Women in Politics Series: Social Change Movements and Asking for Money

Women's power is in our ability to find ways to support each other and tap into whatever skill sets we bring to the table.

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My guest today is Catherine Hartnett. She’s an entrepreneur and non-profit executive management consultant in strategic planning, crisis management, leadership transition, and philanthropy. She provides management and strategic giving consulting to corporate and family foundations. She serves on the board of the National Youth Recovery Foundation, Americans for Democratic Action, and Ms. Foundation for Women. She spent 20 years in Washington D.C. where she worked in women’s environmental and disability movements, as well as many congressional and senate campaigns.

I understand that you have been deeply engaged in a political fundraising for women candidates for many decades. Can you tell me more about your experience there?

I got involved in politics when I was in my 20s. This was in the 70s. I ran for political office because a group of women came and said, ‘We need to get more women to run for office.’ I was single and I was available and I ran and was elected in a city-wide race to a school board. Part of the reason I got elected was because nobody else wanted that seat. Sometimes the way you enter politics is to look for an opening where the competition isn’t so huge.

But it was mainly because a group of women got together and we said the only way we’re going to change the system is one by one, and by us all working together. So a group of women came together and helped me get elected. As a result, I learned what it was to be a candidate. I learned what it was then to serve in office. The skills that you need to be a candidate sometimes are different skills than what you need to be an office holder. One of the things that is challenging about women running for office is putting the combination of those skills together.

I think the whole world was set up to accommodate a patriarchal society, a male-driven society. In most places in this world, the job of women is to have babies, nurture their home, raise the children, support their husband’s career — that’s a stereotype, but it has been a predominant role in the United States. The political system was set up for men who have jobs … in management. They can leave their job to go and campaign. Women going out to campaign have to find a babysitter. Men left their wives at home to be the babysitter while they campaigned. So, the demands of running for office are a significant challenge particularly to women who have children or women who have jobs that don’t say, ‘Oh sure, leave at three o’clock and go off to a political meeting.’ Running for office was set up to accommodate a power class, which in the United States is white men. So that was a challenge.

I think that money has always been a challenge for women in politics. Although interestingly in the U.S., women control or are in possession of the majority of wealth in this country, but it tends to be inherited wealth managed by the banker that their father or their husband put them in touch with. So, women have never felt the same level of confidence, although this has radically changed in the last 25 years in the U.S. 

If you talk to men and women in the United States about contributing, perhaps to the college they went to, the man would write a check for $10,000 to his school, and the women would write a check for $1,000 to their school, even though it came from the same pot of money. So, women’s attitudes and sense of control over money has always been a challenge in the U.S., which we’ve worked very hard over the last 25 years to change. In our congressional race four years ago, more women entered Congress than had been there before. Which was an exciting time, so I celebrate that at the same time as I want to say we’re still not near 50 percent and we’re 51 percent of the population. Although the United States sometimes gets points for doing things in the women’s movement, we still are struggling.


This interview will be offered to Minnesota Women’s Press audience, but also, in my country, in Bosnia Herzegovina, we are not familiar with the Ms. Foundation. Can you tell me more about the mission of Ms. Foundation?

The Ms. Foundation was created through the development of a magazine called ‘Ms.’ It was the first feminist magazine to ever be published, in the 70s. National reporters said, ‘This will bomb after the first day.’ And it ended up selling out and survived for many years. The magazine became a way to unite women feminists across the country by beginning to hear the stories of women and what they were up against. Gloria Steinem and others were leaders of this.

The magazine always struggled financially, but we created the foundation to build women’s collective power in the U.S. and to advance equality and justice for all. We directly addressed the issue of women’s organizations [which] were dramatically underfunded in the United States compared to organizations that were run [by] and for men. The United States has a unique financial system where people can get tax deductions for making contributions: generosity in the United States tied to a tax deduction is a motivator for people to give money. So, the Ms. Foundation has raised money, and we specifically now are focusing on organizations led by women of color because they are dramatically less funded than organizations run by white women.

