Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was once asked by a student about the barriers standing in the way of better representation of women and people of color in government. “Money,” Sotomayor said, simply. “Look at what’s happening in politics. What’s talking the loudest is money.”
Recently, if it feels like money is yelling louder than ever in our political system, that’s because it is. This week marks the sixth anniversary of the infamous Citizens United decision, when the U.S. Supreme Court paved the way for unlimited spending by corporations and wealthy special interests.
Much has been written about the damage the decision has done to our political process, where politicians must now spend almost half of their work day fundraising and the Koch brothers buy political influence with reckless abandon. But less focus has been given to the way in which our broken campaign finance system harms women specifically—and why the fight to fix it is a feminist pursuit.
The truth is that our current system doesn’t do well by women in a number of ways. First, women are seriously underrepresented among our elected leaders. According to the Women Donors Network, as of 2014 across the country more than seven in ten elected officials were men, even though women made up 51 percent of the population. And though people of color made up 37 percent of our country, nine in ten elected officials were white. By and large, the people representing us (read: white men) don’t look like us, share our experiences, or reflect the racial and gender diversity of our country.
One critical reason for this gap is money. In a survey of women state legislators, far and away the biggest factor for them when considering a run for higher office was money. More than six in ten women pinpointed “money/fundraising/campaign infrastructure” as the top barrier they would face.
What’s more, decisions like Citizens United have prevented lawmakers from setting common-sense limits on the money pouring into elections. That means a billionaire with an ax to grind can spend as much as he wants (yes, most of the big donors are “ he’s”) to help elect politicians who will undermine women’s health, fight equal pay, or prevent workers from making a decent living to support their families.
For example, since 2010—the year of the Citizens United ruling—hedge fund manager Sean Fieler has personally given almost $18 million to anti-choice and anti-gay candidates and groups, with RH Reality Check dubbing him the “little-known ATM of the fundamentalist Christian, anti-choice movement.” Without a cap on spending to influence elections, the sky is truly the limit for mega-rich, anti-choice donors like Fieler who want to turn back the clock on women’s rights.
Of course, it’s not only women’s issues. On every issue we care about, reform is hindered by moneyed interests that out-yell everyone else and set the political agenda. It’s hard to make progress on gun violence when the NRA, whose federal election spending skyrocketed after Citizens United, is helping elect candidates who will fight tooth and nail against basic safety reforms. And it’s hard to fix climate change when energy special interests are pouring millions into federal elections.
Americans across the country are connecting these dots and fighting to restore some sanity to our campaign finance system. Local organizing has pushed 16 states and more than 680 towns to officially call for a constitutional amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United and let lawmakers set reasonable limits on money in elections. More than five million individual Americans have signed petitions calling for the same.
The Democracy For All amendment, a proposed constitutional amendment in Congress, has 144 cosponsors in the House and forty-one supporters in the Senate.
And let’s not forget that even without a constitutional amendment, whoever the next president nominates to the Supreme Court could tip the scale and change the court’s direction on money in politics.
No matter the route, in order to have a democracy that actually represents us, Citizens United and decisions like it must be overturned. There’s too much at stake for women, and all of us, to throw up our hands and forfeit our political system to billionaires and corporations.
Kathleen Turner is an advocate and Academy Award-nominated actress, and serves on the board of People For the American Way’s affiliate, PFAW Foundation.