After 25 Years, EMILY's List Renews Push For Women In Politics

In 1985, Ellen Malcolm grew frustrated by the lack of representation of women in Congress and statewide political office. So she gathered a group of women in her basement and formed EMILY's List, which helps Democratic pro-choice women get elected. Host Michel Martin talks to Malcolm, who recently stepped aside as president, and Stephanie Schriock, who replaces Malcolm, about why groups like EMILY's List are still needed.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Let's go back to 1985. Only two women were serving in the United States Senate, both Republicans. Just 23 women were in the House of Representatives. Fast forward a quarter century. There are now 17 women in the Senate, 73 women in the House, not to mention the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, as well as five women governors.

And for the Democrats at least, a good portion of the credit for those results must go to EMILY's List, a group that works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights to Congress and statewide office.

This week, EMILY's List celebrates 25 years of influence and a change in leadership. Founder Ellen Malcolm is moving on and she's here with us to talk about her legacy. Also joining us is the pretty newly minted incoming president, Stephanie Schriock, to talk about the future. And I welcome you both and I thank you both for coming.

Ms. ELLEN MALCOLM (Founder, EMILY's List): Thanks, Michel.

Ms. STEPHANIE SCHRIOCK (President, EMILY's List): Yes, thank you.

MARTIN: So, Ellen, many people think EMILY must be some woman who inspired you in some way. But EMILY actually stands for Early Money is Like Yeast because I makes the dough rise. And as we've mentioned, you've certainly been busy doing that. But when you started EMILY's List, do you remember, you know, what gave you the idea?

Ms. MALCOLM: You know, nobody took women seriously back in the '80s. And so, one of our first jobs was to help women get started so the traditional all boys' network would begin to take them seriously. And so our strategy was that if we came in early, raised a lot of early money for the women, they could then go to the traditional funders and say, look, here's my poll, here's where I am, I have the beginning stages of the campaign. And then they could convince folks to come in and take it from there.

So early on, the strategy was early money and you're right, people think about the name. I could see them scratch their heads and say, Emily Dickenson? I never thought of her as being political.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, where did the idea of bundling come from? Because one of your other innovations is that you don't necessarily just go for the big donors, but you look to gather small donations or smaller donations and put them together and to direct them to where did that idea come from?

Ms. MALCOLM: You know, it's the most powerful part of EMILY's List. We make recommendations of candidates to our members and they write checks to whoever they like and make them out to the candidates, send them back to us and we forward them to the campaign. So we give them the information and the members have the power to make a difference.

It was a very practical idea, actually, because we knew that the women needed a lot of money to get started. And they weren't going to get it from the PAC community, because the PAC community always doubted women could win. So we had this sort of simple, practical idea. If we could find people around the country that wanted to help women move into top office, we could send them the information and they'd write checks.

MARTIN: But did the women themselves doubt that they could win? You know, I mentioned the numbers up front, but compared to other countries with Democratic legislatures, the United States still lags far behind in the number of women in these legislative bodies, even compared to, you know, Rwanda, The Netherlands, you know, many countries in Africa have still a larger percentage of women serving.

And the ongoing question is is it that the voters don't take these women seriously? Or that women don't take themselves seriously?

Ms. MALCOLM: Well, it's neither of those things, I think. Actually, a lot of those countries that have more women have a parliamentary system and the way they elect people is very party driven, so it's not really about the candidates in the same way it is here.

But the biggest barrier for women is the power of incumbency. You know, if you're elected to Congress, it's practically a tenured position. About 95 percent or more of members of Congress who run for reelection are reelected. It's almost impossible to defeat members of Congress. And so we have to look for places where there's somebody not running for reelection. There aren't very many of those open seats so there aren't very many opportunities to put newcomers in.

So we have sort of a duel problem here. We have to overcome the gender issues and I think they still exist, though in a more subtle way. And we have to put newcomers into office, which is absolutely the hardest task in politics.

MARTIN: Stephanie, let's bring you into the conversation. You already have a strong background in politics. You managed the campaign for now U.S. Senator Al Franken in his very heated race to represent Minnesota. You previously were the national finance director for Howard Dean's presidential campaign. If you don't mind my mentioning, you're only 36.

Ms. SCHRIOCK: Thirty-seven now.

MARTIN: Thirty-seven now, happy birthday.

Ms. SCHRIOCK: Thank you.

MARTIN: So, we mentioned that there are already - these barriers have already been breached. The speaker of the House is a woman. Women on both political parties made strong campaigns in 2008 for top political offices. So why is there still a need for a group like EMILY's List?

Ms. SCHRIOCK: It's very clear, actually. So much of the advancement of women running for office, candidates, but also political professionals like myself owe everything to EMILY's List. The thought that I could take on and be the finance director for a presidential campaign, that I could be a campaign manager for Al Franken's Senate race or for John Tester's Senate race twenty-five years ago, that's a whole different story. Because of the work EMILY's List has done, those doors have been opened.

