By Joan D. Mandle
A central insight of the movement for women's equality that emerged in the 1960s was that the personal is political. The effort to end discrimination against women initially emerged out of the articulation of personal problems that were bothering individual women. Each of us alone discovered that day care was too expensive and too hard to find; that we were paid less for the same work as a man, not hired as an engineer, or turned down for the loan we needed to start our own business because those were "male preserves." We knew that we were sexually harassed at work, fearful of going out alone at night, and exhausted from trying to be good employees as well as good mothers, daughters and wives, and supportive friends -- all at the same time.
It was only through the women's movement that we were able to go beyond recognition of our individual problems, for we learned that what seemed like our own personal problems (what C Wright Mills the great sociologist called "private troubles") were in fact political. They were shared by other women and were not symptoms of our own individual failures or inadequacies, but the result of injustice and a social structure that discriminated against women in almost every way. We named that injustice sexism, and worked together to change the traps that we found ourselves in, to give all women more choices and control over their own lives.
Not only is this the central insight of the women's movement - even more fundamentally, this is what democracy means. Part of the legacy of sexism is that women have had to struggle to gain access to the promise of democracy - the promise of each individual having an equal chance to have her voice heard, to influence the decisions that affect her life.
Despite constant attempts to exclude them, women have a proud history of fighting for their democratic rights. They have long understood that to give women more choices in their lives, they had to get involved in the political arena -- that to address what seemed to be personal problems they needed to be political. They did so over one hundred and fifty years ago when women like the Grimke sisters risked ridicule and physical attacks to raise their voices for the abolition of slavery. Later in our history, the long fight for suffrage was finally won, but only because thousands of women together organized, marched, and went on hunger strikes to insist that they had the right to be treated equally. They rejected those who claimed that women were too emotional, too fragile to properly exercise their right to vote, and braved scorn and homophobia because they understood that women's issues would continue to be neglected without the power of the vote.
Since then, women have used that vote to win some important battles. It was only with the passage of anti-discriminatory legislation protecting women's right to equal hiring and equal pay for equal work that we have seen the gradual erosion of women's secondary status in the labor market. It was only with a political struggle that women's ability to control her own reproduction was won. Women fought for laws that raised penalties for domestic violence and rape - problems that not so long ago were thought trivial, and even blamed on women themselves for being too annoying to their husbands or too attractive. Successful anti-violence legislation also helped to provide safe houses and support for victims of domestic violence.
Each of these political victories of course has been matched by defeats -- such is the reality of struggling for social change. Women and their male allies experienced the loss of the decade long struggle to pass the ERA, the defeat of the first woman vice-presidential candidate of a major party in American history, and, despite years of work, the failure to pass legislation that would make high quality child care available and affordable for all families, thus easing the burden on working women of what sociologist Arlie Hochschild has called the "Second Shift" - the full time job of caring for children and their homes in addition to their jobs.
It is easy to believe that we need to try to solve our personal problems alone. Often, there seems to be little time to do anything else. But women have always understood that they are affected in the most intimate ways by political decisions, and they have continued to find ways to voice their concerns and demonstrate that the personal is political.
Private Money and Women's Power
Today, however, many women recognize that private money is a serious obstacle to their successfully influencing the political system. But too often the issues about which women care so much -- safe and affordable health care, protection of the environment, an end to discrimination for all Americans, eradication of the violence that plagues our schools and communities -- are ignored and neglected by elected officials. For while it is true that each citizen -- male or female -- has one and only one vote, this principle of equality is violated by the dominating role of money in politics. Women's voices are effectively silenced because they cannot compete with the huge sums of money that corporations, special interests, and a handful of wealthy individuals contribute to election campaigns.
It is not surprising that our laws and policies are skewed toward the issues and needs of this group of wealthy funders, since elected officials are accountable to them. Our agenda is neglected as that of big donors gets priority. Let me suggest just two examples (for more, see: www.opensecrets.org; www.publicampaign.org/ouch):
On average women live longer than men, and one result is that they buy a lot more medication. Since 1991 the companies that belong to the Pharmaceutical Research and Marketing Manufacturers association have given more than $18.6 million in political contributions - including $8 million in soft money - to the political parties. The industry has lobbied Congress to let brand-name companies hold their drugs patents longer which artificially inflates the price of drugs and is expected to cost consumers $550 million this year alone. How can we compete with that?
The second example has to do with drunk driving. A coalition of traffic safety groups including Mothers Against Drunk Driving has called for stricter drunk-driving standards that they believe would save hundreds of lives annually. The liquor, beer and restaurant industries are fighting that change, and together in 1997 contributed a total of $110,000 to the campaigns of Republican and Democratic members of the House Transportation Committee that would have to vote such a change. The PAC for the beer, wine and liquor industry also gave almost $1 million in soft money to the national parties in 1997.
