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BPR Interviews: Ellen Malcolm

Ellen Malcolm is the founder of EMILY’s List, a political action committee that helps elect pro-choice Democratic women. Now serving as the organization’s Chair of the Board of Directors, Malcolm founded the group in 1985 and was its president until 2010. Throughout her career, Malcolm held positions ranging from an organizer at Common Cause to the press secretary for the National Women’s Political Caucus and for President Jimmy Carter’s special assistant for consumer affairs. Her efforts were crucial in mobilizing people to vote through such efforts as America Coming Together and America Votes. In 2016, she authored “When Women Win: EMILY’s List and the Rise of Women in American Politics.”

Rose Houglet: Could you speak to what you view as the role of structural or legal activism versus cultural shifts and how they serve one another?

Ellen Malcolm: We began EMILY’s List in 1985, for the 1986 election, primarily because we were so frustrated that there had never been a Democratic woman elected to the Senate in her own right. We had seen significant changes in the roles of women through the women’s movement in the 60s and 70s and had our first major national political battle in trying to get the Equal Rights Amendment ratified. So, we knew that there were cultural changes happening but it wasn’t being seen in the political realm. We wanted to make sure that people were elected to Congress that reflected our views and experiences as women. And that’s why we began EMILY’s List.

Rose Houglet: So you feel as though the work of EMILY’s List on a structural level has also served the cultural shift?

Ellen Malcolm: Very much so. One of the first barriers we had, and women candidates had when we began, was the people weren’t used to seeing women run for office, and they had no reference points, so they didn’t know where to put the information. It was not what they expected. So the women would get all kinds of gender-related question: Who’s cooking the dinner? Who is taking care of the kids? What does your husband think about this? Are you really sure you’re going to be able to understand the budget? Just all kinds of questions that illustrated the doubts that voters had about seeing women in these new roles. As we elected more and more women, voters became more and more comfortable with it. Now, it is very rare for a woman running for Congress to get questions [about her private life] like what does your husband think about this or who’s taking care of the kids. Now, they get questions about the budget and what their priorities are. But what we’ve found is that as women try to break into higher office, it blows up a whole other set of gender concerns. When Nancy Pelosi became the first woman Speaker the first time she got all kinds of gender-related questions focused on what she was wearing and her husband and her family and whether she was tough enough to deal with President Bush. Then, the second time it really wasn’t quite like that. It was more an acceptance of a woman in that leadership role and wondering whether politically she was going to be able to pull it off and become the Speaker.

Rose Houglet: Speaking of women in higher office, with more women on the debate stage than ever before for executive office, whose policies among the 2020 candidates do you feel like most line up with the intentions of your group? Also, how do you reconcile the fact that a lot of candidates are increasingly rejecting PAC donations?

Ellen Malcolm: First of all, EMILY’s List, though it legally is a political action committee, the strength of EMILY’s List from the beginning was that we give information to members, and they write checks to the candidates they choose. We created a donor network. We are a far cry from a special interest PAC. Now as EMILY’s List grew, we began to raise more and more money to do additional things to help women run their campaigns. We train people to work in the campaigns. We do a big women’s vote program as an independent expenditure to get women voters to the polls. But we’re not a traditional special interest PAC that just doles out 5000 dollar checks. When we created the donor network we wanted to empower the individuals to decide where their money’s going to go. So, we didn’t have a big litmus test of “here are the issues.” We supported pro-choice Democratic women who in our political assessment had a realistic chance of being able to win. Then we give the members the candidates’ positions on all kinds of issues. If you go to our website and you look at the candidates we’ve recommended and you click on them, you get a little synopsis of who they are, what the race is like, and what their priorities are.

Rose Houglet: Will you do the same for the 2020 presidential candidates?

Ellen Malcolm: We have not picked the presidential candidate this time, and I think we will wait to see how it plays out a little more. But it’s so exciting to see so many strong women candidates in the presidential race. When we began, every once in a while a reporter would ask me, “When do you think you’re going to elect the first woman president?” And I just started laughing because in the 80s we’d never elected a Democratic woman to the Senate in her own right. There were 12 Democratic women in the entire House of Representatives. There had been a handful of women governors that had been elected but never really a governor of a big state. So, the idea was frankly kind of preposterous; there is no field to pull from. Now, of course, we so dramatically increased the number of women in the House and the Senate and governors that there is a tremendously deep pool of potential presidential candidates. You’re seeing that in this election when you look at that debate stage and see those strong women. They have gotten to their positions with a lot of help from EMILY’s List, and they are doing us proud.

Rose Houglet: Are you as effective in reaching younger women as you are older women for support?

