Emily’s List believes we can radically shift US culture by electing more women

When Stephanie Schriock was growing up in the small mining town of Butte, Montana, she never envisioned a career in politics. The only thing she was certain of was that she wanted to serve people – she wanted to leave the world a little better than she found it. So, she went into pre-med at Minnesota State University, but quickly realized that she would rather spend her time in student politics than calculus classes.

“I haven’t looked back since,” Schriock says of falling in love with public administration. The now-president of Emily’s List, an organization dedicated to supporting pro-choice female Democratic candidates, began her career as the campaign adviser for Mary Readers, a candidate in Minnesota’s first congressional district in 1996. Readers won an endorsement from Emily’s List, a group Schriock knew little about at the time. Fourteen years later, she’d go on to lead the political action committee after its founder and 25-year president, the activist Ellen Malcolm, stepped down. While Schriock found it “daunting” to follow such a celebrated leader, she soon learned “you don’t fill Ellen Malcolm’s shoes, you just buy a new pair”.

Since taking the helm at Emily’s List in 2010, Schriock has quintupled the organization’s membership and helped elect more than 100 congresswomen, 19 senators (including the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, whom Schriock personally recruited), 10 governors and hundreds of state and local officials. She’s helped raise more than $250m for the organization, which received a record number of donations after the 2016 US presidential election. Also following the election, more than 42,000 women have come to Emily’s List with the desire to run for office. Now, Schriock says her role and the role of Emily’s List is more critical than ever. “I feel like not just Stephanie Schriock has been practicing for this moment,” she says, “but Emily’s List for three decades has been practicing for this moment.”

The rise: a new political strategy

Before Malcolm founded Emily’s List in 1985, no Democratic woman had ever been elected to the Senate in her own right. Malcolm and her friends decided to invent a new political strategy, raising “early money” ­– during the primaries – for female candidates with the knowledge that major donations at preliminary stages in a race help establish viability and therefore attract more donors later in the campaign.

This is especially important for female politicians, given that the fundraising gaps between men and women may have long term effects. According to a recent study by a group of political science professors at Brigham Young University, the amount candidates raised in state legislative races “may also influence the extent to which they are seen (or see themselves) as viable candidates for higher office or party leadership”. This could contribute to the fact that lower percentages of women hold higher government offices. While women make up 25.4% of state legislature seats in the United States, they hold just 23% of seats in the US Senate and 20% in Congress.

In fact, the name Emily’s List is an acronym modeled on the concept “Early Money Is Like Yeast” – meaning, it makes the dough rise. What began as 25 women writing letters from a basement in Washington DC has since evolved into a national movement to ensure all genders have equal opportunities in the US. Getting Democratic pro-choice candidates elected is another part of the founding vision that remains a big piece of the strategy.

“I always believed the Democratic party shared my values of ensuring everyone has an opportunity to succeed in this country, to earn a good living, and that includes choice,” Schriock says. “Being pro-choice is saying to every woman, ‘You too have the opportunity to make the choices to have a good life and earn a good living,’ and deciding when and if you’re going to have children is a key part of that.”

With more women in office, Schriock believes there will be a major culture shift. “We will just be a better society when there’s an equal number of women and men sitting at our decision-making table, period,” she says. “But it doesn’t happen naturally, not yet, not in our culture, so we have to continue putting constant pressure on all of the structures of the establishment to continue encouraging women to run.”

Diversifying the vote

Illustration of podiums

Heading into the 2018 midterm elections, Emily’s List is working on creating a diverse pool of candidates, not just in terms of gender but also race, sexuality and profession. “What I wanted to do is open up the doors and say ‘Everybody is welcome here,’” Schriock explains. “I really wanted to go out and make those connections in all of our communities, particularly with women of color and younger women. We need to ensure that our legislatures have a full range of diversity, so when those seats open up in the US House, Senate and governorships, there are women ready to run.”

Emily’s List is also focused on creating a sense of community for its candidates, giving them a chance to communicate, and often commiserate, with one another. “These campaigns can be lonely,” Schriock says. “Let’s just say you’re a mom with young children and you’ve had another day where somebody’s asked you, ‘Who’s going to take care of your kids if you win?’ which is a very cutting question to someone who’s working so hard. They’ve got their answers down, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t frustrating. But because they have built this network, they can have a conversation with another woman candidate in another state who had that same problem.”

The future is female

Emily’s List strives toward a government that reflects the people it serves. “Every time you add an additional woman to a governing body, you are getting a different perspective that needs to be represented at that table, and then you get better policies,” Schriock says.

She also stressed that electing more women would have a positive effect on the next generation of leaders. “To see women leading is important for little girls, because it’s hard to be what you haven’t seen,” Schriock says, “and for little boys, it’s important for them to see a woman governor and what that type of leadership looks like.”

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