In 2010, Kerri Kennedy was training women in Afghanistan to run for office when she noticed a stark statistic. That year, 28 percent of elected officials in Afghanistan were women, while in the United States, women held just 17 percent of such positions.
A friend told her that while the work Kennedy did was commendable, she could have a bigger impact helping women in her own country get elected.
"She said, 'You're not walking the talk,' " Kennedy recalled.
Six years later, Kennedy is one of more than a dozen Philadelphia women who run Represent!, a political action committee focused on electing Democratic women to state and federal office. The committee's federal arm has raised $94,000 and given $175,000 to campaigns since last year. The state arm has raised $50,400 this election cycle and $89,000 since it became active in 2014.
At a time when millions are flowing to political campaigns, the dollars raised and donated by Represent! seem modest. But the group is hoping to gain momentum as the Democratic National Convention, July 25 to 28, nears and Hillary Clinton is poised to make history as the first female presidential candidate of a major U.S. party.
"It's the right time for an organization like ours," said Kennedy, 41, who in her day job is an executive for a nonprofit. (She is not related to those Kennedys.)
In late June, Represent! achieved "multicandidate" PAC status at the federal level, which means the group has supported at least five federal candidates and has more than 50 individual donors. That status allows a PAC to receive up to $5,000 from an individual a year, nearly double the usual $2,700 limit for individual donors.
"We are able to give a lot more money to the campaigns," said Aubrey Montgomery, 32, one of the cofounders.
The women behind Represent! are trying to distinguish themselves from other female-focused PACs, such as EMILY'S List, the national group that backs female candidates who support abortion rights, and one that many women, including Represent! board members, have supported over the years.
On the Republican side, too, a PAC called Women Lead is trying to elect women, and the Anne B. Anstine Series, based in Pennsylvania and named for the woman who once led the state GOP, is a workshop that helps train women going into politics. Both groups were founded by Christine J. Toretti, a Republican National Committee member.
Represent! is trying to attract women with disposable income who aren't the typical political fund-raisers and give them a reason to pitch in politically.
"There are women who will raise $150,000 for a playground or some charitable cause in their neighborhood," said Christine Jacobs, one of the PAC's cofounders. "But so much of [the decision-making] is in Harrisburg."
Jacobs, 63, said part of the Represent! mission is to educate other women on the value of fund-raising for female candidates. Oftentimes, she said, women simply don't know how to get involved politically.
"Also, because you don't know how to connect the dots from what happens in Harrisburg to what happens in your neighborhood," said Jacobs, who is a retired senior vice president of Peco Energy.
Even Kennedy said that prior to funding the group in 2013, she didn't see "the direct impact" in donating to political candidates. But she is excited for what's to come. Represent! helped elect Democratic State Reps. Leanne Krueger-Braneky to the 161st District and Donna Bullock to the 195th District in special elections in August.
Seventeen of the 18 candidates the committee supported this year won their primaries in April, including Katie McGinty, the Pennsylvania Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate. Represent! has donated more than $5,000 to McGinty and hosted two events for her earlier this year, which raised $40,000 in individual donations, Montgomery said.
The federal PAC is also gaining momentum.
On Tuesday, about 25 women and three men (two of whom were interns) gathered at the Center City penthouse apartment of Marie Carroll, former vice president of Anheuser-Busch, to listen to U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D., Ariz.), who is challenging Sen. John McCain, and former North Carolina State Rep. Deborah Ross, also running for Senate.
Kirkpatrick and Ross gave their stump speeches in Carroll's wood-paneled living room, while attendees lunched on homemade salads, roast chicken, and salmon. The suggested contribution to attend the lunch: $1,000 a person.
The women chatted about forthcoming races and Clinton. Carroll mentioned that she would be lending her two-bedroom apartment to some of Clinton's campaign staff while she goes to the Poconos. A lot of the chatter was networking among successful retired women, or soon-to-be retirees, and a younger generation of women who are just getting into politics, running or working behind the scenes.
Lindy Li, a Democrat who briefly ran for Congress this year in a Chester County-based district, said it's "so fundamentally important" to have women elected. She reminded the crowd that Pennsylvania, a state of 12 million residents, currently has no women in its congressional delegation.
"That's medieval. That's heartbreaking," Li said.