Ellen Malcolm

“You’ve got to love every little victory and celebrate it to keep yourself going.”

Interviewed by Judy Waxman, June 2021

EM:  I was born in 1947 in Montclair, New Jersey. My name is Ellen Malcolm and I’m an old transplant from New Jersey.

JW:  What was your life like as a child? I mean, what kind of interests did you have, influences in your background that maybe led you to being interested in women’s rights?

EM:  Well, actually, anything that had me going into women’s rights was sort of from the negative. I grew up in a very upper middle-class suburban town. My mother was very involved in the community, volunteered, and had leadership positions in all kinds of organizations. So, I learned from her a real commitment to giving back. But it was all very volunteer driven. And underlying all of that was her personal story. She had worked as a secretary, married my father, who died when I was eight months old.

She went back to IBM and worked for a little bit and then met my stepfather and they married and had two sons. So, we all grew up together, the five of us. And her view was, I should learn how to type. And she’d always [say] that’s what she wanted me to do. And something inside of me said, no, I don’t want to [just] type. That is not where I want to be in my life. No, no, no, no. I remember one time her saying, “I don’t think you understand this. If you learn how to type, you can work your way up. And you could be the secretary for the president, and you could be right there when all the big decisions were being made.”

And I thought to myself, you know, I think I’d rather make the decisions. The other thing I learned from my mother; it was such a 1950s kind of upper middle-class viewpoint. She said, “You know, you’ll work until you get married and then you’ll stop working.” And I said, “Well, why would I stop? I mean, if I like my job and all that, why wouldn’t I just continue working?” And my mother looked kind of mystified. She said, “Because you’ll love your husband.” And I said, “Yeah, I would hope I would love my husband, but I don’t understand why I would have to stop working.”

And it just like went over her head. She was just like, “You will stop working because you love your husband and you stay home and have a family.” So, it was a very different world view from a very strong leader type woman. And so, it was that version of leadership ability that translated into my 1960s, ’70s, ’80s, et cetera, roles.

JW:  So, when did you move on to having a role in, I’ll say, get interested in the women’s movement?

EM:  I wasn’t really interested in the women’s movement for quite a while. In fact, I was much more of the student activist type in college, graduated in 1969, then moved up to Washington and worked at Common Cause, which at that point was working very hard on ending the war in Vietnam, which of course was my passion. And so, John Gardner had started this organization, called it a citizen’s lobby. Nobody had ever heard of anything like that. And so, we went and got there when it was about six months old.

And we started to basically create a volunteer heavy organization that lobbied on issues that are important to citizens. The premise being that the special interests pay money and they’ve got lobbyists to represent them on the Hill. But who represents the regular folks? And so that’s what we were doing. And I was like a sponge. I was there for four years and just learned so much about the political process, the legislative process, how to organize, and how much fun it all could be, creating and being a part of something that was going to make a difference.

JW:  And then at some point, some women’s issues caught your eye. Was that when you went to the Women’s Political Caucus?

EM:  Common Cause worked on the Equal Rights Amendment a little bit and I knew that was happening, but I didn’t really, it wasn’t on my agenda particularly. But I started becoming more political. I personally came out as a lesbian and became more involved in that political world and was looking for another job after Common Cause and after some sort of starts and stops at other places, went to the National Women’s Political Caucus as the press secretary.

One of the reasons I went was because everybody told me that Jane Pearson McMichael was so fabulous, and she was the executive director and it would be a great place for me to learn and to do that. So, I went and my first day of work, like here I am in my new job, where’s Jane? And they said, oh, she went to Harvard for the semester. So, it took me a while to get to know Jane. But I did begin to meet a wonderful group of women that were working in a bipartisan way on trying to elect and support women in the political realm. And of course, the driving force then was the ERA, the ERA extension, and trying to get it ratified. And so that group of friends that I met through that effort really is what eventually turned into the founding group for Emily’s List.

JW:  Tell me a little about what it was like doing the press for the group.

EM:  Well, I really didn’t know what I was doing, frankly, and it was all moving so fast and I had a lot to learn and I liked it. I thought the caucus made some curious decisions that I wanted to avoid, certainly when I began Emily’s List. And one of them is that it relied much too heavily on volunteers to do the work and didn’t really develop a professional staff. And so, for example, when they wanted to renew the membership, to raise the money to run the organization, they didn’t do it at the federal national level. They did it state by state, volunteer by volunteer.

