For two weeks in January I traversed New Hampshire — the long way — to advocate for campaign finance reform with the New Hampshire Rebellion. It was cold, exhausting, and incredibly successful, but it was yet another reminder that the democracy reform movement has a gender problem. I was one of a relatively small number of women who participated in the walk — in fact, at times I was the only woman, and I was one of just two women leaders present from organizations within the reform community. Several people asked me about the apparent scarcity of women in the NHRebellion walk. All I could offer was a simple: I’m not surprised.
I’ve heard it remarked several times at conferences that there aren’t enough women speaking as established authorities on the subject of campaign finance reform, but there are too many women in leadership roles to be able to claim there’s a glass ceiling in this field. Instead, I’d say it’s a wall. At a time when 1 in 3 adult women are living in poverty and the majority of minimum wage jobs are held by women, political engagement is a luxury that many women don’t think they can afford. Those of us who can take time off work to join the NHRebellion, or who, like me, have jobs that enable their direct participation, are on one side of the wall. The other side of the wall exists beyond the doors of the businesses and homes we walked by. Every time I went into a Dunkin’ Donuts to buy coffee in the morning before the walk got underway, a woman greeted me from the other side of the counter. A woman who was not walking. A woman who most likely did not even know about our work until that very moment when her position on the outside of it was most apparent.
Even outside of special events, it hasn’t been unusual for me to encounter a real incompatibility between the experiences of women and the expectations of this movement. While I was working on a campaign around the 2012 elections, I spoke to a mother on the corner of 16th and Mission in San Francisco who told me she didn’t have time to worry about politics because she had three kids to feed. I referenced this experience very briefly in a blog post about the campaign, and the response was telling: of those who commented about the post, most felt the need to respond specifically to this small anecdote and tell me that they thought my conversation was a waste of time. Talking to women on the street was not solving the problem of money in politics. The irony of me having to take the time to hear and respond to men about the value of my interaction with this women was apparently lost on them. Or it’s a telling example of precisely what’s wrong with this movement.
There are women involved in the fight for democracy reform, but it’s all too readily accepted that the diversity of women’s experiences within this democracy need not be reflected in the effort that claims to save it. In the era of digital movement-building, where the words “advocacy” and “organizing” are used interchangeably, it’s easy to forget that the internet does not inherently solve for participation gaps. That lowering the barrier to engagement to the click of a button is not the same thing as leveling it. Or put another way, that worrying about being gender inclusive is tedious, and a needless waste of time.
Too many encounters with women on the fringes of this movement have proven to me that nothing could be farther from the truth. A couple of years ago I spoke at a women’s rights forum in southern California about campaign finance reform. After the panel, a woman came up to me, told me how much she’d appreciated the discussion, and asked what she could do to help our cause. She went on to explain to me that she had left an abusive marriage, lost everything, spent a significant amount of time living as a homeless single woman, and that she was only recently getting back on her feet. The problem of corruption seemed to her to encapsulate so many of the issues she faced in trying to leave her marriage and regain her independence — that simply, laws were not made for the people. I was so humbled, and I told her to just keep telling her story. She was the reason we needed to change politics as usual in this country, and she was the reason I suddenly felt filled with hope that we could.
Unfortunately, someone will undoubtedly think this anecdote — perhaps even this entire blog post — a waste of energy better spent in “actually” dealing with the issue of money in politics. But if there is no room for these voices in the movement for democracy reform, then I fear that what we are fighting for is not in fact worthy of that name. I won’t let that be true.