRP found in March that woman were providing 31 percent of campaign contributions to all candidates, up from the 26-28 percent rate that had held steady since 2000. And not surprisingly, given the Republicans’ backing of a confessed sexual assaulter for the presidency, women are pitching in the most for Democratic women candidates, making up 44 percent of contributions to those campaigns. (They are also kicking in more for Democratic male candidates, up 5 percent over 2016 to 34 percent.)
Their donations make up for gaps in party support. A She Should Run analysis of the 2012 race showed that funding problems are most pronounced in the race to the Senate floor. Women from both parties made up 56 percent of candidates for U.S. Senate, but received only 37 percent of the funds from either major party.
Corporate donors contribute the rest. Facebook, Comcast, Caesars Entertainment, and Barbie all sponsor She Should Run—all, in their own ways, heavy in-kind contributors to the broader culture of corruptionism in the Trump era. Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, and AT&T sponsor the young-women-in-office 501(c)(3) Ignite, while Walmart—at one recent count, the largest employer of low-wage workers in the United States, a group that disproportionately includes women laborers—and Lockheed Martin, a defense contractor named in several sex-discrimination lawsuits, show up frequently on the Running Start sponsors list. These companies worked mighty hard to get us into the political mess we’re in today, so it seems odd, to put things mildly, to rely on them to get us out of it.
In fact, the entire narrative that underlies the pundit-friendly notion of the Pink Wave doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Even if the historic numbers of new women candidates elected to the House helped to boost the Democrats into a majority, the same patriarchal social mores and habits of mind that Goldin has to face in Rhode Island will still be holding sway in the recent legislative home of Anthony Weiner and Blake Fahrenthold. And with one or another sort of feminist disappointment again likely to overtake the circles of political officialdom, an all too likely casualty will be the dream of a deep and abiding cultural shift that could seed real long-term political change.
Heading into this campaign cycle, opinion surveys showed that Republicans favor male candidates for public office, according to a Politico/Morning Consult poll. Democrats, according to the same polling data, see benefits to electing women, but are quick to point out barriers to a successful campaign, like previous lack of office-holding experience or low rates of name recognition. Such caveats could be read as realistic cautions or, alternatively, as obliging alibis—more entries on the ever-growing roster of excuses that establishment Democratic funders and leaders provide for not supporting female candidates
It remains to be seen whether the Year of the Woman Reboot has changed voters’ attitudes about women candidates, but it’s done little to expand women’s capacity to develop effective political messaging, build a base of support via a wide range of community resources that includes funding, or to diminish reliance on consultant networks honed under centuries of Dark Navy Blue Waves. Economically speaking—with notably few exceptions—we’re also seeing more of the same: women fundraisers hustling women donors to cover gaps in the cash supplies ponied up by the major party congressional campaign committees.
None of this, of course, will keep Democratic leaders from taking full credit for any new cohort of female Democratic lawmakers arising out of the 2018 midterm cycle. Some, too, will get to line their pockets. Most of the 501(c)(3)’s listed above pay top staff $100,000 or so per year—a pretty good salary at a not-for-profit. Emerge America’s president and founder Andrea Steele gets twice that. I’d be all in favor of six-figure stipends—and even support generous raises for the hard-working figureheads—if I were seeing candidates emerge from their programs armed with effective policy measures and the post-campaign staying power to enact them.
So who will benefit from the Pink Wave? I’m far from convinced it’ll be voters.
Plastic In, Plastic Out
This is where Earl Silas Tupper comes in. In 1946, he designed a modern, attractive line of plastic food-storage containers—and thereby, it is said, bettered the lives of American women. Now, keep in mind that because the Second World War ended the year before his namesake product line debuted, men were returning to manufacturing jobs that women had held in their absence, and women, as a class, had been summarily fired and dispatched to tend the postwar cult of domesticity. So when, in the late 1940s, Brownie Wise began throwing parties to sell Earl’s Tupperware to bored neighbor ladies, Tupper likely deserved less credit for the idea or its success than chroniclers have suggested. She called him initially to crow about her revolutionary marketing plan, but probably also to request a steady salary for its invention and implementation. (The historical record is silent on this point, but she was a smart cookie.) In any event, Tupper promptly put Wise’s “party plan” into action and the new direct-marketing initiative made Tupperware, quite literally, a household name.