And we’d hear stories of the membership lists lost in somebody’s trunk of their car. And they never quite got around to making the calls. And so, needless to say, the caucus was always operating on a shoestring. And when it came to do the professional work, for example, we had a big convention, a wonderful national convention. And I was told that two members would be in charge of the press and my job was to staff them. So, it was a kind of an odd combination of professional role. And I think long term really [it] was not a great way to operate and certainly very different than what we did at EMILY’s List, which really took tremendous pride in the quality of the staff that we hired and helped and who did the work of electing women.

JW:  So, was that your reason for thinking about EMILY’s List?

EM:  After I left the caucus, a little group of us left the caucus. Millie Jeffrey was the chair when I went in, and she was phenomenal and a real mentor to all of us. She lost re-election in what was really a very nasty, dirty tricks kind of campaign, if you can imagine such a thing. And we stayed for a couple of months with the new president and finally couldn’t stand it anymore. And so, four of us left, Betsy Crone, Ann Kolker, Debbie Harding and myself.

And we take great merriment in the fact that we even now every year have a holiday lunch to catch up with each other. Unfortunately, Ann died of cancer, but we still have our lunch and now Peter Kolker comes and represents Ann. So, there was a group of us. I had the good fortune of inheriting some money. And so, I started a little kind of a foundation, operated like a foundation, called the Windom Fund. And Layal Stiegel, who had been the development director at the caucus, became the executive director of the Windom Fund. And so, we were funding a lot of women’s empowerment kinds of activities and that all sort of took place in the early ’80s.

So, while that was going on, Freddy Wexler, who was my predecessor at the caucus, wrote a letter that I received and all of us received, talking about Harriett Woods running for the United States Senate against John Danforth. This was in the 1982 election. What happened, during that election is that Harriett was doing very well. She was soaring in the polls and the Democratic establishment, the big funders of the big candidates just refused to believe that she had a chance to win and they didn’t give her any money. And the result of that is she ran out of money, literally, towards the end of the campaign.

Danforth had as much money as he wanted. And so, he just made up all these things about who she was and what she was going to do. And she couldn’t defend herself. So, she lost the election by about twenty-five thousand votes. And out of that process, we were furious. We had heard that story at the caucus over and over again of women who were ready to run. And the guys would not believe, they wouldn’t give them any money and because they never could get any money, of course they would lose. So, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. And so, we decided we wanted to do something differently.

And the first thing we needed to do was to raise early money. Because if we could get enough money into the women’s campaigns, maybe the guys would take the women seriously and they could continue funding the whole effort from that point. And so, we had this early money idea. I came up with the name that reflects the early money concept. EMILY in EMILY’s List, of course, is Early Money is Like Yeast, because we wanted to make the dough rise. And so, in 1984, we did a little kind of dress rehearsal, jury-rigged the kind of version of what is Emily’s List today.

What we essentially did was create a chain letter and we wrote a letter about the women running for the United States Senate. We sent it out to everybody we knew. We said, here’s the campaign address. Send them a check. Early money is like yeast. We’ve got to get in there and make this happen; and we sent it out and asked people to forward it to their friends. And we get all these reports, like, that’s a great idea. And I sent it to my mother in Des Moines and she forwarded to her friends. We didn’t know who the friends were, who the mother was.

We didn’t know if money had actually gone to the campaigns. And unfortunately, the women running for the Senate didn’t really get off the ground. I don’t think any of them got more than 45% of the election. So, it was a sort of a kind of a kernel of an idea. But if this was going to work, it had to be turned into a more sophisticated operation. And so, we decided to go ahead. I had finished my MBA. And I said, I’m willing to try to make this happen. And so, I became the president then, of this brand-new organization called Emily’s List. And that was for our first election – in 1986.

JW:  The caucus was bipartisan. And I was told that even though it was bipartisan, to think about now, you had to support certain issues. It didn’t matter which party you were in, but you had to be of the same mind on certain issues. But EMILY’s List is partisan.

EM:  We did a lot of things differently than previous organizations. The first one and the absolute core of what makes EMILY’s List work, is this way we reinvented political fundraising. Because up until that point, what a political organization would do, a PAC, was raise money for itself, and under the law, a PAC was allowed to give up to $5,000 in any election. So, $5,000 in the primary, $5,000 in the general. Well, we said that’s great, but that’s not going to be enough money to make a difference. And we really need to amp that up a lot.

