In October 2007, Kathy Dahlkemper, whose only previous political experience involved raising money to build a public arboretum in her hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania, decided to run for Congress. Over the previous two and a half decades, the 49-year-old had worked as a dietician, helped run the landscape-architecture business her husband inherited from his father, and given birth to five children. Struggling to raise a family in Erie, a city devastated by a decades-long decline in manufacturing jobs, had given Dahlkemper an understanding of what millions of Americans were experiencing as the Great Recession began; her grown children had moved away in search of better opportunities. She knew that the rising cost of health care was hurting businesses like hers. She also believed that the Iraq War, which she had never supported, was causing unnecessary deaths while financially draining the country. Dahlkemper blamed not only George W. Bush but also the 14-year incumbent from her district, Republican Phil English, who had consistently backed the president.
When a friend suggested that she run against English, Dahlkemper laughed. But after considering the idea further, she decided it was her duty to do more than complain. “The more I thought about it,” she says, “I thought, ‘I’m the kind of person our forefathers meant to run for Congress: somebody who’s been out there, has a business, raised five children. I’m involved in my community, and I have a lot of life experience that I could bring.’”
To have any chance of winning, she felt she’d need an endorsement and financial help from a national organization. She would be the first woman to represent Northwestern Pennsylvania, but the political action committee (PAC) that had the most success promoting female representation in Congress, EMILY’s List, was out of the question because it only endorses pro-choice candidates. Dahlkemper is a proud Democrat and holds many liberal positions—she supports unions and opposes the death penalty—but one issue divides her from her party: abortion. Dahlkemper is an anti-abortion Catholic, and she was running in a heavily Polish and Irish Catholic district that was anti-abortion by a wide margin.
For Dahlkemper, opposing abortion is a deeply personal conviction. As a 21-year-old college student, she became pregnant with her first son. She married, later divorced, and before her second marriage, was a single mother who relied on food stamps. “It was one of the most traumatic times in my life,” she says. “I came through it, and from that I learned a lot about myself. I think I’ve been able to utilize that time in my life to help others.”
After some research, Dahlkemper found another PAC, one that appeared to be designed for her: the Susan B. Anthony List. Started in 1993, the group claimed that its primary goal was supporting anti-abortion women of both parties. It was founded to be a counterweight to EMILY’s List. “I don’t fit neatly into a lot of categories, because I’m a Democrat and pro-life,” she says. “Susan B. Anthony seemed like a perfect fit for me.” But a phone conversation with the group’s president, Marjorie Dannenfelser, dashed Dahlkemper’s hopes. “It became pretty clear very quickly that they were not going to support me,” she says. The reason, Dannenfelser told her, was that the Susan B. Anthony List doesn’t endorse challengers over anti-abortion incumbents—even if the challenger is female and the incumbent, like English, a man. Dahlkemper wondered if the real problem was that she was a Democrat. “I questioned that,” she says. “I said, ‘Is it the party?’ It was never said that it was.”
Dahlkemper won the Democratic primary without the List’s support, and buoyed by the Democratic wave in 2008, she upset English in the general election, 51 percent to 49 percent. She credits her victory in no small part to her position on abortion, which English couldn’t use as a wedge issue.
Once in Washington, Dahlkemper became an important figure in the debate over President Barack Obama’s health-care bill, as part of a group of Democrats who threatened to oppose the measure if it included funding for abortions. Reforming health care was one of her campaign issues, and it was part of what she calls her “whole life” philosophy of governing—the idea that society must care for all its citizens from birth to natural death. For her, that means supporting anti-poverty programs, like food stamps, and also reviving public education. Unlike many Republicans who oppose abortion, Dahlkemper supports expanding access to contraception. These positions, she says, helped her gain credibility with pro-choice women in the Democratic caucus.
