When Ann Erben began professional campaign work for Republican candidates in 1977, she could barely find other members of her party, let alone other female professional campaign workers.
“You couldn’t really have a discussion with other women who were doing what you were doing because there were so few of them,” she says.
While women have long been a formidable force in politics, their numbers among campaign professionals have traditionally been slight. As times and gender roles changed, women entered the campaign world en masse. But despite the diversity of jobs within campaigns, most female political professionals in Texas work as fundraisers, navigating the complicated borders of social expectations and gender equality. And such demands can be especially at odds when asking for a check.
“The donors are typically men,” explains Republican consultant Susan Lilly, “and the fundraisers are typically women.”
Lilly has been in the field for 17 years, and she says that while opportunities for women continue to grow, fundraising is often a comfortable fit for women. Some of the details of fundraising — planning events, sending invitations, playing host — are tasks that “typically fall on women,” says Lilly, “whether it’s in politics or it’s a wedding.”
“I think it’s that detailed work of fundraising that makes it more attractive to women,” agrees longtime Democratic consultant Lisa Turner.
That's not quite the stuff parents want to hear. And Aimee Boone offers a more disheartening reason for the prevalence of women in fundraising as opposed to, say, managing campaigns.
“From the time we’re little girls, we are conditioned ... not to be the ones raising our hands,” she explains.
Boone started her own consulting firm before moving to the Texas Democratic Trust. She says when a younger woman arrives at a campaign or consulting firm without much confidence, “you put her in a junior finance role.” They won’t often be in front of a camera but instead, will be planning events in the background or politely helping the candidate make calls.
“Senior staff tend to pigeonhole women,” Boone explains.
Maybe that's why so few women go into the other parts of campaign work. According to Erben, campaign staffs are afraid to put women in charge of strategy.
“I think there is an old-school, conservative, good ol’ boy inclination to go with a guy,” Erben asserts. “It’s too rough and tumble to be a woman.”
Campaigns often want to hire big-name strategists, and when women have trouble getting positions, it's hard to build track records and to strengthen name recognition.
“At this point in time there just haven’t been too many females out there whose names they have heard,” says Pat Robbins, who has spent 30 years in Republican politics, most of it at Associated Republicans of Texas.
Within fundraising, women tend to dominate. Most fundraising firms have prominent women in leadership positions. Surely that good ol’ boy style has its benefits. Surely a pretty girl’s face is more likely to result in a campaign donation.
“We’re asking people for very large sums and a skirt only gets you so far,” Boone said.
And, according to Lilly, female fundraisers always have to be vigilant of potential assumptions — and protecting reputations.
Male candidates “don’t need to be traveling with a young, attractive female,” Lilly asserts. “It can give the wrong impression even though there’s nothing wrong with it.”
Learning to navigate gender expectations is one of the main reasons having a mentor can be so important. Many female consultants mention the importance of mentoring and supporting other women in their field.
“There is still that sort of band of sisterhood,” said Turner.
Turner served as a mentor to Boone at the Democratic Trust, and having such a relationship, Boone said, “was the difference for me between sinking and swimming.”
Boone joined with three other high level Democratic female fundraisers in a group called Texas WIN. It’s been so long she can’t quite remember the acronym’s meaning, but she can attest to the importance of having 15 or so other women on whom she can rely for support or a sympathetic ear.
While there’s no corresponding organization on the Republican side, Lilly said she could see the need for such a group.
“We probably should try to do a more concerted effort,” she acknowledged.
Karen Hughes, the former Bush aide who helped run the former president's 2000 campaign, isn’t big on gender generalizing, but says, “I always tried to comport myself in a way that women could be proud of the work that I was doing.”
Lilly credits Hughes with teaching her how to compete without threatening more traditional views on gender. Hughes, after all, became one of the most recognizable campaign advisors in the country during the 2000 Bush-Gore debacle in Florida and came out with her political reputation intact.
“Women get aggressive and they’re considered a bitch,” Lilly explains. “Men get aggressive and they’re considered aggressive. You have to walk that fine line.”
“Karen Hughes is the epitome of being professional and being aggressive within reason,” she said.
Hughes, who specializes in communications and not fundraising, credits her first bosses in politics — women as well — for the examples they set.
“I just learned ... to just expect to be taken seriously,” she explained.
The collective experience these women face seems to bring them together — at least within their own parties. Many see their commitment to helping other promising young women as part of a longer process.
“I would hope that I could be helpful to them so that they don’t have to go through the same things that I did,” says Democratic consultant Celinda Provost, who focuses on campaign web development.
The hard work seems to have paid off. Younger women, many say, have an easier path to political consulting.
“There were a lot of women who worked really hard to get a seat at the big boys’ table,” Turner says. “And they’ve managed to pull up another chair or two.”
Some don’t see such dramatic shifts. Hughes argues that most campaign professionals come to their specialties based on personal characteristics more than which bathroom they use.
“It’s more a matter of your interest and your personality rather than gender,” she said.
“I don’t think I would enjoy fundraising,” she added.
But Hughes still talks about the difficulties of campaign life while raising a family.
In this respect, political consulting isn't unique. Women can face the double duties of supervising both a candidate and a family. Turner recalls dragging her son to countless parades, where he would help her pass out pamphlets and political buttons. One day, Turner says, he turned to her and asked, “Mom, what do you have to do to be one of the kids who get to sit and watch the parade?”