The last six months have been a tough slog for feminist organizations, from backing a losing candidate for Ted Kennedy’s crucial Senate seat to being caught unaware by pro-life Democrats’ aggressive power play in the health-care reform process. They’ve looked increasingly moribund; overly deferential to a White House that hasn’t pushed their priorities and increasingly irrelevant to younger women, who are less likely to describe themselves as pro-choice and who preferred Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primaries, despite the appeals of Establishment women’s groups.
If there is a Washington power player uniquely suited to address this crisis of confidence, it is probably Stephanie Schriock, the new president of EMILY’s List, the 25-year-old PAC that raises millions for female, pro-choice, Democratic candidates. The group’s name is actually an acronym for Early Money Is Like Yeast, which refers to supporting women candidates early on in their campaigns so they can rise—like dough—to victory. At 36, Schriock is a veteran by Beltway standards, where 24-year-olds regularly speak on behalf of senators and by 30, a good chunk of Hill workers have already burned out and cashed in, leaving government to work for corporate lobbying or PR firms.
“Is it really OK that the U.S. is ranked 61st or 72nd in the world, depending on how you count, in the number of women who serve in political office?” Schriock asks.
But in the feminist world, where Second Wavers remain dominant, Schriock is a fresh face—not to mention that she cut her teeth working not for women’s organizations, but advising a series of unconventional male Democrats: Howard Dean, Jon Tester, and Al Franken. The Butte, Montana, native, daughter of a librarian and a hospital worker, has credited mining strikes with awakening her political consciousness, not Roe v. Wade. Her former boss, Sen. Tester, endorsed Obama over Clinton, and her fellow Montanan politico and friend Jim Messina now serves as Rahm Emanuel’s deputy, raising hopes that under Schriock’s leadership, EMILY’s List will enjoy a closer relationship with the White House. (In an outreach move to Camp Clinton, Obama appointed former EMILY’s List executive director Ellen Moran as his first post-election communications director. But the rumor was that Moran didn’t fit in with Obama’s team of campaign veterans, and she lasted less than 100 days in the White House.)
For now, though, just four weeks into her new job—“one of which was totally lost to the snow!” she protests—Schriock is content with small changes. When I tell her I noticed the EMILY’s List blog has scrapped its old name, “Read My Lipstick,” she lets loose an almost sarcastic laugh, recognizing, perhaps, the retro, forced girl-power tone that name conveyed. “We did,” she says. “We did do that. And you’re going to see a lot more activity online. Facebook is how I communicate. We’re going to have a dialogue with younger women—and younger men.”
Drawing on her campaign experience, Schriock is expected to make EMILY’s List more of a player in online fundraising and among the Netroots. The group is working closely with Tarryl Clark, the Democratic challenger to Tea Party darling Michele Bachmann. It’s difficult to unseat an incumbent, but the race will draw considerable media attention because of Bachmann’s history of outrageous quotable moments. The campaign could serve as national launching pad for Clark, currently a state senator. Other EMILY’s List priorities for 2010 include electing Florida CFO Alex Sink governor of the Sunshine State and sending Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan to the Senate.
What Schriock says she won’t change is EMILY’s List’s commitment to supporting only female candidates—even if a male primary challenger has an equally progressive platform on issues like abortion rights, domestic violence, and health care. Some critics suggest this mission prevents the organization from weeding out undisciplined or uncharismatic female contenders, like Martha Coakley, whose loss of public support leading up to the Massachusetts special election caught her Washington backers by surprise.
“We still need to keep the focus on why electing women is important,” Schriock says. “It’s because of issues dealing with family. Who’s going to make sure those issues are in the debate every single day? There are so many things we’re facing. The life experience women have is just different.”
To sell skeptical younger voters on the idea that gender equality in representation is as important as issue positions, Schricok says she’ll focus on the number 17—the percent of Congress that is female. “Our challenge is to tell the story about the numbers,” she says. “Is it really OK that the U.S. is ranked 61st or 72nd in the world, depending on how you count, in the number of women who serve in political office? That’s terrible. … If we’re not there in close to equal numbers then we’re not a representative democracy.”
In reaching out to younger progressives, Schriock will also have to smooth over divisions caused by the contentious 2008 Democratic presidential primary, during which EMILY’s List founder and former president Ellen Malcolm cut a divisive figure. Malcolm appeared on TV as a Clinton surrogate, accusing Obama of being soft on women’s rights because he voted “present” instead of “yes” or “no” on several bills as an Illinois state senator. In May 2008, she wrote in The Washington Post that Clinton should continue campaigning because “quitters never win,” ignoring that the Democratic establishment had already coalesced around Obama. When NARAL, a sister pro-choice group, endorsed Obama on May 14, 2008, Malcolm called the move “tremendously disrespectful.” And when Clinton finally conceded the race, Malcolm wrote, “I am working through my own emotional turmoil. I fervently believe that this anger and grief will subside.”
Schriock, though, seems neither angry nor aggrieved. She’s quick to laugh and good at small talk. She admits that women don’t have any particular responsibility to vote for other women. “They should vote for the folks that they feel represent their concerns and values,” she says—she just wishes more of those successful candidates were female. And Schriock is careful with words. She hesitates to discuss Congressman Bart Stupak, the Michigan pro-life Democrat who wields so much power over health-care reform. “We don’t always win,” she says. Schriock calls the Tea Party movement—whose support for Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown denied Martha Coakley the seat—“interesting.”
“It looks like a rocky political environment,” she says of the 2010 midterms, adding that she’s especially concerned about the fate of New York incumbent Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who attained her seat through a controversial appointment from soon-to-be ex-Governor David Paterson. “I have sat down with our team and said here’s the deal: We’re going to track every single one of our candidates. Even if they look like they’re safe today, things are changing very, very rapidly. We really have to learn from the past.”
One lesson Schriock wants female candidates to learn is that they need to connect emotionally with the electorate—far more so than Martha Coakley did, with dry TV ads that stuck to the issues, never giving voters a glimpse into her personal life or motivations. Schriock managed Franken’s campaign, which was known for its creative commercials; one featured Franken’s wife discussing her battle with alcoholism, another an elementary-school teacher reminiscing about Franken’s school days in suburban Minnesota.
“I’ll be talking with candidates about that,” Schriock says. “Voters can get a lot of information now online about a candidate’s record. What they want to know is, ‘Does this person that I’m going to vote for understand what I’m going through?’ Women are known as having that ability and we really just have to focus on how we present that on TV, radio, and online.
“Folks want to know that even if they don’t agree with their elected official every day, that they trust her, they like her,” Schriock muses. “That’s she’s one of us.”
Dana Goldstein is an associate editor and writer at The Daily Beast. Her work on politics, women’s issues, and education has appeared in The American Prospect, Slate, BusinessWeek, The New Republic, and The Nation.