(CBS News) In 2010, a set of Supreme Court rulings, including the Citizens United decision, ushered in a new era of unlimited political spending in America. Groups outside the party system are reportedly planning to spend more than a billion dollars collectively this election season, blanketing the airwaves with ads, contacting voters and shaping the national political dialogue -- in ways the candidates.
The bulk of the cash being funneled to super PACs -- groups independent from political campaigns that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money -- comes from a select few wealthy Americans. One look at themakes one thing clear: This new element of American politics is overwhelmingly dominated by men. As women continue to strive for better representation in politics, the introduction of super PACs has opened up a powerful new means of political speech that has so far been employed mostly by men.
According to the nonpartisan research group the Center for Responsive Politics, as of May 21, about 20 percent of donations to outside groups like super PACs in this election cycle have come from women (among the donations that could be broken down by gender). In dollars, that amounts to $31,165,706 -- however, that includes $15,000,000 in donations from just one person, Miriam Adelson. Adelson's husband, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, is best known in this campaign season for single-handedly keeping Newt Gingrich's Republican primary bid alive with his super PAC donations.
Professor Karen O'Connor, founder of the Women & Politics Institute at American University, noted that the figure of female super PAC donors looks similar to some other related stats: Women make up 17 percent of Congress, and the number of Fortune 500 firms run by female CEOs sits at 18.
"Seventeen to 20 percent -- somehow seems that's where we're stuck," O'Connor told Hotsheet.
Men are also more likely to give directly to the presidential campaigns, but the gender gap is less pronounced: Among those giving $200 or more, about 44 percent of President Obama's donors and about 31 percent of Mitt Romney's donors are female.
One of the women high on the list of super PAC donors is New York philanthropist Amy Goldman. She has given $1 million to the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action and another $1 million to Planned Parenthood's super PAC, Planned Parenthood Victory.
The growing influence of super PACs "is a new reality that we have to live with," Goldman told Hotsheet. "Electoral politics has changed this year, so women need to rethink their strategies and begin to support these new entities, which can be an enormous and powerful force for good."
Goldman, whose family invests in New York real estate, said it doesn't surprise her that relatively few women are bankrolling super PACs, if only because they're new. "It's a little early, and you've got to start somewhere," she said.
"I think it's important to remember that women hold the purse strings, and there's a lot of economic power there, and I just think women can make a huge difference in this election cycle," Goldman continued.
She said her gift to Planned Parenthood Victory was made early "to get the ball rolling," adding she expects more women to step in. "I hope to see a cascade of small and large donations," she said.
However, so-called "women's issues" are far from the only issues mobilizing the women engaging with super PACs, and liberal groups are obviously not the only ones with women donors among their ranks. Jackie Bodnar, a spokesperson for the conservative group FreedomWorks, says its female donors are "very engaged on fiscal issues and constitutional issues."
"Especially for women and women with children, they're very concerned about making sure the U.S. is better off financially for the next generation than it was for their own -- and for the first time that's not a guarantee," she said. "You have a lot of women engaged in tax reform and entitlement reform."
Hotsheet reached out to multiple conservative women donors who either did not respond or were not interested in discussing their donations -- but the records reveal there are deep-pocketed women helping to finance conservative super PACs. For instance, New Jersey-based investor Viriginia James gave $1 million this year to the Club for Growth super PAC, which has been influential in congressional races this year. Janet Duchossois, the wife of Duchossois Industries CEO Craig Duchossois, gave $250,000 this year to the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future and $250,000 in December to the Karl Rove-backed American Crossroads.
These conservative groups are expected to have the biggest influence in this year's elections, with plans to spend roughly $1 billion collectively, Politico reported earlier this week -- more than either Barack Obama or John McCain raised in the 2008 campaign, and potentially twice as much as liberal outside groups.
Watch CBS News political director John Dickerson's politics week-in-review webcast in the video to the left.