But she also incurred the wrath of many Democrats, women’s groups, and abortion-rights organizations. Dahlkemper was one of 64 House Democrats who split with the party leadership to vote for a health-care amendment sponsored by Bart Stupak, a Democrat from Michigan, and Joseph Pitts, a Republican from Pennsylvania, that prohibited any federal funds in the health-care bill from paying for abortions except in cases of rape or incest or for the health of the mother. The House adopted the amendment in November 2009, but it was later scrubbed from the Senate version, and the House had to vote on a final version of the bill without anti-abortion language. “Stupak Democrats” were under pressure from both sides, and one of the groups lobbying the hardest against the health-care bill was the Susan B. Anthony List. Dahlkemper was one of eight lawmakers who were undecided until the last minute about whether to support the bill—and whose votes would determine its fate. It was a struggle for her: She believed strongly that the bill was the only realistic chance for health-care reform. But she also believed it should restrict abortion funding.
Dahlkemper, Stupak, and the other holdouts met with Obama at the White House on March 20, 2010, the Saturday night before the final vote. The president promised to sign an executive order accomplishing what Stupak’s amendment would have done. He won their votes. “If we didn’t pass anything, it would be a decade or more before we’d ever get back to taking on that very volatile issue again,” Dahlkemper says. “The executive order, to me, was the best solution.” The Susan B. Anthony List’s president, Dannenfelser, vehemently disagreed, arguing that because any future president could overturn Obama’s executive order, nothing short of an amendment attached to the bill would prevent federal dollars from paying for abortions.
When the vote was called on Sunday afternoon, Dahlkemper was in her House office. “I had 75 people outside my door screaming,” she says. “When they called us for the vote, I climbed out the window onto this little ledge on the fifth floor, climbed into another window, and got out through another office. It was very intense.”
The furor didn’t end with the bill’s passage. The Susan B. Anthony List immediately launched attacks against the Democrats who had voted for health-care reform. At first, most of the fire was aimed at Stupak. “It was the ultimate betrayal,” began a radio ad aired in his district. Stupak’s vote for health care, it went on to say, “forces us to pay for the death of unborn children.” In just one month after the vote, the List spent a total of $150,000 against Stupak. The group revoked a pro-life award it had planned to give Stupak and encouraged his constituents to call his Michigan office and complain. Stupak was bombarded with messages, including some that wished him dead; he reported to authorities a particularly violent one that said, “I hope you bleed out your ass, get cancer and die.” In April, Stupak announced that he would not seek re-election. The 59-year-old, who had won nine times by comfortable margins, claimed he had been planning to retire. Dannenfelser called it a victory for her organization. “Votes, especially his when all eyes were looking to him to be true, have real consequences,” she told Politico.
Dahlkemper and the other anti--abortion Democrats who voted with Stupak and ran for re--election were not spared. The List targeted 20 of them in a $3.5 million “Votes Have Consequences” campaign. It ran ads and put up billboards claiming that the Democrats had voted for “taxpayer-funded abortion.” Dahlkemper was one of the group’s top targets. The List endorsed her opponent, Republican Mike Kelly, and spent $47,000 against her. Overall, the Susan B. Anthony List spent $11 million in 90 state and federal races around the country during the 2010 elections. It endorsed five anti-abortion men for open seats—four of them were running against women—and campaigned against pro-choice female incumbents including Senator Blanche Lincoln, the Arkansas Democrat.
Fifteen of the 20 Democrats in the “Votes Have Consequences” campaign lost, including several with unblemished anti-abortion voting records. One of them was Alan Mollohan, a Democrat from West Virginia, for whom Dannenfelser had worked on Capitol Hill as a junior staffer before she joined the Susan B. Anthony List. Another, Democratic Congressman Steven Driehaus of Ohio, sued the list for defamation over its billboard campaign. (The List says that its attacks fall under free-speech rights; the suit is ongoing, but a judge has twice ruled against the group.) In Pennsylvania, Kelly beat Dahlkemper by 11 percentage points.
As a result, the number of women in the House went down by one, from 73 to 72. It was the first time female representation in Washington had declined since 1979. With just a few million dollars—and a willingness to stretch the truth—a feminist group founded to elect women to Congress had engineered the first setback for women in politics in a generation.
