A Group of Progressive Women Just Launched a Working-Class Version of EMILY’s List

Matriarch is “going to fill a void” by supporting women who come from disadvantaged backgrounds early in their races, when it matters most.

Illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept

This week, a coalition of more than three dozen progressive women joined forces to launch an organization dedicated to electing women from working-class and low-income backgrounds to Congress. Matriarch, a political action committee, intends to boost grassroots candidates by providing early financial and institutional support to women who aren’t independently wealthy or able to raise large amounts of money in short periods of time. The initiative, which is a couple of years in the making, is the latest effort in the progressive movement’s work to build an ecosystem in which lesser-known candidates are given the tools to succeed.

Justice Democrats, the group that recruited and helped elect New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example, was created to boost insurgents who wanted to challenge corporate Democrats in Congress. And its sister organization launched Movement School earlier this year to train working-class organizers how to work as campaign managers, communications directors, and field directors.

From former elected officials and congressional candidates to labor leaders and political activists, the women behind Matriarch are drawing from their own experiences navigating the political system to help create an infrastructure that supports working women, who often also deal with household and child care responsibilities at the same time as campaigning.

Amy Vilela, who ran an insurgent congressional campaign in Nevada last year and was featured in the Netflix documentary “Knock Down the House,” said Matriarch is “going to fill a void” by supporting women who come from disadvantaged backgrounds early in their races, when it matters most. “It’s organizations like this that will lift our voices and help us get a seat at the table,” said Vilela, who’s on the group’s advisory board.

Many establishment-aligned organizations, like EMILY’s List, which was founded in 1985 to support pro-choice women running for office, consider a candidate’s early fundraising or Rolodex of wealthy friends in order to measure their viability. (The “EMILY” in EMILY’s List stands for “Early Money Is Like Yeast.”)

In addition to discouraging aspiring candidates from running at all, using money as the primary measure of viability also means that the working-class Democrats who jump into a race are beaten back by their wealthier, well-connected opponents. And this process only worsens the vast underrepresentation of working-class people, particularly women, in Congress. A historic number of women ran for office last year, yet women hold roughly 24 percent of all the seats in the 116th Congress. According to estimates by the political news outlet Roll Call, the 115th Congress had a total net worth of at least $2.43 billion; nearly 40 percent of representatives were millionaires.

An EMILY’s List endorsement, or lack thereof, can make or break a candidate, as they pump millions of dollars into races each cycle altogether with their super PAC. Matriarch, however, wants to build power differently, endorsing candidates who focus on economic justice and may not have high name recognition but have deep community support.

Nomiki Konst, Matriarch board director and former candidate for New York City public advocate, told The Intercept that they’re going to focus on campaigns that are putting in the work but may not have as much momentum yet. As of yesterday, Matriarch had already received at least 1,500 nominations for the 2020 congressional elections, which was “a bit surprising” for it having only been a few days, Konst added. The PAC, which won’t be taking any corporate cash, plans on making its first endorsement by January at the latest.

In addition to Konst and Vilela, Matriarch’s advisory board members also include Lucy Flores, a former Nevada assemblywoman; Jovanka Beckles, a candidate for California state Assembly last year who was endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America and Sen. Bernie Sanders; Laura Moser, a former congressional candidate from Texas and founder of Daily Action; Christine Pellegrino, a former New York assemblywoman; Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants; Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party; and economist Stephanie Kelton.

“Our current electoral system works against working people and is biased towards those who are independently wealthy,” Beckles said in a statement. “In order to win, candidates must be able to run for office full time.”

“Working people most often cannot quit their jobs and are at a disadvantage trying to work and campaign,” she continued. “We need systemic change that recognizes that — as designed — the status quo automatically significantly eliminates those that are most affected by these policies.”

Join The Conversation