Powerful PAC: EMILY's List Turns 25

One of the biggest names in politics is Emily. EMILY's List is an acronym that stands for Early Money Is Like Yeast — meaning it helps raise dough. EMILY's List is one of the most powerful political action committees in the country. For 25 years it has been raising money to give to Democratic women candidates, who support abortion rights.

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A powerful political action committee is marking its anniversary. For 25 years, EMILY's List has been raising money to give to Democratic women candidates to give to Democratic women candidates who support abortion rights.

EMILY is an acronym for Early Money is Like Yeast. The punch line is because it helps raise the dough.

NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports on EMILY's influence.

ANDREA SEABROOK: In 1985, there were exactly two women in the United States Senate, both Republicans. To try to change that, a Democratic activist named Ellen Malcolm gather 24 friends in her basement. Each brought their own Rolodex, and they formed EMILY's List. The list immediately started to produce money, lots of small donations, and the group began channeling it to candidates. One year later, with the help of EMILY's List, Maryland's Barbara Mikulski became the first Democratic woman elected to the Senate in her own right. It was the group's first big success.

Debbie Walsh, the head of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers, said the real watershed moment came a few years later in 1991. A young lawyer named Anita Hill testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that Clarence Thomas, then a nominee to the Supreme Court, had sexually harassed her.

Walsh remembers vividly.

Professor DEBBIE WALSH (Director, Center for American Women in Politics, Rutgers): We were all spending our weekend watching the Senate Judiciary Committee and seeing very clearly and starkly that there were no women on the committee, but a lot of white men judging this young woman and the situation that a lot of women could connect to and understand: sexual harassment in the workplace.

SEABROOK: Hill testified that when Clarence Thomas was her boss, he continually spoke to her about pornography, sex acts and his own sexual prowess. In this tape, then-Republican Senator Arlen Specter questioned Hill.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): Professor Hill, you took it to mean that Judge Thomas wanted to have sex with you. But, in fact, he never did ask you to have sex, correct?

Professor ANITA HILL (Professor of Social Policy, Law, and Women's Studies, Brandeis University): No, he did not ask me to have sex. He did continually pressure me to go out with him. Continually.

Prof. WALSH: That moment when Anita Hill was sitting there testifying, there was this kind of collective click, sort of like these guys don't get it.

SEABROOK: That's when EMILY's List exploded. In 1992, the organization's membership grew by more than 600 percent. EMILY's List raised $10.2 million for candidates, helping to create what political scientists still call the Year of the Woman. Four new women Democrats were elected to the Senate, 20 to the House, all with help from EMILY's List.

In the years after, EMILY's List became the powerhouse it is today. It was the first PAC that successfully raised important amounts of money from small donors, the strategy Barack Obama used to win in 2008. EMILY candidates hold governorships, Cabinet positions, even the top spot in Congress, speaker of the House.

At its 25th anniversary celebration yesterday, founder Ellen Malcolm looked back.

Ms. ELLEN MALCOLM (Founder, EMILY's List): In only 12 elections, you and I through EMILY's List have literally changed the face of power in America.

SEABROOK: Proof of the influence of EMILY's List, says Malcolm, is the passage this year of the new health care law. She credits the focus of women politicians and the work of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for brining that bill through extraordinary battles.

And EMILY's List has inspired other activists on the left and the right to raise money for women candidates. Today, there are 17 women in the Senate and 73 in the House. That's a total of 90 women out of the 535 lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.

INSKEEP: You hear Andrea and the rest of NPR's political team on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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