The List’s evolution from an organization designed to support women like Dahlkemper to one that worked to defeat her had begun years earlier, when the List started to feed on, and feed into, the Republican fundraising machine. Dahlkemper says she had come to suspect the group’s true mission long before she lost in 2010. “I don’t think it has anything to do with abortion,” she says. “It has to do with politics, and not wanting pro-life Democrats—particularly a woman who’s pro-life and Democrat and in office—because we’re a threat to the Republican Party.”
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.
The ultimate goal was to end abortion, which MacNair calls “feticide.” She felt that could only happen when both anti-abortion and “pro-abortion” women worked together in government to find common solutions. MacNair believes that communities and the government should rally to support single mothers financially, spiritually, and socially, and send the message that financial distress, one of the most frequent reasons for seeking an abortion, is not a legitimate reason to terminate a pregnancy. It was especially important to MacNair that women did this work. “So much of the argument is that pro-lifers are men who can never get pregnant, who don’t understand what it’s like to be pregnant, who are imposing this on other people,” she says. “What we needed to make clear is that those who can and do get pregnant are very much against killing babies.”
MacNair also wanted to appeal to feminists, which set her apart from women like Phyllis Schlafly, the founder of the influential conservative network the Eagle Forum, who urged women to maintain traditional gender roles. MacNair and her co-founders named their group after Susan B. Anthony, drawing on the notion held by many conservative women that the first-wave feminists of the 19th century opposed abortion. The evidence that Anthony herself held that view rests largely on a letter, signed with an “A,” that she purportedly wrote in the National Woman Suffrage Association’s weekly newsletter, The Revolution. It reads: “Guilty? Yes. No matter what the motive, love of ease, or a desire to save from suffering the unborn innocent, the woman is awfully guilty who commits the deed. It will burden her conscience in life, it will burden her soul in death; but oh, thrice guilty is he who … drove her to the desperation which impelled her to commit the crime.” (Most historians dispute that Anthony ever made public comments on abortion and say she did not sign her letters with an “A.”)
The last part of the quotation from The Revolution hints at another commonly held view among MacNair and other anti-abortion feminists: that abortion is an outgrowth of female oppression, an act that comes at the end of a long line of abuse. Women are used as sexual objects, more likely to be victims of domestic abuse, taught that motherhood is destructive for their careers, and, on the whole, still much more responsible for parenthood than their male partners. “Abortion is something that is inflicted on women,” MacNair says, “rather than something that women should be allowed to do if they want.”
The Susan B. Anthony List was launched in 1992. While MacNair remained in Kansas City, Gibbs, who had started a D.C. chapter of Feminists for Life, drew on Washington allies to help set up the List’s PAC. The group had a few early successes, including the 1996 election of Kentucky Republican Anne M. Northup to the House. But its resources were no match for those of EMILY’s List—hardly surprising, since the number of self-identified feminists who oppose abortion rights is small.
“Part of the reason EMILY’s List has been so successful is that there’s this pro-choice movement across the country where you will have people support pro-choice candidates regardless of where they live,” says Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University. “Most of them came out of the feminist movement of the ’70s, so they’ve been around, with a lot of staying power, for a long time, and they’re a very reliable donor base.” For the Susan B. Anthony List, no comparable base existed.
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.
At last October’s Values Voter Summit in Washington, an annual gathering of social conservatives hosted by the Family Research Council, Marjorie Dannenfelser was something of a celebrity. On the last day of the summit, she led a panel showcasing an array of groups working to defund Planned Parenthood. Stripping state and federal funding for the nonprofit—the largest system of reproductive--health clinics in the country and thus the largest abortion provider—had become a top priority for the Susan B. Anthony List during the lull between the 2010 midterms and the 2012 election. Dannenfelser, who is 46, entered the room amid a crowd of fellow organizers and conference attendees, all asking her questions. She answered each person after she had already started to shift her attention to the next one, like a woman who is used to more demands than she has time for.
