The year 2010 may see the most tumultuous congressional elections since 1994. One of the key players will be Marjorie Dannenfelser, president and chairman of the board of the Susan B. Anthony List, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, 280,000-member organization with an attached political action committee that helps pro-life women to run for political office.
Q: How did you become pro-life? I grew up in North Carolina in an Episcopalian family, very strongly pro-choice. I was co-chair of the College Republicans at Duke University because they wanted balance: Balance meant you had to have a pro-choice and a pro-life chair. So I was a pro-choice chair, and for that reason I was the target (in a good way) for a lot of people who knew that the intellectual underpinnings of my position were false. They approached it on a philosophical level but they also approached me as friends; they didn't judge me, though I was very outspoken on the issue, and they just engaged me in conversation in love.
Q: You went to work in Washington, started the House Pro-Life Caucus, and met your husband. Marty was chief of staff for Congressman Chris Smith in New Jersey. We were forced to work together on pro-life stuff. Work hours turned into dating, and now five kids. But there was marriage in between, I promise.
Q: You and other women started the Susan B. Anthony List in 1991. When did it become your major project? When I quit work and began raising children. It was basically out of my closet with a fax machine, no emails then. The truth about the pro-life movement is that we don't necessarily embrace it: It takes over and embraces us. The List grew and expanded incrementally. We really have taken off in the last few years.
Q: How much money were you able to send to candidates through the SBA List in the last election? We raised $8 million dollars overall, and a little over $1 million went directly to the candidates. A lot of the money we spend is either through independent expenditures-educating voters on the candidates and issues-or issue advocacy and informing voters about how their guys and girls in Washington are voting, so that when elections come around they hold them accountable.
Q: What are you trying to communicate to GOP leaders? When a candidate assesses a district and says, "I know I'm pro-life and pro-marriage, but I think I'd better duck and hide," it's a mistake. It doesn't mean that has to be your only issue or the No. 1 thing that you do, but when you're attacked as a candidate on one of those issues and you hide in the corner, they define you and you never get to articulate the deep roots of why you believe what you believe. Therefore, they don't respect you. Chris Smith has been the congressman in New Jersey for quite some time in a pro-choice district. They respect him.
Q: Is the pro-life cause in better or worse shape now than it was last Jan. 20? We are in such better shape, without question, even though we're the minority in the House, the Senate, the White House, and we're not looking so good on the Supreme Court. We are still looking way better, mainly because of what is happening on the ground in America. The tea parties, the town hall meetings, and the debate over healthcare have awakened a great force in the country.
Q: What's happened regarding U.S. funding of abortions abroad? One of the first things that fell in the Obama administration was a policy instituted by Ronald Reagan, which basically said we weren't going to use America's tax dollars and send them overseas for abortions. That means we weren't sending money to International Planned Parenthood so they can refer young women in other countries for abortions, or help them get them. That policy protected us on many levels. One purpose was to engender respect from Muslim countries, Christian countries, Catholic countries that don't believe in our very liberal abortion policy. That was the first thing to go.
Q: In domestic policy, what about the undermining of measures that protected conscience? The Bush administration promulgated regulations that protected healthcare workers from being in any way involved in abortion. As soon as Obama got into office, [his appointees] rescinded those regulations. He's been saying, "We're going to take care of it. We didn't really like the way those other ones were written." Well, it's been a long time and they haven't taken care of that.
Q: What's on the political radar in 2010? The Susan B. Anthony List is looking at about 10 House seats where there are vulnerable freshman pro-choice incumbents. Conservative activists are incredibly mobilized for principled reasons. We're seeing more and more women candidates apply to the Susan B. Anthony List every year. A lot are applying for governorship runs: Many women want to be back home; they don't want to be in Washington.
Q: How do you balance career and family? I do everything at work between the hours of 9 and 3 except for occasional travel. The pro-life movement is really a part of the personality of our family: We've been organizing since the kids were tiny and they're a part of it, so it's formed their character. They push me out instead of saying, "You have to stay home."
Q: In what ways are they a part of the pro-life movement? In every single way you can imagine: They've worked in our office, they've worked stuffing mailings, they've done the March for Life, they go to all of our events, they travel with me as often as we can. I just spoke at Maine Right to Life and before that Michigan Right to Life, and I took different kids with me at different times. They love it because they're stars when they travel-they get all the special treatment. This might not be the issue that they end up handling, but they need to know something very important: When there is a crisis in history and a great battle that needs to be fought, you need to be a part of it, and not standing on the sidelines.
Q: If women in college want to become part of the pro-life movement politically, what should they do? Intern somewhere in Washington. Interning does two things: It can inspire you, let you meet people like you've never met in your life, and No. 2, you realize, "This is grunt work." So the shades fall from your eyes, and you ask, "Holy cow, do I really want to do this?" If you still want to do it, then maybe you're called to it. This is a calling. In modern politics today, if you are not called to run, you will fall by the wayside. Your family and your self will be damaged. You'll be frustrated. You won't be able to persevere when they're slamming you (which they will, especially if you're a woman-you will be a threat to feminists and you'll be slammed right away).
Q: Once they graduate, what's the next step? Women that I know like Michele Bachmann ran for school board first. Women have a uniquely complementary role with men. They see the individuals in the crowd. They're very good at one-on-one campaigning, very good at grassroots, door-to-door. Then decide if you're called, and if your husband thinks it's a good idea too, look for opportunities. As long as you have a servant mentality, something will come up if you're really called to serve in that way.
Q: What kind of husband should politically interested women look for? Every project has to be a collaboration. Look for someone who loves you and God more than himself. If you're really not united, you may not be called to run. If you're willing to break up your family over it, you won't be a good leader.
To hear Marvin Olasky's interview with Marjorie Dannenfelser, click here.
(Editor's Note: This article has been edited to reflect that the Susan B. Anthony List is a 280,000-member organization with an attached political action committee.)
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