Ellen Malcolm, Founder of EMILY’s List
More women are running for office and Ellen Malcolm has a lot to do with it. In starting the EMILY’s List fundraising network in 1985, she paved the way for Democratic women candidates to finance their campaigns. Today, EMILY’s list has helped nearly 1,000 women win offices at the local, state, and national level.
Founder, EMILY’s List
There was a time when aspiring women candidates for political office couldn’t run because the old boy’s fundraising network boxed them out. Ellen Malcolm changed all that with EMILY’s List.
Ellen Malcolm, Founder of EMILY’s List
Why She’s a MAKER: Ellen Malcolm is her own woman, through and through. Her family was Republican, she went Democrat. She was groomed to be a secretary; she became a political leader. She saw the old boys’ club say no to funding women candidates; she started her own fundraising club—EMILY’s List—to say “yes.” She’s the definition of persistence and the force behind many of the women on the ballots today.
Run Like a Girl: In the late 1970s, there were plenty of women who wanted to run for office, but the 'ol boys club refused to fund them. “Traditional funders...would lean back with their cigars and say, ‘You don’t have a chance of winning, so I’m not going to give you any money,’” says Malcolm. In 1985, Malcolm invited all the political women she knew to a Washington brainstorm on how to fund female candidates. “Every single person said one way or another we have to figure out how to raise early money for women candidates and then maybe the old boys would finally believe women could actually win.” And that’s how EMILY’s List came to be the first fundraising network to exclusively back Democratic women candidates. And what’s in the name? EMILY stands for Early Money Is Like Yeast—it makes dough rise.
Early Victory: In 1986, Maryland Representative Barbara Mikulski decided to run for senator, and heard the usual no from the all-boys network. EMILY’s List went into action. With just one mailing, the organization helped Mikulski raise as much as her opponent. “Now, the old boys look and say, ‘oh my goodness, she can raise money. We better get behind her.’” They did and Mikulski won.
Uphill Battle: EMILY’s List scored a victory, but struggled to recruit more contributors. Then the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings began to confirm Clarence Thomas as a Supreme Court Justice. “Fourteen white men basically went after Anita Hill. Working women said ‘Where are the women on that committee?’ All of a sudden we started getting inquiries, contributions, telephone calls, from women across the country.” Today, EMILY’s List is one of the most powerful political organizations in the country with 5 million members.
ELLEN MALCOLM: You have to say, no, we're not going back to the 1950s. We're not going to live like they did in Mad Men. We're going to live today as empowered, free, equal participants in our country.
I guess in some kind of way, I just broke right out of the mold. My family was, ironically, all Republican, and were so flabbergasted that I became a Democrat when I turned 21 and wanted to do anything in politics. I moved to Washington, and started working at the National Women's Political Caucus in the late 1970s. And what we heard is a very similar story. Women would go to the traditional funders, and they'd say, "You know, I want to run for Congress." And the guys would lean back with their cigars, and they'd say, "You don't have a chance of winning, so I'm not going to give you any money." and because they couldn't raise any money, they couldn't begin their campaigns. And, of course, they couldn't win.
I hosted a meeting of the political women that I knew in Washington, and said, "How do we break through this?" And every single person said, one way or another, we have to figure out how to raise early money for women candidates. And then maybe the old boys would finally believe the woman could actually win.
BARBARA MIKULSKI: Everybody, I'm that lady that's running for the United States Senate. When elected, I'll be the first Democratic woman ever elected in her own right. And I tell you, I might be 4 for 11, but they won't overlook me.
ELLEN MALCOLM: Barbara Mikulski goes to the old boys' network. She says, "Will you support me?" And they say to her, "You're not going to be able to raise any money. Women can never raise money, and you're going to lose." And little old EMILY's List that had just began, sent out our first candidate mailing. And when that first public report came out, Barbara Mikulski had raised as much as the Congressman. Now, the old boys look at it and say, "Oh my goodness. She can raise money. We better get behind her." She wins the primary handily, sweeps through the general election, and becomes the first Democratic woman in the history of this country to be elected to the Senate in her own right.
