Editor’s Note: This is the first part in a series on women-founded and -led organizations working to expand female political representation in the U.S. by recruiting, training and funding women candidates.
November 8, 2016, was a dark night for Emily’s List, one of the oldest and most influential groups in America working to elect women to political offices.
Not only did the first female presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, lose to Donald Trump, a man with no government experience and a history of sexism, her candidacy failed to sweep a wave of women into higher office. Emily’s List pumped $90 million into 2016 races, hoping for strong — if not historic — gains, but ended up running to stand still. Congress in 2017 would gain only one woman.
Emily’s List was founded in 1985 by IBM heiress Ellen R. Malcolm to raise money for pro-choice Democratic women running for Congress and state governorships. Up until election night, it had helped elect 116 Democratic U.S. House members, 23 senators, 12 governors and more than 800 state and local officials — and one presidential nominee.
“We wanted a wave — we didn’t get a wave. We wanted our gal in the White House,” Emily’s List President Stephanie Schriock laments. But given the loss at the top of the Democratic ticket, she says it was a relief women didn’t lose ground in Congress.
“We get close. We keep pushing up,” she says. “It doesn’t feel that great, but we added four new women to the Senate… and three are women of color in an institution that has only ever had two.” Due to female retirements, however, women gained only one Senate seat.
Congress today has 105 women members — 78 Democrats and 27 Republicans — which is just shy of 20 percent of its 535 seats. The U.S. ranks a dismal 104th among the world’s national parliaments for female representation. Nevertheless, 105 is more than four times the 25 who served when Emily’s List began. “There are many more Democratic women than Republican women” in Congress, Schriock adds. Nodding to her organization’s victories, she says: “That’s Emily’s List.”
But out of 2016’s painful setback has come a surprising, exciting opportunity. Emily’s List has been hit by a wave — a tsunami, even — of women interested in running for office in 2017, 2018 and beyond.
“We want a moment,” Schriock says. “Well, that moment has begun.”
The Post-Trump Boom
Emily’s List, like other organizations working to elect women, has received a flood of candidacy offers from angry, motivated women since President Trump’s victory. At the Women’s Convention in late October, Schriock announced that 20,000 women have registered their interest in running for office via its website. That compares to a total of 920 women who expressed interest there during the entire 2014-2016 electoral cycle. Emily’s List expects to break its fundraising records for non-presidential election years in the 2017-2018 cycle.
That surge has swept away what Schriock says has been the organization’s single greatest challenge: women’s reluctance to raise their hands to be candidates. Though women vote at higher rates than men and women candidates win at the same rate as men, fewer women embrace political ambition and run for office. Those who do run often have to be recruited aggressively.
While not all 20,000 women will run right away, “they have overcome a key obstacle: the mere idea of running for office,” Schriock says. “That is huge. That is a historic moment for us.”
Experts say women candidates, typically, want to fix something or they’re mad about something. The Virginia race this year was marked by “angry Democratic women looking to unseat Republicans,” says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University. And the surge in candidate interest everywhere is in response to Trump’s election, she says. “In this administration, their issues are on the chopping block…. That’s what’s driving this: that sense they they can’t afford to be on the sidelines anymore.”
Now, to harness that energy and try to manufacture a 2018 moment, Emily’s List is driving much deeper into state and local races than it ever has before. While its traditional work funding female congressional and gubernatorial candidates continues, it has tripled the size of its state and local team.
Manufacturing a 2018 Moment
And in February it launched “Run to Win,” a program to identify serious candidates up and down the ballot with a shot at winning — and then to help them win. That involves training candidates; so far this year, it has held 26 half-day sessions in 24 cities in 23 states. And it includes matching candidates with women who want to join campaign teams. Nearly 8,000 women have registered to help, Schriock says, whether to work on strategy and messaging, knock on doors or babysit the kids. Emily’s List is also expanding its digital tools, adding Facebook pages, webinars and an online platform meant to connect women at scale.
