Emily’s List Turns 20

When a group of Democratic, abortion-rights feminists founded Emily’s List in 1985, their goal was to elect women to the U.S. Senate.

As Emily’s List celebrated its 20th anniversary Monday, that goal seemed downright unambitious.

Consider: Women from both major parties now hold 14 of 100 Senate seats and 67 of 435 House seats in Congress. Eight of the nation’s governors are women. Network television is carrying a prime- time drama about a woman vice president who unexpectedly becomes president. And polling shows Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton and Republican Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice among the most popular prospective candidates for the presidency in 2008.

But in no small way, Emily’s List fueled those women’s political advancements, by building the machine that boosted pro-choice women Democrats – and also by inspiring the creation of dozens of like-minded and different-minded groups at the local, state and nation levels.

The Susan B. Anthony List supports anti-abortion candidates, which translates largely to Republican women but also includes Democrats, and, sometimes, men running against female abortion rights supporters. The WISH List aims to elect pro-choice, moderate Republican women to local, state and national office.

“We gave women credibility in politics like they’d never had before,” Emily’s List president and co-founder Ellen Malcolm said. “The members of Emily’s List can take great pride in the fact they have changed the direction of this country. Their contributions have changed the face of power in America.”

“What they did, they were very effective at doing _ and it was the diametric opposite of all the things I believed were good for women,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List. Dannenfelser’s group was formed in response to the 1992 elections, in which Emily’s List-backed women picked up four more seats in the Senate and 20 in the House.

“I can definitely say, what was dubbed the ‘Year of the Woman’ motivated me,” Dannenfelser said.

Emily List gets its name not from a woman but an acronym for a slogan Malcolm was playing around with at the time: “Early money is like yeast.”

“I never bake,” Malcolm, now 58, said in a telephone interview. “I dunno, I just thought it up. It was much more the growth and the expansion, that you used yeast to make dough. We knew we wanted to raise early money because it was the early barrier to women putting together campaigns.”

For its logo, the group used a red and yellow-orange rectangle that resembled the look of a packet of Fleischmann’s yeast. It was an attention-getting theme.

“If we’d called it the Democratic Women’s Political Network,” Malcolm said, “we would have raised $1.98 by now.”

Fifteen women had served before in the Senate, but most were appointed or elected because of their fathers’ or late husbands’ political credentials. A couple of Republican women with previous political experience were elected. But as Emily’s List saw it, no Democratic woman had won a Senate seat completely on her own merits.

In 1986, the newly formed Emily’s List backed two women Democrats for the Senate _ Harriett Woods of Missouri, who lost, and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, who won, made history and remains in office. Emily’s List saw its membership swell in 1991, when allegations of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas in his Supreme Court confirmation hearings energized some Democratic women voters.

What made Emily’s List such a force, campaign experts say, was its techniques for bundling, getting donors to give in a coordinated fashion to candidates it recommended. PACs are capped at $5,000 per candidate per election; but last year, Emily’s List had 101,000 affiliates who wrote 106,000 checks to candidates it recommended.

Today, Emily’s List is ranked as the nation’s largest political action committee, according to the PoliticalMoneyLine campaign finance database. It raised $33 million in the 2004 election cycle and has taken in more than $10 million this year, putting it ahead of Moveon.org, various unions and the National Rifle Association.

It served as a model for groups beyond those promoting women, such as Club for Growth, which focuses on supporting candidates in Republican primaries who promote economic growth.

“We certainly picked up on the concept of bundling from Emily’s List,” said the group’s executive director, David Keating. “The Club For Growth PAC raises $100,000 for a candidate pretty much without breaking a sweat. The members are actually writing the checks, but it’s way more than a PAC could give. Emily’s List pioneered this concept of bundling. They really made it something that’s viable and effective.”