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Hindsight: EMILY's List

This past summer, Americans rediscovered the art of baking bread. Whether you got involved or just watched, tried your hand at sourdough, or kept to a classic white loaf, bakers needed a common ingredient: yeast, a microscopic fungus that allows bread to rise.

This simple chemical process serves as the model for EMILY’s List, a political action committee whose name stands for “Early Money is Like Yeast.” Founded in 1985, EMILY’s List focused on electing Democratic women who supported abortion rights. Its founder, Ellen Malcom, observed that a successful campaign was incumbent on early donations, which helped attract attention, and more and larger donations. Malcom and the organization’s original 25 members chose to focus on female candidates because they were less likely to receive money from the Democratic Party. Few women had the name recognition and finances to circumnavigate the party and win elections without donations. Without this early money, women often lost their primaries and elections, keeping the number of elected women low. For Malcom, support for women-focused progressive politics and issues was limited if women could not get themselves, their issues, and their perspectives to the table. Policies supporting abortion rights—which Malcom believed are central to women’s overall equality—would not be implemented unless there were enough politicians who supported them.

In 1986, EMILY’s List contributed to the successful election of Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, the first female Democrat elected to the US Senate in her own right. From this beginning, the organization has raised millions of dollars, endorsed hundreds of candidates across the country, and, in 2018, saw 98.8 percent of its endorsed candidates win. Like yeast, what started as a small organization has risen to be the largest women-focused political action committee in the United States.

Dr. Robin C. Henry holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Indiana University and is an associate professor in the history department at Wichita State University. Her research examines the intersections among sexuality, law, and regional identity in the 19th- and early 20th-century United States.