The Ms. Foundation is not a political organization, but it grew out of the political feminist movement of the reality of where our money in this country is spent and and … the economic disparity between men and women. Men will be paid more than women… so everything is political in a sense, right? The world is a political machine with the politics of life, the politics of culture, the politics of electoral office, reflective of the values of that society. Women across the board have been undervalued in their ability to lead and their ability to serve in public office and their ability to change the world.

Very often in the U.S., in early days, if women were running for office, the assumption was, ‘Well they’ll only talk about women’s issues’ — meaning they’ll talk about day care or about children and education and things like that. Well, I think those are issues for any successful society, but it is part of the stigma that often follows women who run for office.

Often in a political or work situation, if a man speaks up in a meeting and has strong opinions or disagrees with something they are described as dynamic and powerful. Women are often described as complaining or aggressive in some negative way. Entering into politics, those are the kinds of things that become real barriers and can make you feel discouraged. Women also traditionally have not been rewarded for speaking out, for having strong opinions, for taking leadership positions. So, there is a cultural bias that says, Could she handle that kind of pressure?’ Women have had to learn how to stand up for ourselves in those situations.

It has been a learning curve for all of us, but I believe that each generation has had women who went before who were speaking out. I had a few women going before me speaking out. But over the generations we are becoming stronger — and the men in our lives, the women in our lives, the fathers, the brothers in our lives — we are educating them all the time. We have now a couple of generations of young men who have been raised by women who have said that their expectation is that they are included in whatever role they want to play in society. So, we’re getting there.


When it comes to engaging women as the candidates, voters, donors in the United States what can you share about what inspires them to get involved?

Women, because of the cultural role they play, are very aware of what’s happening in their communities — what is happening in their child’s school, what is happening in the education system. They are often the ones taking children to doctor’s appointments, so they are aware of what’s happening in health care. They are aware of what has to happen in order for them to work, who takes care of their child during the day, what are the challenges of that daycare center or that school center, or the hours of the day that they have to work versus the hours their children are in school. You know neighborhood issues. Women have a deep connection to the communities they live in. If they have a career, they are juggling all the family and neighborhood issues that they deal with. They can often see where problems are and be highly motivated to address them.

That is one of the reasons I feel like one of the best political experiences I had was to engage in local politics. When women want to run for office, it is usually because they want to address a problem or want to change something in this system. How do you get yourself to the place where you can have a voice around that? Our state legislatures, our city councils, our county councilors, our local government agencies, are getting more women both in positions of working for the government and also in running for office.

My best advice to women who are interested in running for office is [to] get involved in any women’s or political organization that is working on the issues that you care about. Learn who all the power players are. Every campaign begins in someone’s living room. Every campaign begins with a small group of [asking] what is possible, and if we want to do this what [must we] do now.

One of the things that I think is sometimes challenging for women candidates is facing losing. In the United States, many times you have to run several times before you get elected. Thinking about this as ‘the long game,’ the more women run, whether they win or lose, the more women and men around them begin to think about women as political leaders. Being prepared to see the benefit of running, whether you win or lose, is part of the effort of running for office. The challenge is that every woman should be prepared [to be] dismissed. If you need [political] party support, there will be people in the party structure that say, ‘Well, no, you’re not in line.’

One of the things that the Women’s Press and I have talked about — 20 or 30 years ago I was asked, ‘What will it take for more women to get elected?’ I had to say, ‘A number of good white men will have to step aside.’ Even with progressive men who want women to get elected, they don’t want to give up their seat to make room for that person. There is a need for those in power to begin to say, ‘Do I really need to be there for 25 years? Or can I step aside and actively support a woman to run for that office?’

The second thing is the challenges of raising money. Men often are connected to circles of money that women are not. Many men who run for office have a higher level of people being in management positions, so they know other people [that] have big salaries … they can ask. They have a whole network of people to give them money. Women have to sometimes work harder to raise the money that it takes to run for office, but I will say that in the United States we are finding that women are now raising equal amounts of money, or more money, than some of their male opponents. That has come from years of building grassroots fundraising and women learning to ask.

