Whether women raise money or donate it, the act of getting involved brings with it more than dollars; it engages women socially and politically, which is a benefit they mention again and again. Through Olson’s training program, Wilson tapped into a network of women who knocked on 4,000 doors for her. "They also made sure my kids’ homework got done," Wilson says. "I had my girls out there." This feeling of participation comes into play at any dollar amount. Beth Mewhinney, a counselor in Stephenville, Texas, wrote her first check — for $10 — to a political candidate last year, at age 60. Although her candidate lost the race, Mewhinney says she in no way feels she threw that money away and has since donated to other candidates. "Going into the voting booth, I really got the point of the whole process," she says. "I’d met several of the candidates and been part of their campaigns — donating made all the difference."
That holds true across the political spectrum. Tami Clark, 42, of Kansas City, Kansas, started giving to local Republican candidates five years ago. "I feel like I’m contributing to people who have the same moral values I have," she says. And because of her giving, Clark was invited to the home of Donald J. Hall Sr., the local billionaire who chairs Hallmark Cards, where she met Laura Bush. "Being from Texas, I love George Bush," she says. "It was a huge social thing for me, getting to meet Laura Bush and talking to her." Clark and her husband, a financial adviser for an insurance company, also met President Bush at a dinner in Saint Louis; they consistently give the maximum amount allowable to the party and various Republican candidates.
For many women, the person who inspires them to give for the first time is another woman; in Mewhinney’s case, it was Barbara Radnofsky, a Democrat who ran for the Senate against the hard-to-beat incumbent, Kay Bailey Hutchison. According to the Women’s Campaign Forum Foundation study, women do give a greater share of their money to female candidates: Overall, women give 30 percent of their donations to women candidates, whereas men give 17 percent of theirs to women. But it’s not a given that women prefer women candidates, even within their own party. And in this too Mewhinney is typical: Although she would rather back a woman, she differs with Clinton on the war and has already written two checks to Barack Obama. (Many of Obama’s donations have come from small or first-time donors, which means there’s plenty more where that came from.) In fact, one tip that the Women’s Campaign Forum Foundation includes in a handout for women running for office is, "Gender-based fund-raising appeals have limited resonance with today’s women, especially those under 50. ... Women do not want to be guilted into giving."
A Modest Proposal
Paula Hughes, a 51-year-old Boston Democrat who recently started her own olive oil company, Canonica Verde, describes writing checks to candidates in idealistic, even romantic terms. She and her husband, Edward, were among about 90 donors who each gave $2,300 to attend a June fundraiser for Obama at a supporter’s home in Weston, Massachusetts, where they stood around the pool out back, chatting with fellow guests Michael and Kitty Dukakis, and enjoying tuna tartare rolls served on a bed of sesame seeds. The atmosphere, Hughes says, was electric: "It was as though we were at the beginning of something, and we were all kids again and all in love again. This was not a sure thing, but we were supporting somebody we believe in."
Hughes grew up in Washington, D.C., and started giving to candidates when she was at the Catholic University of America. "I love to give, because it feels like you have become part of the process and the organization, as invisible as you may be," she says. "Once you make a contribution, it’s something you like to talk about. Not the dollar amount, but it puts you out there publicly as a supporter, which is daring, and then people bring you their complaints — kind of like as an expatriate, people come to you with what they think about the United States. You become an ambassador."