Given all the news this week about the GOP’s ongoing war against women, seems like a good time to share Monica Potts’ article from The American Prospect on “Susan B. Anthony’s Hit List: how a group founded by anti-abortion feminists became a powerful foe of Democratic women”:
… In 1992, Rachel MacNair, a Quaker pacifist and activist, watched a 60 Minutes segment about EMILY’s List in her living room in Kansas City, Missouri. EMILY’s List was raising money to help elect four women to the Senate, the most in a single cycle. MacNair was president of Feminists for Life, an anti-abortion organization that primarily promoted alternatives to abortion for college students. She was an activist against both nuclear weapons and abortions, views united by her stance against violence in all forms. Her advocacy for peace can have a confrontational bent—she’s been arrested 17 times—and her speech comes rapid-fire, accented with a mid-South twang. Feminists for Life, which still operates, was founded during the pre–Roe v. Wade fights in 1972, when the issue of abortion split groups like the National Organization for Women.
MacNair had always been angered by the assumption that all feminists support abortion rights, and as she watched 60 Minutes, she felt the same assumptions were being made about EMILY’s List—that by electing pro-choice Democratic women, the group was acting on behalf of the entire gender. MacNair was anti-abortion, but she’d always called herself a feminist. In fact, she believed that opposing abortion was essential to being an empowered woman. As EMILY’s List gained prominence, she wanted to see her brand of feminism represented in politics, too. With two other Feminists for Life leaders, Helen Alvaré and Susan Gibbs, she decided to found a PAC that would help elect anti-abortion women to Congress. It would, of necessity, be nonpartisan; the Democratic Party had become a home for most political women, but the Republican Party was increasingly anti-abortion. This new group would have to find candidates—and funders—who bridged the partisan divide…
After three years, MacNair, Gibbs, and Alvaré moved on to other projects. Electoral politics, for all three women, was unfamiliar and trying territory. But that wasn’t the case for two of the group’s earliest volunteers, who now stepped into its leadership. Marjorie Dannenfelser, who became executive director, was politically savvy and well connected in Washington conservative circles. Her husband, Martin, worked at the Christian-right Family Research Council from 1995 until 2001, ultimately becoming its vice president. The List’s new president, Jane Abraham, was the wife of GOP Senator Spencer Abraham of Michigan, who would later serve in President George W. Bush’s cabinet. During this time, National Right to Life, another anti-abortion group, and the Family Research Council were gaining prominence in the Republican Party and raising far more money than a nonpartisan group devoted to electing anti-abortion women could ever hope for. Abortion was increasingly a central part of the GOP’s strategy for courting evangelical Christians—and four years later, with Bush’s first presidential campaign, it would become more important than ever. Taking the reins of the Susan B. Anthony List, Dannenfelser and Abraham had two options: stay true to a narrow mission that would win it few friends and little influence or change the group’s direction…
The List is now an integral part of the Republican fundraising machine. The operating funds for its nonprofit arm have grown from $2.8 million in 2009 to more than $7 million in 2010. While the nonprofit arm does not have to disclose its donors, its PAC now receives money from Republican heavyweights, like the industrial-appliance-manufacturing Kohler family in Wisconsin, former Rite Aid president and Republican candidate for New York governor Lewis Lehrman, actor and commentator Ben Stein, and Amway scion Nan Van Andel…
It is ironic, of course, that the Susan B. Anthony List has exacerbated partisanship. The group’s original vision was admirable, if perhaps doomed to failure: MacNair and the other founders wanted a Congress full of women with opposing views, working together to end a practice MacNair believes is murder—and that the majority of Americans would like to see diminish. Now, the group they helped start works against that.
I’m a pro-choice absolutist, and would never have contributed to the SAB List under any circumstances that I can imagine. (Neither, I suspect, would Susan B. Anthony herself.) But it’s an instructive story on how any activist group, no matter how well-intentioned, can be undermined and co-opted by the One Percenters and their Republican enablers.