OPED: Overturning Citizens United is a feminist issue
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was once asked 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 month marks the sixth anniversary of the infamous Citizens United decision, when the 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. As of 2014, more than seven in 10 elected officials were men, even though women made up 51 percent of the population, according to the Women Donors Network. People of color are even more dramatically underrepresented.
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.
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 men) to help elect politicians who will undermine women's health, fight equal pay or prevent workers from making a decent living.
On every issue we care about, reform is hindered by the reality that moneyed interests can out-yell everyone else and set the political agenda. It's hard to make progress on gun violence when the National Rifle Association, 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 fighting to restore some sanity to our campaign finance system. Sixteen states and more than 680 towns have officially called for a constitutional amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United. More than 5 million individual Americans have signed petitions calling for the same. And a bill to this effect has 144 co-sponsors in the House and 41 supporters in the Senate.
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, an advocate and Academy Award-nominated actress, serves on the board of People For the American Way's affiliate, the PFAW Foundation.