In 1991, Anita Hill came forward and said that Judge Thomas had sexually harassed her when she worked for him. The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing, and 14 white men basically went after Anita Hill. They attacked her and said horrible things about her. And working women said, "Where are the women on that committee, that understand what it is to be a woman in the workplace and be sexually harassed?" All of a sudden, we started getting inquiries, checks, contributions, telephone calls, from women across the country. And it turned EMILY's List into one of the most powerful political organizations in the country.
When we began in 1985, people thought we were crazy to ask people to write checks to two or three candidates. Ann Richards, Gloria Steinem, they talk to women and they say, "Now look down and look at your shoes, and think about how much money you paid for that pair of shoes. Isn't it worth it to you to spend that same amount of money to be represented in Congress?" A lot of younger women now are thinking, "Wow. The world is not working the way it should be," and they should go out and help change it. You've got to get involved. You've got to help us elect women who are going to fight back. When we see our women serving in office, when we see them leading the country, we can know that we're going to live as empowered, free, equal participants in our country.
ELLEN MALCOLM: When I was in high school, my mother kept trying to get me to learn how to type. In those days, there really were only a couple of things you could do in the professional world. You could be a teacher. You could be a nurse. Or, like my mother, you could be a secretary. And I would refuse. I'm not going to learn how to type. I don't want to be a secretary.
Finally, one day, she said to me, Ellen, I don't think you understand. You don't have to be in the typing pool. If you work hard, you can work your way up through the system and you can be secretary to the president when he's making all kinds of exciting decisions about the future of the company. And I looked at my mother and I said, but Mom, I want to make those decisions about the future of the company.
ELLEN MALCOLM: In the early '70s, a group of political women created the National Women's Political Caucus. And the goal of the caucus was to help women in politics, in electoral office. Politics in those days was so different. We had both the Democratic and Republican caucus, and the two groups worked together very well.
Unfortunately, when Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, conservatives took over the Republican Party, and they started to box those women out. Eventually many of them just left the party, because there was no longer a place for moderate women in the Republican Party who really cared about promoting women's rights.
So it was different in the 1970s. We could work together. We were friends. We respected each other.
ELLEN MALCOLM: You know, politics is a funny thing. When you start to get political power, your opponents label you with all kinds of caricatures. They certainly did it with feminists. We were the bra burners. We were these tough, horrible, masculine women that were going to do terrible things to men.
Well of course, none of that is true. We believe that women should be equal players in our society. It's not about going against men. It's about promoting women. So I think a lot of people that weren't around in those days remember the caricaturists and think, well, I'm not that. I'm not going to be like that.
But I think as they start realizing that the world is not equal for women, that we are virtually unrepresented, almost, in political office, they realize that the world is not working the way they think it should be, and they should go out and help change it.
ELLEN MALCOLM: One day I met a wonderful man named Charlie Butcher, who started Butcher's Wax. And I told him that I was trying to figure out what EMILY's List was in the political world. And he said, you know, I'm an entrepreneur. When I started my company, I couldn't go straight at my big major competition. They would have swatted me like a fly.
He said, you know, it's kind of like sailing. You can't sail directly into the wind. You have to tack to get where you're going to go. And I thought, that's what EMILY's List is, we tack to where we're going to go. We use the power of the system in a different way to achieve our goals. A lot of organizations try to sail directly into the wind, and then they yell at the wind because they're not getting anywhere.
We don't do that. We use the power of the wind to make the change we're trying to get.
ELLEN MALCOLM: I think our Congress works better when there are more women in it, for a number of reasons. First of all, they understand the life experiences of what women have. And they represent that when they're in the discussions.
I remember Pat Schroeder way back saying that she had just become chair of the subcommittee in Armed Services that was in charge of all the military bases. And she twinkled her eyes and looked at me and she said, and there are going to be day care centers on every one of those military bases from now on. You know, the men have been in charge of the military for years. They never really thought about what happened with families and kids, and how they could be helpful. But a woman understood that, and she changed the dialogue.
I think if the Congress is 50% women, they'd get down to work and they'd get something done.