In her introductory remarks, Dannenfelser charmed the audience with a conversion story. She grew up pro-choice, she said, which translated into default support for Planned Parenthood. “I just thought it was a nice organization, very civic-minded, that helped people plan their families.” Her mind changed while she was a student at Duke University, in the class of 1988. After studying philosophy, she says, she began to question her views. Dannenfelser saw herself as a strong woman, and she started to question whether abortion was good for women at all. “When you adhere to a position really, really strongly, and don’t listen to people, you set yourself up for a big fall,” she later said. “It takes a long time to open your mind. What I see as the truth of the matter became so obvious I couldn’t ignore it anymore.”
Dannenfelser, who speaks with the soft, rounded vowels of her hometown, Greenville, North Carolina, soon adopted the cadence of a sermon. “What we’ve come to know is that Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, could look into the eyes of a human baby, a child, and say, ‘Human, we do not want you. I’m here to weed you out like underbrush and cast you out into the fire. The world, and our hearts, are not big enough to welcome you into the world.’ That is a tragedy, and it has led to untold death.”
After sixteen years of leading the Susan B. Anthony List, Dannenfelser has become a well-known Christian conservative, a frequent presence on cable-news shows opposite women who support abortion rights, and a popular speaker traveling widely to spread the anti-abortion message. Her group has gone far beyond its storefront beginnings—a process that started in 1997, when Dannenfelser and Abraham reorganized the Susan B. Anthony List as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit with a PAC attached, allowing the group to lobby Congress and engage in advocacy work while also raising money for its chosen candidates.
In 1998, the Susan B. Anthony List decided it would no longer work only to elect anti-abortion women. Its new purpose was to increase the percentage of anti-abortion members of Congress. That meant the group, which was founded to increase the number of women in Congress, would oppose women who supported abortion rights—and support anti-abortion men running against them. “It became very clear we wouldn’t gain ground fast enough if we didn’t start opposing pro-choice women,” says Susan B. Anthony List spokesperson Ciara Matthews. One of the first men it endorsed was Illinois Republican Peter Fitzgerald, who unseated scandal--plagued Senator Carol Moseley Braun in 1998; Moseley Braun had been one of the four women EMILY’s List helped elect in 1992.
While its mission was now clearly allied with the GOP, the group still struggled financially. One of its leanest years was the 2000 election cycle, when it spent less than $26,000 on candidates. Jane Abraham resigned as president in 2007, with Dannenfelser taking the title. (Abraham remains active in the group.) The List’s profile began to rise dramatically in 2008; Sarah Palin gave the Susan B. Anthony List—and its leader—an opportunity to jump into the spotlight. Here was a political leader who called herself a feminist, opposed abortion, and, at that time, seemed destined to lead the Republican Party. Dannenfelser invited Palin to speak at a Susan B. Anthony List event the year after the elections, and Palin did so for free, at a time when she typically charged a $100,000 speaking fee.
The two—who both had five children, including a developmentally disabled child—were paired in the media as emblems of a new breed of feminists. Mainstream women’s rights groups derided their credentials, which only elevated their standing with social conservatives. The comparisons to Palin certainly did no harm to Dannenfelser. As its name recognition and coffers grew, the Susan B. Anthony List started using Crossroads Media. While it's a separate entity, the group receives funding from Crossroads GPS, a conservative advocacy group founded by Karl Rove and other Republican strategists.
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. (Former Congressman Driehaus has asked the group to disclose the funders of its 501(c)(4) as part of the Ohio lawsuit, but no disclosures have been made.)
If the Susan B. Anthony List had to align itself with the broader Republican Party to gain power and influence, the GOP also benefits from having another group able to spend money on its key races. The list of Democrats that the Susan B. Anthony List opposed in 2010 coincided neatly with the roster of endangered Democratic seats the Republican Party targeted in its effort to regain the House. The List did not oppose Congressman Dale Kildee of Michigan, who—like Stupak and Dahlkemper—was an anti-abortion Democrat who voted for the Affordable Care Act. His seat was safe. The anti-abortion Democrats the group opposed were in swing districts; its efforts helped elect more anti-abortion Republicans, while thinning the ranks of anti-abortion Democrats.