Wealthy and powerful special interests control the legislative agenda by cynically contributing huge sums to both parties and to opposing candidates so they can be sure to control whoever gets elected. Between 1991 and 1999, Phillip Morris gave over $6 million to the Republican Party and $1 million to the Democrats; Seagram's gave over $2? to the Democrats and $1 and 1/2 million to the GOP. This system of private funding of election campaigns not only hurts women and means that the issues they care about remain inadequately addressed or simply ignored. It also is an affront to our democracy, for legislators spend as much time in office raising money as they do governing, and they unfortunately are accountable not to the people as a whole, but primarily to those who gave them the money to win their elections. By November 2000, candidates had spent over $3 billion dollars to get elected, and that outrageous sum rises with each election cycle. Is it any wonder that so few women run for office, so few win, and that the concerns of ordinary people so often go unheard?
In addition, women face serious obstacles to their own efforts to run for and win elective office. It is well known that the major barrier for women and other ordinary citizens is their inability to raise large campaign chests. There are of course exceptions, but generally women challengers are outspent by male incumbents by an enormous margin. Incumbents, the vast majority of whom are men, use their time in office and their position to amass vast war chests that discourage challengers, including women. Women also have are hard time raising money because of the lingering prejudice that women are less fit for political life.
So here is the dilemma. Women need to be involved in the political process in order to solve the personal problems that face us in our everyday lives. We need laws and policies that do everything from ending sexist discrimination and violence, to ensuring safe schools and affordable health care. But most women feel politically powerless because they know that politics is closed to all but the wealthiest individuals and special interests. How then do we break into this cycle and get our voices heard? How do we create a real democracy where women's issues and needs are treated equitably?
Women Making Change
I believe that the answer lies in a direct assault on our system of campaign financing. As long as private money dominates politics, it will continue to corrupt democracy. Women need to help free the political system from the corrosive effects of a campaign finance system that silences us. And we can do it. Let me briefly lay out a scenario for you that just might work.
In recent years, more and more people have become aware of the problems of our system of financing elections. Polls show that the majority of the American people are fed up with politicians who are accountable not to their constituents but to elite donors. Major contenders for both the Republican and Democratic Presidential nominations made campaign finance reform the center of their campaigns. And John McCain, carring his fight for reform to Congress, has gained support for passage of a serious first step -- the banning of soft money to parties. Even more exciting is that fact that a number of states and localities have actually passed laws that challenge the system of private funding. While a decade ago there was little of this, today there are already ten localities including important cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, and New York that offer candidates the option of partial public financing of campaigns in return for their limiting the total amount of money they spend in a race. I am proud to have been part of a large coalition of women's groups, citizens, and students that helped pass this legislation in both Oakland and in San Francisco last year.
And at the state level, we already have four states that have instituted voluntary systems of what they call Clean Money Campaign Reform. In MA, AZ, ME, and Vt full public funding is available to candidates who renounce the use of private money in their campaigns. This exciting development means you don't need big money to run for office, and that elected officials are accountable to all their constituents, to the public interest -- not to big funders. And it's working. In Clean Money states last November, more new people were drawn into politics and more women ran for office. In Maine, voters elected Clean Money candidates to nearly half of its state Senate seats, rendering them, as a USA TODAY editorial put it "blessedly free of financial obligations to special-interest contributors." So we have real working models of how, as the editorial concluded, "the public can take back control."
And here's where we come in. By building a new citizen's social movement, with women taking a prominent role, we can change the system of private money dominating our political system. Women have long experience in building coalitions for reform with other like-minded groups. Politicians will not listen until the power of our numbers overwhelms the power of special interest money, convincing candidates that they can't win without supporting real campaign finance reform. Campaign finance reform is the gateway issue that makes all other changes women want possible. Without it we are doomed to marginality, as our agenda is smothered by the money of big donors.
Changing elections by changing their financing is a woman's issue. It is the only way that women can ensure that elected officials will listen to our needs, legislate our issues, and allow us to solve the problems that we share with so many other women. But the beauty of it is that campaign finance reform is not just a woman's issue, but rather the gateway to other reform. It is the way other groups and individuals in addition to women can make their voices heard. We need to all work together to create a democracy that's responsive to the people.
As women, we need to continue to connect -- with one another, with like-minded allies, and with the political process that is so essential to our well-being. It is no less true today than it was 30 years ago that the personal is political, that we must harness the power of collectivity in order to make this place and time better for ourselves, our families, our sisters, and our society. That is the challenge that women have always faced, and now, as before, I know we will find a way to make it happen.
Joan Mandle, is a co-founder and Executive Director of Democracy Matters.