List Serve When Women Win chronicles EMILY's List and women's quest for public office.

When Women Win: EMILY’s List and the Rise of Women in Politics

Ellen R. Malcom with Craig Unger (2016, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) 358 pages, including an index, end notes, and acknowledgements

With perhaps the sole exception of Maine’s Republican U.S. Senator Margaret Chase Smith, elected to the U.S. Senate in 1948 and served until 1973, few women served in that national legislative body unless appointed after the death of their elected husband. By 1985 the Democratic Party had never elected a woman to the Senate.

In response, Ellen Malcom and her fellow Founding Mothers of EMILY’s List, a political organization dedicated to electing women to office, set themselves the goal of having a woman be elected to the Senate in her own right and, eventually, increase the overall participation of women in U.S. politics. In a first-person narrative form, When Women Win tells Malcom’s story with invigorating particulars of the challenging campaigns women waged to get into the halls of the U.S. Congress. Furthermore, the book details the unfolding of EMILY’s List, from “an annoying thorn in the side of the old boys’ network of the Democratic Party to a powerful and highly valuable partner that was absolutely essential to the party’s success.”

The narrator and main author of the text, Ellen Malcom, introduces herself as “an unlikely political activist.” Growing up in an upper-middle-class suburb of New York, she discusses her political awakening as the result of a friend’s urging. By 1968 she was becoming aware of the counter culture and by her senior year was a campus activist at Hollins College. After college she joined Common Cause, a citizens’ lobby organization focused on campaign finance reform, temped for a short time, and finally found a job that fulfilled her with the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC). With NWPC she describes her work on the Equal Rights Amendment and building bipartisan political support for women in elected office. The biggest hurdle to their cause: women didn’t raise the campaign capital that men had at their disposal, in part because women, who might donate more to women candidates, donated less overall to political causes. It is not until chapter three that we learn that Ellen Malcom, an heiress of an IBM founder, is writing large checks to the NWPC, amongst other groups. Wanting to keep her own career in political nonprofit organizations separate from her philanthropy, Malcom hires her former co-worker from NWPC, Lael Stegall, to run her new organization, the Windom Fund. With the front of the Windom Fund, Malcom is able to better funnel her inheritance into select causes, particularly the participation of women in politics. Malcom keeps her participation in the Windom Fund, housed at 2000 P Street in Washington D.C., a secret for another few years while she continues to work on a variety of political causes and campaigns. Eventually, Malcom tells trusted friends and co-workers about her role in Windom Fund, and it is members of this select group, along with others, who eventually become the Founding Mothers of EMILY’s List.

The rich details about funding strategies, debating styles, and how to maintain a level head when the subject of whisper campaigns, make this an incredible read for anyone interested in politics. With all of the gritty details of raising money, the book could be read as a how-to for fundraising.

EMILY’s List began as a funding effort, raising money in the early stages of women’s campaigns, often primary battles, to help them better compete against men who more often were strongly backed by the Democratic establishment. An acronym, EMILY stands for Early Money Is Like Yeast … it makes the dough rise. From its founding, EMILY’s List was designed to be different from other political organizations, which were often mired in procedural requirements or rigid bylaws. The women of EMILY’s List carefully crafted their organization to focus on the campaigning women. From the $100 contribution to join the organization to the mailings urging members to support thoroughly vetted pro-choice, Democratic women candidates, EMILY’s List worked tirelessly to promote women who were running for political office. Rather than raising money for the organization that was then sent to candidates who had similar goals, EMILY’s List asked members to send contributions directly to candidates. Using a more recent metaphor, EMILY’s List was like a “kickstarter for pro-choice Democratic women candidates.”

However, as EMILY’s List grew, so did the need for financial support of the main organization. Malcom outlines how she developed the Majority Council of donors who would contribute $1,000 to the organization as well as continue to contribute to individual campaigns. With the new income, EMILY’s List developed a more robust political program that identified candidates for both the House and the Senate. Through this model, Malcom and EMILY’s List developed into one of the most successful political organizations in the United States, becoming by the mid-1990s a key player in the Democratic Party. The organization continued to hone its approach to supporting women candidates for political office. In later years their programming expanded to include funding for all levels of women’s candidacies, a network of women in elected office, successful “Women Vote!” campaigns, and the POP program, which identified and trained young women and their staff in the intricacies of running for office. The book ends with an account of the change of leadership in EMILY’s List, as Malcom writes of her transitioning to chair of the board as Stephanie Schriock takes over as President. Malcom’s reflections on this organizational shift are humble and illuminating, noting how Schriock has been successful bringing EMILY’s List into the 21st century and connecting with younger women as voters and potential candidates.