The publicity generated by the List’s 2010 efforts—even the negative publicity stemming from the Driehaus lawsuit—only continued its momentum. Abortion is an easy target under a Democratic president, and the List routinely labels Obama the “most pro-abortion president ever,” largely based on the health-care law, which, to the dismay of most reproductive--rights groups, includes no provisions for abortion at all. For Dahlkemper, this criticism is especially frustrating because the Affordable Care Act provides contraception to prevent unwanted pregnancies and offers new support for pregnant women. “The health-care issue was one of the most pro-life pieces of legislation we’ve ever passed,” Dahlkemper says. “Ever passed.”
The List’s campaigns against anti-abortion Democrats and pro-choice women made co-founder Rachel MacNair sever her ties to the group after the 2010 elections. “It was meant to be getting women, more women, into office, and especially pro-life women,” she says. “We’re never going to be able to get anywhere on the issue of feticide without that perspective. We want women’s perspectives on war and the military draft, and we want women’s perspective on all kinds of issues, but it’s especially important on this one.”
For both the Republican Party and the Susan B. Anthony List, there was another powerful motivation behind refusing to see Obama’s executive order preventing health-care funds from being used for abortions as a win. Abortion inspires a small but passionate set of voters for the GOP. Chipping away at Roe and limiting access to abortion by targeting groups like Planned Parenthood will never end abortion—or even return the U.S. to the days when it was illegal. But each new fight keeps abortion alive in the culture wars. One result is that anti--abortion Democrats and pro-choice Republicans are now both endangered species.
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.
For anti-abortion Democrats it’s a tragic state of affairs—and it’s not all the fault of one group or one party. Democrats, Dahlkemper says, hurt themselves by not trying to advance the conversation on abortion beyond the procedure-focused view perpetuated by the right. She believes that progressives could use the struggles presented by motherhood as a way to rally support for social--service programs that help women, instead of allowing the narrative to only be about choice. “I feel very strongly that we need to have this conversation between the pro-choice camp and the pro-life camp, because I see a lot of overlap for those of us who care about the issue,” she says. “But I do not think that a lot of people want the issue to end. They want it to continue on, and I think that’s on both sides of the aisle.”
Heading toward November 2012, the Susan B. Anthony List is doing its best to keep the culture wars hot. Early in the Republican presidential contest, the group drew up an anti-abortion pledge that it asked all of the candidates to sign. The pledge included a promise to defund Planned Parenthood and support the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would shorten the cutoff date for legal abortions from 24 to 21 weeks into a pregnancy. (Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum all signed, but Mitt Romney did not.) The List supported Michele Bachmann early on—the group had given her an award in 2010, featured her prominently on its website, and followed the early stages of her campaign on its blog, calling her a "pro-life rock star.” But it did not officially endorse Bachmann. When she quit the race after the Iowa caucuses, the group shifted its focus to Rick Santorum, whom it endorsed on February 17. Santorum’s wife, Karen, was an early volunteer for the Susan B. Anthony List.
The List has also promised to lead the charge against “pro-abortion” women in 2012. In a year when 11 women are running for the U.S. Senate, including six pro-choice Democratic incumbents, the efforts of a group founded by second-wave feminists, named for a first-wave feminist, could once again be a major force in reducing female representation in Congress.
This story was corrected on February 23, 2012. An earlier version, which ran in the March print edition of the Prospect, incorrectly said that Sarah Palin had charged the Susan B. Anthony List a speaker's fee when she spoke at an event in 2009; Palin actually spoke for free. The story erroneously identified Karl Rove as co-founder of Crossroads Media; he is a co-founder of Crossroads GPS, a separate entity. The article also mischaracterized the Susan B. Anthony List’s support for presidential candidates, implying that the List had endorsed Michelle Bachmann and, later, Rick Santorum. While the List praised both candidates earlier in the campaign, its endorsement of Santorum was not announced until February 17.