In 2008, the year that Hillary Clinton first made a bid for the presidency, women made up about 17 percent of the United States Congress.
Eight years later, as Clinton is putting the "biggest crack" in that glass ceiling yet as the Democratic Party's official nominee, women make up only 19 percent of Congress.
"Progress has been agonizingly slow and steady at the same time," said Stacy Mason, co-founder and executive director of Women Count, a Palo Alto-based political nonprofit that has been working since the 2008 election to elect more Democratic women to office.
This election cycle, Women Count is working to promote a form of fundraising that is familiar in Silicon Valley but has not yet reached Washington, D.C.: crowdfunding.
In October, Women Count launched a new crowdfunding platform, much like Kickstarter or Indiegogo, that curates slates of female candidates by issue (like gun reform, reproductive rights, climate change, campus sexual assault), demographics (from African American to LGBTQ candidates) and geography. There's also the "electability slate," which focuses on candidates who would help flip the Senate from Republican to Democratic control. A slate called "Senate Red to Blue" has raised close to $26,000 so far.
People can also create their own slates, which range from the serious -- a University of California, Santa Barabara graduate who interned at Women Count created a UCSB alumni group to support candidate-champions of gun reform in the wake of a shooting at her alma mater -- to the more light-hearted, like a marathon runner who started a slate called "Run like a girl" with all female Congressional candidates who also happen to be marathon runners. All is done with the ultimate goal of getting more women into office.
For individuals, however, Women Count hopes to make political giving "more intentional, more organized, more matched to what people want to support in a way where we were also building community," Mason said.
Women Count got its start toward the end of the 2008 presidential primary. A group of Bay Area women, including Mason, were traveling around the country to rally support for Clinton and became alarmed that there was "a lot of noise about Hillary getting out of the race" despite the fact that she was leading in the popular vote, Mason said. They decided to form a political action committee (PAC) and launch a grassroots fundraising effort to put advertisements in major national newspapers titled "Not So Fast."
"We want Hillary to stay in this race until every vote is cast, every vote is counted, and we know that our voices are heard," read the ad, which appeared in newspapers such as The New York Times, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal.
The ad campaign attracted a lot of media attention, and the PAC raised half a million dollars in two weeks, Mason said. When the election ended, the group of women had a ready-to-tap list of activists and grassroots support. They decided to seize it to fill a gap they saw in the 2008 election: a strong, well-organized online political community for women.
"I like to say that during the primary campaign, we would go into certain states that Hillary eventually won by 10 points, but we were outnumbered by the Obama people on every street corner, at every phone bank, at every rally because they had all these communities that they were able to organize online," Mason said.
"Grassroots shifted around 2008 from church basements and libraries to being online," she continued, "and women were not organized online at all. So that's what we did."
Women Count became an online space for women all over the country to get politically organized, support candidates and legislation, run petition drives and the like. The organization promoted specific campaigns, too, like to form the first presidential commission on women since 1963. In 2012, Women Count partnered with two other organizations to launch a national effort to recruit more women candidates for office.
Getting more women to run persists as a challenge today, Mason said. A longtime political journalist who left Washington, D.C., for Palo Alto 12 years ago, she thought she understood the issue well enough. The number of women in Congress has long been low.
What she didn't know, however is "not that women don't win. The issue is that women don't run."
Mason pointed to research that suggests having more women in office can impact many critical issues, from health care and fair pay to improved child care.
Women Count hopes its new crowdfunding platform makes it easier for individuals to support whichever one of those issues they care most about, helping to accomplish the overarching goal of getting more women elected, Mason said. Crowdfunding is a distinct shift away from the world of super PACs and "dark money," with donations as small as $25 amplified when people share what they care about within their own personal networks. While many organizations work toward campaign finance reform through legislation and efforts to overturn Citizens United, Mason said Women Count is one of the only groups "that's actually looking at real solutions to how to make that happen."
"We believe that crowdfunding and small-dollar donations should be the future of political funding," she added.
The organization is also responsive to current events. After a gunman attacked a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs last November, for example, Women Count put out an email to further publicize slates of female candidates who support gun reform and reproductive rights.
The growth of Women Count and other women-focused online political communities, like Emily's List or New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand's Off the Sidelines, has been "very important" in helping to shift the political landscape, Mason said. The outcome of the 2016 presidential election offers another potential catalyst for change.
"I think that Hillary's candidacy will shift things, and it will build awareness," Mason said. "We hope that it will help other people wake up to why it matters to have more women in office. We don't necessarily know at this moment in time whether November will have the same result for women in Congress as what we're hoping at the presidential level."
Today, Women Count operates out of a small office at Town & Country Village in Palo Alto with a tiny staff (including interns from Palo Alto and Gunn high schools) and on a modest nonprofit budget. Women Count deducts a small fee from donations for credit card costs, bank fees and some administrative expenses but relies mostly on private donations.
Mason has stayed on as one of only two full-time employees. The other original founders -- Susie Tompkins Buell, co-founder of clothing line ESPIRIT and longtime Clinton supporter; Rosemary Camposano, who lives in Los Altos and is now the owner of Halo Blow Dry Bar; and Amy Rao, a Palo Alto resident and founder of Palo Alto tech company Integrated Archive Systems -- are still involved, but less so in the day-to-day.
Despite that, the group has "really stayed loyal to mission," Mason said. The four women reunited this spring in Nevada, campaigning for Clinton before that state's caucus.