Many stories in the book are of particular interest to Missouri, such a Malcom’s impetus to start EMILY’s List: the 1982 campaign of Harriet Woods against Senator John Danforth. Woods, who Malcom introduces as “tall and stately, with an athlete’s grace that dominated on the tennis court,” served for eight years on the St. Louis City Council before she threw her hat in to challenge the incumbent Senator Danforth, a political moderate but stalwart Republican and ordained Episcopal Priest. Though Woods waged an impressive campaign, she lacked crucial support from the Democratic establishment, who, according to Malcom, did not believe a woman could win the race against the incumbent Danforth. The lack of support for such a strong candidate solely because of her gender induced Malcom to organize support for women running for office. The main lesson from the Woods campaign: “an entrenched male political establishment had created and perpetuated a system full of obstacles that made it almost impossible for women to get elected.” Sadly, when Woods ran again, in 1986, she again lost, this time to Kit Bond, a former aide to Senator Danforth. That year, however, she had the support of EMILY’s List and Wood’s loss was somewhat offset by Barbara Mikulski’s win in her Senate race in Maryland.

Malcom is strongest when telling the stories of women’s campaigns for office, such as Mikulski and Woods. Winners or losers, the women and their staff come across as complex individuals, with recognizable struggles against sexism and remarkable biographies overcoming both mundane and extraordinary obstacles. The rich details about funding strategies, debating styles, and how to maintain a level head when the subject of whisper campaigns, make this an incredible read for anyone interested in politics. With all of the gritty details of raising money, the book could be read as a how-to for fundraising. The pace is brisk and regular updates on the increasing amount of money raised and the newly elected women to Congress give the book a suspense that takes the reader swiftly through the minutia of political campaigns. Furthermore, Malcom’s attention to how women’s political efforts faired in relation to other political and cultural moments, such as the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings or the September 11 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City, help knit together a rich story of gender and politics.

The theoretical grounding of the book is squarely second wave in its approach to feminism, myopically focusing on the political achievements of women. This is the admitted goal of EMILY’s List: to elect pro-choice Democratic women, but the book would have benefitted from a grounding in intersectional theory and politics. Intersectionality asks us to take note of how any one individual is at all times the subject of multiple overlapping and intersecting systems of oppression and privilege. Malcom’s focus on gender at the expense of race or class reduces her analysis over all. This would not have to have been the case in the story of EMILY’s list. Notably, Malcom and EMILY’s List helped to bring an unprecedented number of women of color into the Congress, more than a third of the total women they supported. With that said, however, the book lacks an analysis of the intersections of race and gender that continue to pose challenges to the U.S. political landscape. In multiple chapters Malcom talks about the race or the gender of the candidate or other political figure, but rarely how those two might impact each other. This was particularly glaring in the retelling of Anita Hill’s testimony at the Clarence Thomas hearings. Hill’s location at the nexus of race and sex was left unexplored as, in the book, she became a focus point solely for women’s political activism. Malcom discusses the politics of race as it impacts Thomas, an African-American man nominated to fill the court vacancy of the first African American justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall. Hill’s race, however, is mentioned in passing, as part of her history but not as a significant facet of the reception of her testimony at the Thomas hearings.

Malcom’s commentary on the Obama/Clinton primary contest in 2008 is perhaps the best illustration of the limiting focus on gender. Specifically, when Barack Obama called her to ask for her support for his candidacy she had to refuse as she was already committed to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. In the book she mentions the phone conversation with Obama and says that afterwards she “wistfully” pulled from her desk the picture of her godson taken with then Senator Obama. Later, after Obama had secured the Democratic Party’s nomination, Malcom describes herself as “petulant” when not wanting to pose with Michelle Obama at a fundraiser, though she takes the high road and does “the right thing.” Such instances betray a lack of a deeper understanding of the intricacies of the politics of race and gender. And though Malcom and EMILY’s List appear to make the right choices to build coalitions to address race and gender oppression, this reader wanted a much more thorough analysis of how these systems of power interrelate.

