The Lenny Interview: Ellen Malcolm

The founder of EMILY's List on being an "unlikely activist" and the political power of American women.

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Thirty years ago, Ellen Malcolm started a revolution. At the time, Malcolm was working at a nonprofit and was, like a lot of us, sick of men dominating national politics. So she founded Emily's List, a group (now a PAC) dedicated to electing pro-choice Democratic women to state and national office. Emily's List won its very first race when Barbara Mikulski was elected to the Senate from Maryland in 1986, and since then it's helped more than 100 women be elected to the House, 19 to the Senate, 11 to governors' seats, and hundreds more to state and local office. The list of success stories is a pantheon of Lenny's political heroes, including Carol Moseley Braun, Mazie Hirono, Nancy Pelosi, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and, of course, Hillary Clinton.

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In fact, Emily's List is now so powerful that Bernie Sanders took a swipe at it last week, claiming that the PAC had declined to endorse Lucy Flores, a woman running for the House of Representatives in Nevada, because Flores is a Sanders supporter. (Emily's List is backing Susie Lee, Flores's opponent.) "We've endorsed women who are supporting Hillary and women who are supporting Bernie, which he knows perfectly well," says Jess McIntosh, vice president of communications for Emily's List. "It's a weird tactic for someone who bills themselves as a progressive champion to attack an organization dedicated to electing pro-choice women."

Perhaps now we can get back to the issues.

Malcolm just released a memoir, When Women Win: Emily's List and the Rise of Women in American Politics. She calls herself "an unlikely activist," but this woman is a warrior. Malcolm started messing with the status quo early on, when she led the fight for women to wear pants on campus at Hollins College in Virginia as an undergraduate. This work came full circle in 1993, when Senators Mikulski and Moseley Braun, both of whom Malcolm helped to elect, were the first women to wear pants on the Senate floor. (Pants are clearly part of the revolution).

I spoke with Malcolm over the phone about the political power of American women, whether all vaginas deserve votes, and what she is going to do the day after Hillary Clinton is elected.

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Mikki Halpin: Why is it important to have pro-choice Democratic women in office?

Ellen Malcolm: Well, first of all, it's ridiculous to exclude women from office, which is essentially what happened in the old days. You miss out on a lot of talent when you don't let people serve. But beyond that, women have very different life experiences and perspectives. They care about issues that support women and families. It's not surprising that after 1992, the "Year of the Woman," when five women were elected to the Senate, we had a huge increase in funding for breast-cancer research. In that same vein, Barbara Mikulski used her position on the appropriations committee to essentially force the National Institutes of Health to include women in research trials on strokes and heart disease. Up until then, they had only studied men. When women are in office, women win.

MH: Is this an argument that we should always vote for women, no matter what?

EM: I would never vote for a candidate just because she's a woman. I've spent my entire adult life actively trying to get women in office, and I would never vote for a woman just because she's a woman. This question tends to come up for progressives when the Democratic male and female candidates are pretty similar on the issues. We are a progressive party overall. So in cases like that, all things being equal — and I'm saying equal — if you care about diversity and you believe in a representative democracy, you should choose the woman. Right now, women are over 50 percent of the population, and we're only 18 percent of our Congress. That is a failure of representative democracy. We do not have enough women represented in top offices in this country, or legislative offices for that matter. I think the government would work better if we had more women in office.

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MH: Is that what you would say to someone trying to choose between Bernie and Hillary?

EM: There are many reasons to support Hillary. I am working hard on her campaign. I understand that other people support Bernie, just as I understood in 2008 that other people supported Barack Obama. We can fight that out in the primaries and in the caucuses. At the end of the day, though, I think we'll all come together because the one thing we have to do is stop the Republican nominee, whether it's Donald Trump or Ted Cruz or whoever it ends up being.

MH: Besides Hillary, what other women running this year are you excited about?

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EM: I think the Democrats have a very good chance of taking back the Senate this year, and women candidates could be the key to that. Catherine Cortez Masto, who is running for Harry Reid's seat in Nevada, would be the first Latina elected into the United States Senate. Tammy Duckworth is running in Illinois and doing a phenomenal job. Maggie Hassan is running in a very tough race in New Hampshire. We've also got some great opportunities to add new women to the House. I think we could see a record number of wins for women in 2016.