A man in a work situation will see a promotion that they would like, or a project that they would like to take on, and they might have lesser qualifications than the woman sitting next to them, but they are willing to go for it. Women have a tendency to question themselves: ‘Am I qualified enough? Is it okay for me to want to do this and then learn how to do it? Do I have to know it all before I even try?’ That is a cultural stigma.

I will say with some pain in my heart that some of the women who have gotten elected in the United States do not stand for any of the feminist principles that I stand for, and yet they were willing to take the risk. They are working against things that I care deeply about, and other feminists in this country care about. But there are moments when, because of their gender, they have a moment of supporting some of the same issues we do, because they at least share that experience of being a sister, a mother, a grandmother … something, that makes them understand that women.


In my country, a terrible war ended in the 90s and we still feel the consequences today. What worries me is the strong expansion of patriarchy that stifles women’s political action. I’m even more frightened by the minimal existence of a system that empowers and supports women for a political engagement. Do you have insights and advice about what kind of support is maybe most needed when it comes to launching more women into politics?

I have changed my opinion about this over the years. My past approach was: go to the hardest place you know, wherever the worst is happening, and try to change it. I have changed my attitude about this. There are some people who have been doing studies about social change, and why some social change movements succeed and others fail. One of the things they learned was that the social movements that were most successful started with pulling a group of people together who share a common desire to make change in some way.

If a group of women came together, and there was something they needed to change about the schools or on a city council or a county government, they would come together and really look at: ‘Where do we have our best chance? Where do we have three other politicians that are men who might support one of us running?’ Looking for the easier path first, and then building off of that. I think sometimes we are so horrified by the worst situation that we gravitate to try to solve that. The wall is so high that what I found is only those who were relentless could stand to keep fighting. So, we end up losing people who then become despondent about politics and give up.

So, I think it is important for women leaders to particularly look at ways to find a path for small successes, for at least building a collective of women who are reinforcing each other and showing up for each other. If it is a march, a demonstration, a sit-in, and getting five or ten of you go do it together, that builds our internal confidence, as women and as collectives. It gives courage to the second tier — the women who are watching you, the women who are hesitant. If they see actions beginning to work, then they will stand.

Never forget those who are willing to stand behind us, but don’t want to be out front. The rule of politics cannot be that you must be this certain type of person. We need the collective skill sets of lots of women. There are women who never want to run for office, but they will do the research for the women who do. There are women who want to make the signs, but they don’t want to be standing in the front row. There are women who are prepared to get arrested to protect the rights of other women. Do not reject the women who aren’t prepared to do that, because that only defeats us. Women’s power is in our ability to find ways to support each other and tap into whatever skill sets we bring to the table.


I read on the website that Ms. Foundation has a focus on women’s health, and reproductive justice, economic justice, and safety. These terms almost do not exist in my country. What is [the] desired result of putting a focus on these topics for your organization?

Our population can’t continue to exist if women do not have access to reproductive health care, right? It’s huge. We are in a very traumatic situation in this country because we have had a Supreme Court decision that made a termination of pregnancies a right in this country, and it is being eroded. We now have more than half of our states eliminating access to reproductive health, and that can include birth control. It can include breast cancer examinations. It can include all kinds of health issues.

Breast cancer is a leading cause of death for women. Breast cancer research 50 years ago barely existed. Most of the research on health care in the United States was geared towards men’s health care. You found very few studies that were studying what was happening to women, until women started to demand more attention be paid to their health care. Those studies and cures and treatments did not exist. The growth and expansion of women speaking out about health care has advanced healthcare in the United States in many ways.

The [politicization] of reproductive health has been a nightmare, frankly, in our country … but it is also a symptom of sexism. If a woman’s spiritual belief is that life begins at conception, and she feels that it is a human being at the moment of conception, she needs to make a decision about whether she wants to carry that pregnancy to term or not. I believe an equally spiritual woman can feel that life does not begin at conception, which has a fair amount of science behind it, and can make a different choice, which does not make her a murderer. The politicization of it has been mostly led by men.

The broader issue of health care, of the half of the population that is primarily responsible for monitoring the health care of children, is something that we that women are going to have to take the lead on, because men simply don’t. A perfect example of it is, we had a senator who was a famous powerful senator, and he got prostate cancer. All of a sudden we were spending gazillions more on research on prostate cancer. Do I think we should study that? Absolutely. But this is another reason why women need to join the political system. Because in reality … women helped get legislation passed that has substantially increased the amount of money that is spent on health care that affects women and children.