Some discussion of the complex history of women’s and black men’s voting rights in the United States would be one example of how the book could have strengthened its analysis of race and gender. To make sense of the mixed reactions to the Obama/Clinton primary, Malcom could have looked to early suffragists struggles to include sex in the Fifteenth Amendment, which barred states from prohibiting citizens to vote based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude. When the amendment was passed and ratified in 1870 it did not include “sex” and thus federal law continued to deny women’s enfranchisement. Women suffragists’ reactions to the exclusion of sex in the Fifteenth Amendment was mixed. The Wyoming Territory had granted women the right to vote in 1869 and some suffragists focused their efforts on a state-by-state campaign for the women’s vote. Other suffragists kept their focus on the federal level and built coalitions with overt racists to advance their cause. These women toured the country declaring themselves more fit to vote than black men, using race as a trump card to elicit sympathy for white women’s suffrage.[1] While the late 19th-century battles over suffrage are not parallel to the 2008 Democratic primary, there are lessons to be learned in the pitting of race and gender against one another in the political arena. In this instance, the author fails to understand young women’s excitement about the Obama campaign, appearing to be befuddled when women express support for Obama. One could also have wanted her to further contextualize statements such as “first Hillary, then Barack.”

The book is a quick and enjoyable read full of riveting anecdotes and stories from the EMILY’s List campaign successes and failures. Particularly engaging are accounts of campaign hijinks and triumphs, such as the 1988 Democratic National Convention speech of the unflagging Ann Richards, a divorced recovering alcoholic who was a rising political star in Texas. This reader was disappointed by the use of women’s first names and men’s last names throughout much of the book. A line such as “Patty and Ryan focused on common ground” is confusing when discussing Senator Patty Murry and Congressman Paul Ryan. It also smacks of the common problem of belittling women by referring to them in familiar terms, such as girls, when men’s authority is rarely undermined in the same way.

 … the book has a sober message: EMILY’s List’s political work is not done, but there is the will and the means to continue. The women and men of EMILY’s List, including Malcom and her co-writer Craig Unger, hope to see a Madame President one day.

Though an important book for the history of women in U.S. politics and sure to grace many bookshelves and syllabi, the reader is consistently reminded of the reason this book needed to come out  when it did: the efforts to elect Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton to the Oval Office. Mrs. Clinton graces the cover of the book, in a glossy photograph where she, holding a microphone and smiling broadly, embraces a young girl. Hillary Clinton makes appearances throughout the book, though the early mentions appear more gratuitous additions to warrant the cover and keep Mrs. Clinton at the fore of readers’ minds as we learn about so many other amazing women in the Congress. Rightfully, in a book about women’s campaigns, the most substantial engagement with Hillary Clinton reflects on her Senate races in New York and her first presidential attempt. She is introduced as a champion of children’s and women’s issues, one of the foremost politicians working for improving healthcare in the United States, and a kind and passionate woman. The book was not shy about its endorsement of Hillary Clinton as a particularly strong candidate for any political office, particularly the presidency.

The book concludes on a high-note, mentioning the 2012 election when, for the first time, women swept a congressional delegation. With Democrat Maggie Hanssan’s win over Ovide Lamontagne in the Governor’s race, New Hampshire became the first state to send two women each in the Senate and the House and a woman governor. Lauding the importance of EMILY’s List for making wins like New Hampshire possible, the book has a sober message: EMILY’s List’s political work is not done, but there is the will and the means to continue. The women and men of EMILY’s List, including Malcom and her co-writer Craig Unger, hope to see a Madame President one day. The impact of a woman in the Oval Office is clearly articulated as bringing government together to better serve the American people. Malcom notes the important role that GOP women have played in ensuring the continuing functioning of the U.S. government, showing a late moment of bipartisanship. Overall, the book extolls the virtues of electing women to political office. Summing up the book well and pointedly, Malcom closes “If you believe in diversity and equal representation, my advice is simple: all things being equal, vote for the women.”

[1] For more on the history of race and the women’s suffrage movement please see: Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998) and Eric Foner, Reconstruction: Americas Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).