And so, we decided what we would do was and discovered it was legal, to our delight, is that we would recommend candidates to our members, our community around the country, ask them to write checks to whoever they wanted. They made the check out. “Barbara Mikulski for Senate,” sent it back to us and then we could send them to the campaigns in those little bundles, or as Barbara Mikulski called it “those bundles of joy.” And as I said to the early organizing meetings, if we have a thousand people and they all write a one-hundred-dollar check to Barbara Mikulski, we could raise one hundred thousand dollars as opposed to the $5,000 or $10,000 we could contribute as a PAC.

And women would cheer like, yes, that made so much sense. It was so logical. The greatest compliment to an idea, they would say to me, why didn’t anybody think of this before? You know, it just was like, of course we could do that. And so that became the beginning of this incredible financial powerhouse, that was EMILY’s List, that literally could turn around the dynamics of these elections.

The first term it made was with Barbara Mikulski, who in the early polls she was running in a Democratic primary. Maryland was heavily Democratic, open seat. And so, whoever won the primary was going to be the one that was going to win. And she was running against the governor who was in some political trouble, and a congressman from Montgomery County, Mike Barnes, who was the darling of the Democratic political establishment. And Barbara came out of Baltimore, which is the center of Democratic votes in the state of Maryland. She’d been in the House for 10 years. People loved her. She’s just a wonderful character.

And when she did the first polling and when the public polling came out, she was way ahead. She had a double-digit lead. And so, sure enough, she goes and puts on her, as she would say, her Ferragamo shoes and her suit. And she went to the traditional funders and said, look at the Baltimore Sun poll. I’m way ahead. I’ve been in Congress. Will you give me money? And they’d say, no, you can’t win this. Your opponent from Montgomery County is going to raise all this money. You don’t have a prayer.

And so here we go again. Only this time we had EMILY’s List, brand new EMILY’s List. And so, the campaign headed by Wendy Sherman and all of us at EMILY’s List did all we could to raise money. So, in that next federal elections public report, it showed that Barbara could raise money. And we sent out our first candidate mailing, the two candidates, Harriet Woods running in Missouri and Barbara. And lo and behold, it worked. People started sending in these checks made out to both of the women. Hundred-dollar checks, twenty-five-dollar checks, two hundred-and-fifty-dollar checks. And Barbara actually raised and became financially competitive with Mike Barnes in that next report.

Well, that shifted the dynamic because now all the political establishment said, wow, she had this big lead in the polls. Who knew she could raise money? But clearly she could raise money. We better get on board. And they madly ran over to her side of the ship. Mike Barnes and Harry Hughes had a very tough time raising money from that point on. And she won the primary with over, I think, 60 percent of the vote. So, it was a big win. It wasn’t even a little win. So that is the power of early money and that is the power of EMILY’s List and how we can shift the dynamics for these women in these races.

JW:  But you only pick Democratic women and only pro-choice Democratic women. Is that right?

EM:  Correct. I got a little waylaid from the story.

JW:  But let’s hear about why you went in that direction.

EM:  So, I basically thought of EMILY’s List as a product that I was creating. Remember, I just finished grad school with my MBA. I studied a lot of marketing and I thought, OK. I think the market segment of people who are going to support women’s candidates are basically the founding mothers. It wasn’t any rocket science; I didn’t do any polls or focus groups. But basically, we were sick to death of losing. We wanted to have power. We wanted to make a positive difference.

We understood that money had a role in politics, and we couldn’t run away from that. We had to pay attention to that. We had seen the Republicans come in in 1980 with Ronald Reagan. We had seen people like Jesse Helms become committee chairs when they took the Senate. And we said, you know, politics is basically partisan, and we’re sophisticated enough that we think we should only support Democratic candidates because Democrats are the ones that really support our agenda.

We believed that we wanted women who were progressive and feminists. And one way to look at that is to make sure that all our candidates supported Roe v. Wade and were pro-choice. We very much wanted our members to feel empowered. And the whole concept of EMILY’s List, of giving the profiles on these women, that covered a whole lot of issues, allowed each individual to read those profiles, decide what her or his priorities were, and to write the checks, making their own decision, not some PAC board in Washington.

So, the way we operated, the tone we use, this was not the old messaging of women or victims. “Isn’t the world terrible?” Which was a lot of the messaging from the 1970’s. This was, we can raise $100,000 and make Barbara Mikulski the first Democratic woman senator. It was power. It was power where you could make a difference. And I think that whole constellation of decision making really worked. And it’s why we grew significantly over the years. And of course, now we’re huge. Now we have like five million members, raised about one hundred and twenty million dollars in the last election. And all you have to do is look at the House and Senate and see that whatever they were doing, it sure seemed to work.