In my country there are certainly wealthy donors. However, they rarely decide to donate their money in the support of women who want to be politically engaged. What would you tell them?

I love asking people for money. I don’t know if there’s a cultural bias in your country about this, but people in the United States are comfortable talking about almost everything except money.

We will ask people to volunteer their time and come stuff envelopes, or go to the march, or sit in endless meetings to discuss all kinds of topics — there are only 24 hours in a day. Why are we so comfortable asking people to spend their time, but when it comes to asking people for money, we somehow have this fear that if they say no, it is a rejection of us.

Or maybe they can’t afford to do it, or maybe it is rude, or inappropriate, or presumptuous of us. My feeling is there is no one in the world who has given more money than they wanted to give. No one has decided not to feed their children because they gave to a political campaign. It is really everybody’s responsibility to decide how much money they are willing to invest, and it is also everyone’s responsibility who wants some of that money to ask for it.

The first question I ask women when they run for office is: ‘How many people have you called and asked for money for your campaign?’ One of the things in the nonprofit sector in the United States, when you ask people how they have spent their time, they will tell you about the programs they are running and the work they are doing. Then when you ask, ‘How are you doing financially?’ they say, ‘Oh, we don’t have enough money to do what we’re going to do.’

‘How many hours a week do you spend asking people for money?’

‘We really haven’t had time to do that.’

The reality is, almost no one gives without being asked. Asking is a really important part of every women’s movement, and it is important because we are worth investing in. In the United States, on a per capita basis, the largest donors are senior citizens living on what is our social security system. The proportion of money that people give is higher in lower income brackets than it is in higher income brackets. So, giving doesn’t really have very much to do with the amount of money that you have, it has to do with what you are asked for and what you believe in.

My favorite thing is to train women to ask for money. Women asking for money is a way for us to say the work we are trying to do is worth your investment. It is that empowering feeling of ‘I want to give you an opportunity to use your money to do good.’ I don’t know anyone who has ever contributed to a cause that they love that regretted it. So, it is also a gift to the donor to give them the opportunity to feel the power that comes from supporting a group of women who are trying to elect others to office.

One thing that really advanced women in politics in the United States is, we started creating women’s funds to fund elections. We have something called Emily’s List here: Early Money Is Like Yeast. We started to raise money from women who wanted women to get elected but didn’t have time. Then this group would give out money to women who were running for office and they would screen those candidates. I think pooling women together — even if it is 20 women getting together and everyone saying, ‘I am going to contribute this much every month to our pot, then we are going to use our pot to train women, or buy election signs. Groups of women can have bake sales, they can solicit their family members. It is not that hard to raise money if you ask. If you don’t ask, you end up having a lot of meetings talking about why people aren’t giving.


For the end, let’s underline your message for women who are thinking of running for an office.

What I want to say to anyone who wants to run for office, is: ‘Thank you. It is a public service to run for office. If you love your country, if you love your community, running for office is a way that you can engage and not just talk, but act. Be fearless. Ask everyone in your circle to help you. Spend very little time with the people that say no and move on to the next person to say yes.’

One of the things that is the most energizing about campaigns is there is always another person to ask to help you, so if someone says no, don’t take it personally. Move on and ask three more people, because they are going to say yes. Women tend to come together to support each other and do things, but we have to practice asking … and staying positive. Talk about the issues.

I remember when I first ran for office, people talked about how I looked. They never talked about how men looked. Humor is a huge part of surviving an election campaign. It is fun when you can turn some of those sexist questions into a fun thing. ‘Thank you for commenting on my hair. How do you feel about the hair of the men that are running for office? Do you like their color? Do you like their cut?’ We have to keep a sense of humor about this so we don’t get depleted. Humor energizes. Working for causes that you believe in energizes. Talking to people who want to help you is energizing. Keep your circle energized rather than taking in any of the negative that you run into. Move past it and move to where the energy is.


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