MARTIN: But as those doors were opened, what doors remain to be opened?

Ms. SCHRIOCK: Well, now it is really the next phase of this, which is opening up a significant dialogue with women and men across the country about representative democracy. That, yes, we have a foot in the door. But we need to bring more folks through that door. And that's going to take even more members and more candidates running. And that's how we really get to where we need to be.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin, and I'm speaking with Stephanie Schriock. She is the new president of EMILY's List, and Ellen Malcolm, the founder and outgoing president of EMILY's List. EMILY's List, as you may know, is one of the most influential fundraising organizations. It's dedicated to electing pro-choice Democratic women to Congress and statewide office.

Ellen Malcolm, you were going to add something? We were talking about, you know, why is there still a need for EMILY's List when all these barriers have been broken?

Ms. MALCOLM: Well, I think it goes back to my comments about there are still gender issues and it's so hard to put newcomers into office. And, you know, Stephanie is so right about our representative democracy. One of the most progressive, important values that we hold as Americans is that our government is going to work because it's going to represent our very diverse country. People from different income levels, parts of the country, race, gender.

But the fact is that we're only 17 percent of the Congress. And so women are totally unfairly represented in our government. I think it's one of the reasons it doesn't work very well. Frankly, I think if we had more women in there, we could tone down this kind of partisanship and this bickering and get some work done.

MARTIN: Stephanie, I'm going to ask you this question, though, some people argue that part of the problem with American politics is the outsized influence of money and that EMILY's List, even though you're raising from a different constituency in a different way, you're not necessarily raising from the big PACs and big donors and things of that sort, that you're allowing individuals to group their smaller donations together so that they could have an impact.

Many people still say that bundling is part of the problem, that money just has an outsized influence in American politics. This is part of the reason that some people are so angry, because they feel like they have no voice. No matter what they do, they're shut out. How would you respond to that?

Ms. MALCOLM: Well, first I would say EMILY's List, in essence, developing bundling, but, really, it's empowering individuals. The mother who's working full time. The father who's trying to balance everything. With their $50 in combination with everybody else's $50 and $100 and $250, can make a real significant difference in a candidate's success. And that power, that empowerment is part of our democracy.

MARTIN: Ellen, can I switch gears for a second and as you know, as we are speaking, we just lost Dorothy Height, an icon of the civil rights movement and for women and for human rights. And in the African-American community there's been this ongoing dialogue about the next generation of leaders and where the movement goes. You know, with leaving the president's post to move on to the next phase, I'm not going to call it retirement in your case, because I'm sure that it isn't.

Ms. MALCOLM: Thank you. I don't think of it as retirement.

MARTIN: I'm sure it's you'll be just as busy as ever. But I think you're similarly positioned to critique where you think the women's movement is now and women in politics. And I'd like to ask, you know, what you see going forward.

Ms. MALCOLM: You know, I think that's such a broad and an important question right now. And I think Stephanie and I, in a very interesting way, kind of illustrate what's happened in the changes of the women's movement. My generation who came up in the '70s was opening the doors trying to get women in for the first time. And I am very proud that almost a third of the women we've added to Congress are women of color. It's a very important commitment of our members. But we opened the doors.

Now, Stephanie's generation is dealing with the issues that are affecting women now that the doors are open. And so it's a very different perspective on the process, a very different agenda of work and family issues, how you balance and pay equity, an important understanding of why women are important in that role.

And so I think the women's movement now needs to look to these young leaders, these upcoming leaders, to say these are your issues that you deal with every single day in your life. You've got to find a common voice to say this is what's wrong in our society. We need help, we're going to demand change on these issues.

MARTIN: So, Stephanie, a final question to you, which is, how will you know when you have succeeded in this job? We started our conversation with talking about this as a tremendous increase in the number of women serving in elective office around the country, which is clearly part of Ellen Malcolm's legacy. What do you think your legacy is going to be? What would you want it to be?

Ms. SCHRIOCK: Well, I hope that in 25 years we'll be able to, you know, double these numbers and double our membership again and again, because I think the importance of women's voices in government is important to our entire society.

MARTIN: Stephanie Schriock is the new president of EMILY's List. It's one of the most significant fundraising organizations supporting pro-abortion rights, Democratic women candidates in the country.

Ellen Malcolm is the founder and outgoing president of EMILY's List. She remains chair of the board, if I is that right?

Ms. MALCOLM: I do.

MARTIN: Chairperson of the board.

Ms. MALCOLM: And I will be involved still.

MARTIN: So, not retiring.

Ms. MALCOLM: Not retiring.

MARTIN: Okay. They were both kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. I thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. MALCOLM: Thank you.

Ms. SCHRIOCK: Thank you so much.

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