Tupper only acknowledged Wise’s contribution a few years later, and rewarded her with the top-level job she deserved—however belatedly. Soon it came time to sell the company, though, and he knew he’d get a higher price without a female executive, so he fired Wise. Then he divorced his wife, tore up his U.S. passport to avoid paying taxes, and bought some land off the coast of Costa Rica, where he died some decades later.
So don’t be fooled by images of giddy women tittering in cocktail garb over Midcentury plasticware while supporting each others’ home sales enterprises: the legacy of the Tupperware party is a dude who took women for all they were worth and used it to buy himself an actual island.
Like the Tupperware party, the narrative of the Pink Wave hinges on a seductive cultural fiction: the image of an alternative, feminine, impressively networked and self-empowering economy that is both socially conscious and healthily competitive. Bragging rights to the most stylish food storage container are not too different from those claimed by the biggest donor to the elected lady official du jour, after all. And much like the Tupperware marketing revolution, the present network of big-money donors lining up behind the promise of a Pink Wave ultimately enriches the offshore account of some old white guy in a tropical paradise. (Or, OK, suburban Virginia—the metaphor isn’t perfect.)
The groups backing lady Dems for office are the ultimate Tupperware parties: they all sell the same molded product, each styled under the same political machine.
She Should Run, Emerge America, EMILY’s List, and the other groups backing lady Dems for office are the ultimate Tupperware parties: they all sell the same molded product, each styled under the same political machine. EMILY’s List is only the best known, most lavishly bankrolled, and most vocal champion of the Pink Wave Pyramid Scheme. But the whole fundraising-industrial complex that now selects and trains women candidates for office uses its initial capital outlays to lure in impressionable second-generation investors—that is, they recruit a shit-ton of lower-level office-seekers who may support the group hoping for support in return, while funds and resources are shuttled up to bigger-name tickets.
The concerns that arise are arresting: If voters fail to see more effective, responsive elected officials, the Pink Wave could undercut women’s campaigns for years to come. Or worse: those lower-level first-time lady office-seekers may become disaffected by the process. No 2018 candidates I spoke to would go on record with their frustrations, since doing so would definitively stamp out the already waning hope that campaign support could still materialize. But many also admitted that, if they lose their first elections, they probably won’t run again.
Some aren’t losing, of course. FiveThirtyEight finds that 46 percent of women running as Democrats won their primaries, giving them something of an advantage over male candidates this year. The inclusion of gender of candidates as a talking point seems even to have fostered new alliances between female politicians and hopefuls, CAWP’s Kelly Dittmar told the New York Times in July. A report from the Brookings Institute further suggests that the increased percentage of female candidates has allowed for greater focus on Pre K–12 education, and slightly more attention on gun control. (Unfortunately, this shift has come at the expense of international concerns, like defense spending and the forever wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.) And in the most hopeful development of this election season, the message that politics doesn’t have to be about big money seems to be catching on. “Candidates who campaign on populist, progressive platforms find grassroots supporters who can collectively rival the corporate donors who have powered the party for so long,” The Intercept found in a report on outsider candidates outraising their establishment Democratic counterparts early this year.
The feminist argument for campaign finance reform is self-evident; I won’t bother making it. But I’m left with a sense of foreboding that we haven’t seen the end of the cry for penislessness as policy, and that a full-on campaign for it is underway for 2020.
That year will mark the centennial celebration of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees some women—not felons, nor those lacking papers, nor those dropped inexplicably from rosters (although EMILY’s Listers seem not to know they exist anyway)—the right to vote. Emma Goldman’s ambivalence toward women’s suffrage from those days could apply to women in political office today. “I see neither physical, psychological, nor mental reasons why woman should not have the equal right to vote with man,” she wrote in the 1910 essay “Woman Suffrage.” “If she would not make things worse, she certainly could not make them better.” Voting, she argued, bound women to the same blindness to human suffering that men evinced every time they entered the polls. To pretend that granting women access to the same limited, bad options in the voting booth somehow elevates those options is a dangerous fallacy, she argued, and it is no different when women are given the role of policy makers rather than constituents.
To assume that granting a woman the right to vote, Goldman wrote, “would succeed in purifying something which is not susceptible of purification, is to credit her with supernatural powers.”
A Pink Wave won’t purify American politics in 2018, or in 2020, for that matter. I’ll bet it won’t even fill a single pothole in my neighborhood. But I’d be delighted to see what might happen once we melt down all the Tupperware.