Ellen Malcolm: Yeah, we have literally millions of supporters in our community and are very excited by the increasing involvement of younger women. The loss in 2016 and the election of Donald Trump, followed by that marvelous Women’s March, really set the stage for a revolutionary time of bringing younger women into the political process. We saw that with candidates and the historic wins in 2018. I’m happy to say we see it with women’s involvement as contributors and as activists getting out the vote. You know, you don’t have to be a fat cat. You don’t have to write a million-dollar check to have an impact in politics. What we’ve seen through EMILY’s List is that if you bring together a lot of smaller contributors, those 25 dollar contributions, matched by a thousand other people, can have an incredible impact on electing a good candidate.

Rose Houglet: Could you speak a little bit to how EMILY’s List works to center the voices of women of color and women with other marginalized identities culturally and legislatively among the staff and those you help?

Ellen Malcolm: From the day we began, our members have had a strong priority of trying to bring women of color into the Congress, and I was very proud when I retired that a third of the women we’d helped elect were women of color. That record has continued, and it’s just so important if you believe in a representative democracy to make sure that we have all kinds of voices that represent our country in the elected bodies that make important decisions. So, with that tremendous priority for EMILY’s List, we are constantly doing outreach. We really ramped up our program called “Run to Win” in 2018 to do training and reaching out at lower level offices, below the Congress. We multiplied significantly the small effort we’ve been doing like that and are now helping women get started in the political process and then help them when they decide they want to run. Obviously, that’s a great way to increase diversity by helping women become state legislators or mayors involved in their communities, learn about campaigns, and find their roles in that.

Rose Houglet: Following the Anita Hill Senate hearings, support for your organization increased dramatically. How do you view that privacy may have been a central part of this moment in history, thinking about women’s rights to privacy over their own bodies and within the justice system?

Ellen Malcolm: Anita Hill was a phenomenally courageous woman who shifted politics and awareness of gender-related issues in our country. When she came forward and said that Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her, it was the first time that there was really a public discussion of what was appropriate behavior between men and women in the workplace. Before Anita Hill, it was sort of a mad-man kind of world, and women in the workplace spent a lot of time strategizing how to keep the paws off of themselves from their bosses and their male colleagues. Anita opened up that issue. Also, the Judiciary Committee process really illustrated for so many people across the country how there were few women in the political process. It was like a case study in what’s wrong with our representative democracy, because here we were discussing an issue where men and women had a very different understanding of appropriate behavior, and there were no women on the Senate Judiciary Committee. That created a firestorm of women who said, “This has got to change. We need more women in the Senate. We need women at all levels of office, and we’re so glad we’ve learned about EMILY’s List because they can help us make that happen.”

Rose Houglet: Relatedly, since being pro-choice is a core tenant of what EMILY’s List is looking for in candidates, how do you view questions of pro-choice or of reproductive justice as ones of privacy?

Ellen Malcolm: When we began EMILY’s List we didn’t want to have a long list of issues, as I mentioned earlier, because we wanted the members to decide. But one of the critical tenants of what we believed in as feminists was that women should have the right to make their own health care decisions and that included on reproductive issues. So, we made being pro-choice one of the litmus tests for EMILY’s List candidates. In those days, it was more controversial within the Democratic Party. Now, there is a fairly broad acceptance even from Democratic men, certainly in the citizenry, that women should have that right. It’s been an important value for us. We think women should have the authority and the power to make those decisions, and we don’t think Congress belongs in women’s bedrooms.

Rose Houglet: Why specifically does EMILY’s List focus on Democratic pro-choice women? Do you feel like there is space in the Republican Party for people who are pro-choice, and is that something that your organization would ever consider supporting?

Ellen Malcolm: We were their first national women’s organization to be partisan in our politics. We made that decision because we had seen, after Ronald Reagan was elected, the Republicans take control of the Senate and completely begin to dismantle the progress we’d made for women throughout the women’s movement. So we said, “You know, at the heart of it, it’s important who controls the committees. Who gets to set the agenda.” Now, we certainly see that these days as you see the House passing all kinds of critical legislation and the Republican control of the Senate led by Mitch McConnell saying, “No we’re not even going to bring it up for a vote.” The partisan divide is much greater now, but from the beginning we really wanted to make sure that Democrats had the authority to control the agenda. I think that Congress would work much better if the Republicans would elect more women to office. When you look at the percentages, women in both parties were about 5 percent of the parties in Congress when we began. Today, Democratic women are almost 40 percent of the Democratic caucus, and Republican women are in single digits still. So, 35 years of progress for Democratic women and Republican women have been totally stymied. I don’t think that’s good for our democracy. I think the Republicans have a responsibility to deal with this. They make a lot of happy talk every election but, at the end of the day, they do nothing to improve that situation.