Eight weeks into Audrey Denney’s 2018 Congressional campaign, she was struggling. Hard. The idea of calling friends, family, co-workers, and community members to ask them to donate had the first-time candidate “crippled with anxiety,” she said. The initial enthusiasm for running a campaign against Republican Rep. Doug LaMalfa in California’s 1st Congressional District had been replaced with an almost unbearable imposter syndrome.
“A lot of my experience as a first time candidate, in those early days, was so much anxiety around not feeling like I was enough,” Denney told HuffPost. “And that directly translated into fundraising.”
Denney’s experience is a common one for women in politics, regardless of party, identity and the level at which they’re running. Whereas men running for office tend to feel more entitled to campaign donations — and be more likely to run in circles with big donors to get them — women are generally less comfortable asking for money when doing so on behalf of themselves, experts say.
“Fundraising is harder for women than it is for men,” said Dr. Susan Carroll, a professor of politics and gender studies at Rutgers University and senior scholar at the Center for American Women in Politics. “Women are less comfortable asking for money than men. They are perfectly comfortable asking for money for causes, for things that they care about. But it’s much harder when you have to ask for money for yourself.”
Prior to running, Denney spent years on the board of a nonprofit, where she said she was perfectly comfortable seeking donations and support.
“I have no problem asking people for money for the board,” she said. “‘We’re saving peoples’ lives! We’re building democracy! I can do good in the world with your income!’”
But when it came to selling herself as the movement, it got a lot harder.
“I didn’t believe in myself enough to be asking for money.”
Women Have To Work Harder To Get The Same Amount As Men
When women enter politics, they often do so from more women-dominated industries like education and health care, according to Carroll.
“What happens is they have different networks. Men more easily have access to networks where they have wealthy donors. That’s more difficult for women,” she said.
This disparity in networks leads to two feelings that can damage a female candidate’s campaign: the anxiety around asking for money in the first place, and the general imposter syndrome that makes women candidates question whether they are “worth” the money at all. A man asking his wealthy business partner for $5,000 is different, and less burdensome, than a woman asking a fellow teacher or nurse for the same.
“We know that women raise money in smaller donations and amounts,” Carroll said. Donations for women tend to be individual rather than corporate, “which suggests that they have to work harder to get the same amount of money.”
Denney is a perfect example of this, crippling anxiety aside. Without accepting corporate donations, Denney out-raised her incumbent opponent by nearly $60,000. The median income in her northern California district is $47,000, and a vast majority of her campaign donations — about 76 percent, she said — came from within her district. It was small donations that got her where she needed to be to run a serious campaign.
So how did she go from crippling anxiety to out-raising a wealthy opponent?
The first step, she said, was “believing in the mission enough to be able to sell the mission.”
“I had to get myself over the idea of asking for money for myself,” she said, echoing what Carroll said about women candidates happily fundraising for a cause over themselves personally.
“I’m asking for money for a cause,” Denney said. “I am the cause.”
“People don’t want to support losers, they want to support winners. It took owning with every fiber of my being that I could and I would win. You can’t sell it to other people if you don’t believe it, and I got really good at that.”
But Denney, and other women candidates, didn’t get there alone.
‘It’s Knowing That You’re Not Going Through It Alone’
The number of women entering electoral politics has increased sharply since the 1970s, and 2018 — the first major election after Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election — saw record-breaking numbers of women running. Denney and thousands of other women were a part of that wave. But for women running at the local and state levels, the fear of fundraising — and the way gender affects how people ask friends, acquaintances and strangers for money — still presents a major challenge.
“I cannot overstate enough the importance of raising money and getting over that fear of asking for money,” Malia Cohen, current chair of the state’s Board of Equalization and former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, told HuffPost last week, just after California Sen. Kamala Harris dropped out of the 2020 presidential race. Harris told her supporters that she simply did not have the funds needed to continue to run the campaign.
“Women are less comfortable asking for money than men. They are perfectly comfortable asking for money for causes, for things that they care about. But it’s much harder when you have to ask for money for yourself.”
“I could connect with the seriousness of when money is not coming in, and having to make those business decisions. It saddened me. I know that struggle,” Cohen said. “I’m also in a woman of color, I’m an African American woman, it’s an additional layer of complexity, coming from a community that’s not inclined to donate, or give.”
Cohen ran her two campaigns with the support of groups like EMILY’s List and EMERGE California. EMILY’s List, a political action committee founded in 1985, not only directly funds women candidates, but also helps to train thousands of candidates across the country in fundraising for themselves.
“Everything that happens out in peoples’ lives happens inside candidate politics, too,” Ben Ray, senior director of campaign communications at EMILY’s List, told HuffPost. Disadvantages that women face on a day-to-day basis — like the pay gap — are going to be present in electoral politics as well, which is why it can be especially difficult for women of color running for office to run successful campaigns.
“So much of what candidates are able to raise when running for office is about their own networks,” Ray said.
EMERGE California, a local arm of the national EMERGE organization, explicitly aims to train Democratic women in running successful campaigns.
Earlier this year, the group offered a training specifically on fundraising ― not just the “nuts and bolts” of how to fundraise, but also a deeper conversation about why fundraising is such an emotional part of the campaign process.
“I want to dig in even more on the mental barriers,” Melanie Ramil, executive director of EMERGE California, told HuffPost.
“What I want to try to reframe fundraising as is giving people agency to support a cause, you as a candidate, your ideals, your vision,” she said. “In tackling the mental barrier I think reframing the definition and concept of fundraising can go a long way.”
Groups like these offer more than just the training, Ramil said.
“What we’ve done is bring in alumna who are elected officials to talk about what their relationship was with fundraising and how they overcome those barriers, commiserating with the difficulty, sharing with each other those best practices.”
As for the other side of the aisle, the lack of supportive, women-only PACs makes it much more difficult to get into politics.
“Republican women have a different set of issues,” Carroll said. “They don’t have an infrastructure the way that Democrats do, there’s nothing like EMILY’s list.”
Contrary to the gains women have made in the Democratic party, the number of Republican women in politics recently hit a new low.
“The party’s leadership, donor class, local politics and messaging are all still dominated by men,” HuffPost’s Molly Redden reported in June.
“Many of them have personally primed the party to be suspicious of diversity efforts or are a part of the very infrastructure that has failed female candidates for so long.”
Denney and Cohen, both Democrats, said that infrastructure is crucial, especially in those moments of self-doubt. Because what comes next after asking for money is accepting it — which, for women, is almost just as hard.
There came a point later on in Denney’s campaign when she didn’t reach a fundraising goal. She went to B Street pub in downtown Chico, where she used to work part time while teaching agriculture classes at Chico State University.
“It was completely empty except for the 5 people who work there,” Denney said. “I’m crying at the bar, total meltdown mode.”
What happened next made Denney even more emotional.
“They all opened up their wallets, took out all of their tips, and dumped them on the bar.”
Moments like that are what helped Denney chip away at the imposter syndrome.
“These are people working two or three service jobs. These are kids going to school. But they believe in me and believe in what we’re doing,” Denney said.
In 2018, Denney lost to LaMalfa by a 9% margin. She announced her campaign to run against him in 2020 shortly thereafter. Her approach to fundraising — and her feelings about making those cold calls — are drastically different than they were the first time around.
“I’m going to raise a bunch more money,” she said. “And then I’m going to win.”