The inspiration for the influential women’s lobby group EMILY’s list died earlier this month. Her name was Harriet Woods. Woods narrowly missed out on becoming the US first female Democrat senator when she came from nowhere to narrowly lose a Missouri senate race in 1982 to incumbent Republican Senator John Danforth. Woods died of leukaemia aged 79 on 9 February.
Woods was the only Democratic woman in the nation running for the Senate in 1982. She won the 1982 Democratic primary without party support. Despite this, she was running neck-and-neck with odds-on favourite Danforth in the final weeks of the race when she was forced to cancel TV ads because she ran out of money. Her senate defeat, although heartbreaking for her supporters, proved to be a catalyst for a new movement. Ellen Malcolm, a Washington public service activist was exasperated by Woods' eventual loss. "Out of that, I brought a group together and said: 'This is crazy. How do we elect a woman to the Senate?” she said.
The obvious answer was money. Malcolm decided to answer the question herself and founded a new organisation in 1985. She called it EMILY’s List. EMILY is an acronym not the name of a woman. It stands for Early Money Is Like Yeast because that’s what “makes the dough rise”. Malcolm’s goal was to elect more pro-abortion rights women to state and federal offices. Initial results were mixed. With Emily’s financial backing, they helped Woods run again for Missouri in 1986. Although Woods lost again, EMILY’s second candidate Barbara Mikulski was successfully elected to the Senate in Maryland.
EMILY’s List quickly grew into a powerful campaign organisation. It now has 100,000 members and describes itself as the “nation's largest grassroots political network…dedicated to building a progressive America by electing pro-choice Democratic women to federal, state, and local office”.
EMILY’s List celebrated its 20th birthday in October 2005. There was a lot to celebrate. In 1986, there were just 12 women in the House of Representatives with no female Senators or Governors. By 2006, the number of Democrat House members rose to 43, there were nine Senators and six Governors. The group which started in Malcolm's basement is now housed in headquarters with 70 full-time staff members. The group ended 2004 as the largest single source of donations to candidates in the country; through its members, the group directed nearly $11 million to pro-abortion rights female candidates.
EMILY’s List is now a major player in the US political scene. According to the Centre for Responsive Politics, a non-profit group in Washington that tracks money in congressional elections, EMILY’s List spent $24 million in the 2004-2006 election cycle, more than any other independent political action committee in the US. This figure does not include funds political action committees associated with national party committees have given out to congressional candidates. The List’s executive director Ellen Moran said her group's track record "speaks for itself”.
The situation improved again after the November 2006 midterm elections. With the Democrat taking control of the Senate for the first time in 12 years, Nancy Pelosi became the first female majority leader of the House. Pelosi credited EMILY’s List for her successful candidacy in California in 1987. Earlier this month, Ellen Moran, executive director announced EMILY's List will be helping Hillary Clinton campaign and raise funds for her presidential campaign.
Others are now trying to replicate this success internationally. In 1996, EMILY’s List was set up in Australia. It has provided financial, training and mentoring support to candidates in State and Federal election campaigns. It endorses candidates who support “principles of equity, diversity, pro-choice, and the provision of equal pay and childcare”. It claims the success of 101 new women MPs into Australian parliaments in the last ten years. Although not affiliated with the ALP, current party deputy-leader Julia Gillard played a role in the foundation of the Australian branch. Gillard remains a public advocate for the organisation.
Harriet Woods, who started the ball rolling, did eventually gain political office; serving as Missouri’s lieutenant governor before being elected president of the non-partisan National Women's Political Caucus. Woods eventually taught at various universities and published "Stepping Up to Power: The Political Journey of American Women" in 2002. Her most famous saying was “You can stand tall without standing on someone. You can be a victor without having victims”.