JW:  I remember picking and choosing and looking at all the info, and it’s fabulous.

EM:  It’s fun, right?

JW:  It’s great.

EM:  You know, you have to appreciate how few women there were and how we didn’t have political power. I mean, this was a dream come true to think we could create political power. When we started, the Democratic women and Republican women were both about five percent of their party caucuses. That’s all. There were hardly any women in the House at all. There were two Republican women in the Senate and there had never been a Democratic woman elected to the Senate in her own right.

There had been women who had been appointed who had taken their husbands seat after he died, stand ins for the governor that wanted to run all kinds of things like that. But there had never been a woman who had a political career who worked her way up the ladder and was elected to the United States Senate. So, we were about five percent of the Democrats in Congress. We’re now about 40 percent of the Democrats in Congress. And that line of increase is just the thing I am so proud of. It’s a different world today on Capitol Hill because of what a whole group of activists involved, feminist women decided to do and how they were going to make a difference.

JW: Are there any particular candidates besides Mikulski that were important to you, that you can recall involvement in their campaigns?

EM:  Oh, my goodness. We had so many great races. We all remember Ann Richards, if we’re as old as I am, and wonderful, funny, zany, smart Ann Richards. We were the biggest funder of her primary race in Texas and one of my favorite moments is going down to watch her be sworn in as the governor of Texas. In ’92, we had the first and I think the most significant year of the woman, though others would say 2018 was. But for me personally, it was 1992, after the Thomas/Hill hearings. It was a fascinating process, those hearings, because it was the first time that there had been a public discussion of sexual harassment.

I wrote a book with a co-writer named Craig Unger. It’s called When Women Win. It’s the story of EMILY’s List. And Craig said to me, you told me that nobody talked about sexual harassment, but being a reporter of training, I went, and I went to LexisNexis and I Googled the term. And you are absolutely right. Before 1991, it was a couple of academic articles. And then when Anita Hill had the courage to speak out, it just mushroomed. And what happened in that weekend of the Thomas/Hill hearings, there were 14 white men on the Senate Judiciary Committee and they basically went after Anita Hill, the Republicans, and tried to make her into this crazy bimbo, overly ambitious, trashy, horrible person.

And women in the workforce, you know, who had been running away from the boss and trying to figure out strategies to deal with the patting on the back end and worse, looked at those hearings and said two things: I believe Anita. I know what she’s talking about happens and I believe it. And the other thing was that men had a very different understanding of what was appropriate in the workplace and what was decent behavior. And there were no women on the committee to say, well, here’s what women experience. And so, the market segment of people that would become part of EMILY’s List was enraged and they learned a very powerful lesson.

There weren’t women in the United States Senate. There was nobody there representing the viewpoint of working women in this discussion of appropriate behavior in the workplace. Barbara Mikulski wasn’t on the Judiciary Committee. She’s the only Democrat. How many committees can she be on? So, she wasn’t there. The market segment became enraged. We were a big piece in 60 Minutes, which is the most watched television show talking about “Here’s How You Can Elect Women”. And in one year, our membership went from 3,000 to 24,000. We raised ten million dollars.

We were flabbergasted. It was so exciting. We elected 20 women to the house. When we started doing House races in 1988, there were 12 Democratic women in the House. We had 20 in the ’92 election. Four new women senators and women began to be taken seriously in the political process. So that to me is just the pivotal moment. And what we were able to do from that was build an entire political program to help elect women. We had just been raising money for them up to that point.

And with that growth in membership, we could create a major donor program. We trained people to work in campaigns. We have all kinds of technical assistance for the women running. We eventually launched a major women vote program that we still now run with the independent expenditure part of EMILY’s List. We started recruiting and training people for state and local races. So, all that evolution into a full-scale political operation came out of ’92 and the courage of Anita Hill.

JW: Now, you also said some people think of 2018 as the year of the fight and why it is that?

EM:  I’m laughing about that because I turned over the presidency of EMILY’s List. I was president for 25 years. I moved over to chair the board and we had the good fortune to elect a fantastic woman named Stephanie Schriock as our second president. And 2018 took place in her watch. And so, it’s always a little joke between the two of us about who is the year that woman was better. But, you know, that was I’ll give you another story, because I think one of the great things of social change is you can kind of steadily go along. You kind of go backwards whenever and then you can make these huge leaps forward.