The down-ballot move is a response to the times. The Democratic Party is now reckoning with the success of a decades-long Republican effort to take control of state and local governments. That control has hurt Democrats in major policy fights, thinned its bench of future leaders, and led to redistricting efforts that have further weakened Democratic chances on Election Day.
By steering more Democratic women into state and local offices, Emily’s List aims not only to regain ground but to develop a pipeline of women with the experience and supporter bases that position them for higher offices in the future.
An immediate focus has been Virginia, where most statewide offices were on the ballot on Tuesday. Emily’s List was helping to organize canvassing there, Vice President of Training and Outreach Muthoni Wambu Kraal said during the Women’s Convention. “We have a really good opportunity to elect a historic number of women in Virginia,” she said.
During a packed-full Emily’s List training session at the convention, Wambu Kraal told 150 now and future candidates: “We help train women to win, we’re not just training women.” Then she introduced Michigan State Senator Gretchan Whitmer, who is currently running for governor. “The only thing standing in your way is you doubting yourself,” Whitmer proclaimed. “I’m looking at what I hope to be a lot of candidates.”
Soon, Wambu Kraal dove into the “the pieces of your campaign, that is your small business.” She listed personal qualities that are “must-haves” — integrity, passion, energy, commitment, people skills, willingness to learn and skin that can thicken. And she asked participants to answer some tough questions: “Why do you want to run? What do you offer voters? Do you have the discipline and the drive to win? Are you willing to raise the money that is necessary to win?”
The audience shouted: “Yes!”
The Origin Story
Emily’s List was formed to raise money for women early in their candidacies to make them look more viable to the Democratic Party establishment and more attractive to other donors and supporters. In fact, the name “Emily” is an acronym for “Early Money Is Like Yeast” — it makes the dough rise.
Two major disappointments fueled its founding in 1985. In 1982, Harriett Woods of Missouri was the only woman running for the Senate in a very a close race. Short on funds, she traveled to Washington to ask the party for $50,000, but was turned down. “They did not think a woman could win,” Schriock says. “She lost because she ran out of money.” (Woods would help start Emily’s List and later become president of the National Women’s Political Caucus.)
Then in 1984, Democrat Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman to run for vice president on a major party ticket. It was a huge moment for Democratic women, but there was no mechanism to rally their support as donors. The Mondale-Ferraro ticket lost badly.
Malcolm and a group of friends believed the only way to get meaningful change for women was to give them a money source that would force the party structure to take them seriously, Schriock says. They would direct funds to Democratic women who favored abortion rights, a position central to the women’s movement and shared at the time by most Democratic and Republican women in Congress.
The organization’s major campaign innovation was to “bundle” large numbers of small contributions from friends, coworkers and ultimately women all around the country, and then distribute them to individual candidates. “It sounds so simple now, but it was just mindblowing. Nobody had done it,” Schriock says. Malcolm was “a true social entrepreneur who saw a huge hole and filled it with Emily’s List.”
The year after its founding, it backed the reelection of Maryland Congresswoman Barbara Mikulski, and in a letter-writing campaign successfully raised $185,000. “That changed everything,” Schriock says. “It began Emily’s List.”
Now, whether party officials like it our not, they know that “the Emily’s List candidate will get support that the other candidate won’t get,” Walsh of CAWP says. “It’s a powerful, powerful tool that they have built.”
Malcolm served as president for 25 years until handing the reins in 2010 to Schriock, 44, a political operative adept at fundraising. The organization keeps adapting and growing, Schriock says. When it realized it didn’t have enough women to support, it began recruiting candidates. Soon it started training women to staff campaigns, and teaching candidates and staffs how to fundraise. In 1995, it launched a “super PAC” called Women Vote to mobilize female voters and make independent expenditures on behalf of women candidates.
Asked what drives her personally, Schriock says, “I have always believed that when you elect good people to office, they make people’s lives better.” Though she has helped good men get elected in her career, she says “they need some sisters at the table with them.” Having women’s perspectives is “only good for our democracy,” she adds. “This is our movement, and we’ve got to take it with both hands.”