MH: Women running for office is lovely, but I've read that you once had an elaborate fictional alias that you used to donate money to causes you believed in. So this is the part where I demand you tell me about your secret identity.

EM: Ha! Well, back before we started Emily's List, I had the good fortune to inherit some money, and I wanted to give it away — but I was also working in nonprofits and I wanted to be known for my work, not as a donor. So I set up something called the Windom Fund, named after a street I used to live on because I thought it sounded classy. My friend Lael Stegall ran the operation, and I was the anonymous donor.

People kept asking Lael who was giving her the money. You know how Washington loves secrets. So we decided to create a fictional Henrietta Windom and tell people that she had made her money inventing Tampax and wanted to give it to women. [Ed. note: Tampax was actually created by a man, but his heart was surely in the right, er, place.]

Lael found this old portrait in Maine that really seemed like Henrietta to us. The woman in it was young but strong and looked very idealistic, so we hung it up over the water fountain. Eventually the story wound up in the Washington Post, and a couple came into the waiting room wanting to see the painting because they were named Windom and they wanted to see if there was any family resemblance. It was extremely awkward but very funny. I've always had a great fondness for Henrietta.

MH: I'm sure she was a wonderful woman. If only I could have met her.

EM: I suppose you could say you're talking to her right now.

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MH: OK then, Henrietta, tell me: What happens if Hillary wins? What does Emily's List do the day after that happens? What's the next mountain to climb?

EM: The day after?

MH: I will give you two days.

EM: We're going to be celebrating for at least two days. And then we're going to turn around and go right back to work. Because if there's one thing I know about social change, it's that it comes in leaps and in creeps. A certain set of circumstances can come together and you make a giant leap forward, but you've got to go back to creeping until the next leap. If you don't, then we will go backward. All you have to do is see what's happening with women's health to realize we cannot stop. If we believe in progressive politics and progressive values, it is a constant commitment and a constant battle forward always. And you can never let up. So you can celebrate, you can have some fun, and then you go back to work.

MH: Women are underrepresented in Congress overall. But women of color are in office at even smaller numbers. Does Emily's List care about race, or just gender?

EM: We are extremely proud that a third of the women that we've elected to office in Congress have been women of color. We've worked very hard to make that happen. Gwen Moore, who is now in the House representing Wisconsin, was initially very skeptical when we came to her. She said, "I thought you were just a bunch of rich white ladies and you didn't help black women." That is not the truth.

The truth is we care very much about helping black women get into office, and that's why we've elected so many of them. It's a core value that permeates Emily's List, and it's a good thing, because I think it makes our country stronger. We love breaking through those glass ceilings and seeing our women flourish at all levels of office. 

MH: It's an exciting time for women in politics right now — but it's also a time when a lot of women are rethinking public life because of the harassment and negativity they get for just being outspoken on Twitter, never mind the campaign trail. What would you say to someone who is wrestling with those issues? 

EM: A number of things. One of them is that it's very important that she participate because we need young women to come into the system to bring in your smarts and what you care about and your priorities and your understanding of how to get things done. The other thing is that we will help you every step of the way. Organizations like Emily's List will find people that will help you. It's not going to have to be a solo act.

I think what motivates women and gets them beyond the fears is that women generally run for office for the best of reasons: they want to make a difference. If you really care about our country and you want to make the government work better, then you can take on a lot of nonsense and keep your eyes on the prize. These are the women we find out there that decide to run and the women that we're proud to support.

MH: And how does Emily's List work with candidates? What are the kinds of things women running for office need to be able to do — besides the huge task of raising money, of course?

EM: We started out simply raising money for candidates. The core of Emily's List is and will always be the donor network. One hundred percent of the money you contribute to a candidate through Emily's List goes right into the candidates' campaigns. We help our candidates get the word out about what they stand for, and we empower small contributors to band together behind a candidate and have just as much clout as big special-interest donors. As we've grown, we've started doing additional things to help candidates, like debate trainings and technical assistance with their campaigns. We also do huge programs to get out the women's vote. The partnership, as we like to call it, between the candidate money that we raise and the political work that we do, is what creates victory.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Mikki Halpin is Lenny's editor at large.

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