And what happened in ’18 was one of those leaps. It came out of Hillary’s loss for president in 2016 and the disgust and rage women felt that this awful Donald Trump, who just was so demeaning about women and nonwhite voters and he just was a horrible person that he could defeat Hillary Clinton and it was just crazy. So, from the women’s march on, women were feeling their political energy in a way they hadn’t really since 1992. And one of the great examples of that was the people who reached out to us and said they wanted to run for office.

I mentioned we had a little program that was trying to train and work at the state and local level, but we never had enough money to fund it. It was my love, but it just was hanging in there. But it didn’t have a lot of resources. In the previous election cycle, about 920 women reached out to EMILY’s List and said, “I want to run for office.” This surge of women came from the women’s march, the post-election energy, and it kept coming and growing and growing and growing. And by the 2018 election, fifty thousand women reached out to EMILY’s List and said, “Can you tell me how I can run for office or help my good friend run?”

And so, we ramped up the program. We multiplied the staff. We created these webinars, online ways of training, massive amounts of people, because obviously we couldn’t do them all at events like we used to do, just did all kinds of ways of finding to help women, get them plugged in. And that, I think, will have this huge long-term impact, because as we see women moving into state and local races, we’re going to see the same kind of shift that we’ve seen in the Congress.

Remember I said we went from five percent to 40 percent of the Democrats. We’re going to see that happen over the years at the state and local level. And that means that the agenda in the states is going to be driven by women who are in leadership positions, committee chairs, they’re in big numbers, not the sort of 20 percent that it is now, but big numbers, who are going to start turning this country around. And really, I think, being the antidote to a lot of the unhealthy right-wing policies that we’ve been watching.

JW:  Wow, tell me again, how much did EMILY’s List raise this past cycle?

EM:  We are at one hundred and twenty million dollars.

JW:  That’s really amazing. Yeah, I mean, it just warms my heart. What can I say?

EM:  I have to tell you when people ask me every once in a while, did you know it was going to be like this? Well, no. I mean, you know, we had a plan. I thought the plan was fantastic. I thought, you know, my job is to make sure as many people know about this as possible. But at the end of the day, we’d have these steering committee meetings and it was like, wow, can you believe that? And every time it was like more money and we elected somebody and then we elected a lot of somebodies.

And it’s just been fantastic. And I just have such affection for our old guard members who just believed and were willing to write checks and get behind those beliefs and know that they see the Congress now. They see Nancy Pelosi taking that gavel after the 2018 election. They see all those women on the floor dressed in white, all those new Democratic women that were elected to give us the majority. And they know what that means in the historic sense. They know what a change that’s taken place in our lives.

JW:  Is there anything else you’d like to add?

EM:  You know, I think I’d like to talk a little more about the ups and downs of social change, because if there’s one thing I learned, it does have this pattern of, as a historian once said to me, the leaping and creeping of social change and it’s easy to get frustrated and think, well, nothing’s happened this year. I’m going to give up. Well, it doesn’t work that way. And so, kind of some of the experiences that have struck me over the years is, one, how loss can create incredible opportunities.

And the first one was the genesis of EMILY’s List itself. The loss of the Equal Rights Amendment was a real blow. You know, this was our first major political statement. It was all the forces of feminism coming together and saying, will our country now value women in a different way? And we were defeated and yet out of that, women had been working in every single state. They’ve been learning a lot about the political process. They sharpened their skills on organizing and understanding how to make things happen.

And that is the network that then moved in to become the beginning of EMILY’s List. It was those people that we had met from the caucus and ERA America that we first reached out to and said, hey, we’ve got an idea here. We should be a part of it. And then they would sort of organize in their communities. And so out of that loss created this incredible opportunity to make change. Just like the terrible loss of seeing Clarence Thomas take a seat on the Supreme Court, really changed the history for women in politics in a very fundamental way.

And just like Hillary Clinton’s loss for President, which was so painful in so many ways, really launched a comeback that we’re now seeing play out. And as I said, I think it’s going to have incredible long-term implications as women move into the state and local level and start taking political power. So, my takeaway from all this is, if you really want to see the world be different, you got to stick with it through thick and thin. You got to love every little victory and celebrate it to keep yourself going. And you’ve got to understand that you’ve got to look back, and you’ll see the change that has taken place.