“In ten years, I expect Congress and the states to look very different from today, with women in electoral offices across the country,” she told me over lunch last summer at Acacia Bistro. And I believed her, because the person making the prediction was none other than Ellen Malcolm, the founder and chair of EMILY’s List.
Malcolm founded EMILY’s List (EMILY stands for Early Money Is Like Yeast) from her basement on Oregon Avenue in 1985. She moved the next year to Linnean Avenue in Forest Hills.
Malcolm and a cohort of women activists with an extensive breadth and depth of political organizing credentials built this formidable organization to get Democratic women elected to local, state and national political office. When they started there had never been a Democratic woman elected to the Senate in her own right; there were only 12 Democratic women in the House. Since its founding, EMILY’s List has helped elect 116 pro-choice Democratic women to the House, 23 to the Senate, 12 to governors’ seats and hundreds of women to state and local offices.
I remember so clearly the day back in the mid-80s being a first-time mom and getting a mailing from EMILY’s List asking for a contribution to elect women to office. I ran for my checkbook and became a member. I didn’t know I’d get to meet her three decades later, on a tour of Broad Branch Stream. And in my walks of the neighborhood, I continued to run into her, a down-to-earth, no-nonsense woman who had a hard time containing the enthusiasm of one of her two pooches.
In August, we met for lunch at Acacia. She told me that EMILY’s List was getting between 20 to 50 calls a day from women who wanted to run for office. They had never seen so much interest from young women.
It was after this lunch that I asked Malcolm for an interview and we talked over the phone. She grew up in Montclair, New Jersey, in a “Nelson Rockefeller Republican” family and attended Hollins College in Roanoke, Virginia. Her political awakening occurred in the 60s amidst the civil rights and anti-war movements and working to support Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign. Her first political victory was pushing Hollins College to allow women to wear pants. She got a taste of success, a baby step, and she ran with it.
I asked her who inspired her political activism: Her mother, who was active in the Junior League and United way, taught her that “giving back to your community is important and fun.” Malcolm’s mother was also politically active. In 1968, she was running for Republic committeewoman in Montclair. Malcolm was working for McCarthy, a Democrat running against Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War. Her mother told her she needed to register for a party in order to vote, and asked her which one she would choose. “Democrat,” Malcolm told her. You won’t be able to vote for me, her mother said. Malcolm replied, “Sorry, Mom. I guess not.”
She honed her grassroots political organizing skills at Common Cause. She then worked for the National Women’s Political Caucus during the campaign to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. This was a nonpartisan organization during a time when Democrats and Republicans policy agendas often intersected. Her next stop was the Carter White House as press secretary for Esther Peterson, Special Assistant to the President for Consumer Affairs. Then she got an MBA at George Washington University in order to manage her investments and support women’s organizations – and women candidates.
In 1982, she supported Harriet Woods’ campaign for U.S. Senate in Missouri. Woods lost to incumbent John Danforth by 26,500 votes out of 1.5 million cast. Woods had run out of money near the end of her campaign. Malcolm put it all together: Women had to have access to money to win campaigns and the Democratic party was not there for them.
This led Malcolm and a group of talented women to found EMILY’s List, which would support pro-choice Democratic women both in training and money. They were determined to get Democratic women into the Senate as well as other offices, but this was their top goal.
That brought me to the question as to why the Democrats have lost so much ground to Republicans at the state level.
Ellen was quite succinct. No investment. Emily List was the largest organization providing training to women running for all levels of government office. Yet there was no way they could compete with the likes of the Koch brothers in campaign finance and ALEC for policy development.
But change is in the air since Trump’s election. “Women are coming out of the woodwork,” Malcolm said. “EMILY’s List has had 18,000 requests for help and support, and many of those requests are coming from younger women.”
And EMILY’s List has expanded its local and state capacity by adding new staff. Since January, they have trained more than 500 potential candidates and are building a novel online training program.
Malcolm sees a still untapped resource – the minority voter. WOMEN VOTE!, an EMILY’s List program begun in the 1990s to persuade and turnout women voters, hopes to galvanize such voters. She is dismayed by attacks on voting rights – laws designed to lower turnout, especially in the minority community, and sees this as a continuing challenge.
But Malcolm is not daunted, and remains staunch in her belief that Democratic women of all colors and ethnicities will persevere to win elective office at all levels of government.