Nevertheless, Pro-Life Democrat Ellen McCormack Persisted
This is the story of a middle class Catholic grandmother who took on the feminists and ran for president in 1976.
“The infant would be delivered. The infant would be kept comfortable,” said Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, explaining to a radio audience how a Democratic-proposed bill in the state legislature would handle an unsuccessful late-term abortion. “The infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired. And then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.” The discussion would be whether or not the unwanted newborn would be allowed to live.
The Virginia proposal to eliminate restrictions on late-term abortions was tabled due to Republican opposition, but a similar measure had already passed in New York. The governor’s blasé description of infanticide was a shock to the conscience of many. The abortion debate had officially reached its biological limit: post-birth.
The Democratic Party wasn’t always on this path. When the Supreme Court legalized abortion nationwide in 1973, many Democrats believed Roe v. Wade was the wrong decision. The list included the “Lion of the Senate” Edward Kennedy, the good Reverend Jesse Jackson, and even the Democratic Party’s presumptive 2020 presidential nominee, Joe Biden.
As these men began to abandon the pro-life cause, one group of women organized a last-ditch protest against their party’s embrace of abortion. This band of housewives and homemakers, organized around the 1976 presidential campaign of Ellen McCormack, would introduce the pro-life movement to national politics and contribute to the party realignment on social issues Americans see today.
Their story begins in the late 1960s, following the Vatican II reforms, when the Catholic Church began developing local community organizations to engage more with parishioners. In Merrick, Long Island, a dialogue group was formed under the eye of Father Paul Driscoll.
“Basically it was just a bunch of friends, and a lot of them just went because it was a chance to have adult conversation, because a lot of them…had four plus children. And it just happened to be all women who were going to the dialogue group,” explained Stacie Taranto, associate professor of history at Ramapo College and author of Kitchen-Table Politics: Conservative Women and Family Values in New York.
“A lot of them said, other than paying attention to [John] Kennedy because he was a ‘handsome Catholic man’—that’s how a lot of them described him—they’re not paying attention to political issues,” Taranto told The American Conservative. “They are raised to believe that politics is a male pursuit, and this isn’t something that concerns them.”
Ellen McCormack was a founding member of the dialogue group, and it was here that she and her friends became aware of the movement to legalize abortion. “I went to some meetings and saw some slides,” she recalled to TheNew York Times. “I couldn’t believe what was happening. Some people called it a ‘fetus.’ I was convinced it was a human life being taken. It was a baby. It was a terrible thing to do.”
The catalyst for action came in the spring of 1970, when their home state, helmed for over a decade by Republican Nelson Rockefeller, passed the most open-ended abortion law in the nation. Rising to the challenge, this group of mothers and housewives formed the New York Right to Life Party to advance a cause neither side was articulating.
“This is an issue they feel very energized by because they don’t even see it as a political issue. They see it as an issue of life and death, and morality,” Taranto said. “It’s something that they’ll get off the sidelines for. Whereas they don’t have a history of organizing.”
From 1970 to 1975, now meeting at each other’s homes instead of the church, the women nominated candidates for local and state elections to run single-issue pro-life campaigns. Their hope was to fashion together a strong showing at the polls that they could then use to influence legislators.
“It was really fluid which legislators would be persuaded by this swing vote to vote against legal abortion. That was sort of the idea,” explained Taranto. “They didn’t feel hopeless if they were in a Republican or Democratic district because they were just trying to show legislators that there was an important swing vote.”
It is important to remember that at the start of the 1970s, it was the Republican Party that had been leading the movement for abortion access. Their notorieties included Rockefeller, icon of the Eastern establishment and the bête noire of McCormack and company; 1964 presidential nominee and godfather of the conservative movement Barry Goldwater; and even Ronald Reagan, who as California’s governor in 1967 signed a measure to liberalize abortion laws.
This was contrary to the historic Democratic Party of Catholic urban voters that Ellen McCormack and her friends descended from. “In the city, families … would hang FDR’s picture next to the pope, at a time when the New Deal anti-poverty measures lined perfectly with the Catholic Church’s anti-poverty measures,” Taranto said.
Ellen grew up in Manhattan, a daughter of the Great Depression. She married her husband Jack in 1949 and using a subsidized loan they moved to the suburbs of Long Island, becoming first-generation homeowners and part of the post-World War II middle class. Ellen never attended college or worked a salaried job. But by 1976, at the age of 49, she was the mother of four children, a grandmother of two, and she wore the description of housewife with maternal pride. Her story was representative of so many other northern Catholic women who would form the backbone of her presidential run.
In 1975, the women of the New York Right to Life Party came to the decision to run one of their own for president, not for any conceivable chance of winning, but to make abortion a defining issue of the campaign and to advocate for a Right to Life amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It was decided that Ellen McCormack would carry the banner. Despite never holding elected office—not even on the school board—McCormack had gained a following in pro-life circles for a weekly editorial column she began writing in 1972. Titled, “Who Speaks for the Unborn Child,” it was circulated in 40, mostly Catholic, newspapers.
Instead of acting under their third-party organization, it was decided that McCormack would run in the Democratic primaries. It was the party that the women had always inherently identified with, and it was the party they increasingly saw being taken away from them.
The McGovern-Fraser Commission, created in 1969, had heavily reformed the primary process. The power of the urban machines and political bosses had been curtailed in favor of proportional delegate allocation and mass democratic participation. The Democratic Party created a space for women’s voices, and at the turn of the decade the only organized women were feminist groups. The face of women in the Democratic Party was quickly becoming Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, not the Catholic homemaker it once was.
“The feminists have convinced the politicians they represent all women,” McCormack complained at the time. “But I am a woman too. I differ with some of their beliefs. I believe in childcare for the poor, but I don’t favor childcare for the middle class. I think we are teaching mothers it is more prestigious to work than be home with their children.”
“I believe there is no human being too small or too young, or, for that matter, too old or too handicapped or too dependent or too anything else not to count. Our society can—and with our help it will—respect the dignity of every human life,” she said.
McCormack filed her paperwork to run for president in the summer of 1975 and made her public announcement in November at the Parker House Hotel in Boston, Massachusetts. This began an uphill struggle for both attention and respect from the media and party functionaries who were not inclined to give her a fair hearing.
“While there was tremendous energy on the pro-life side in 1976, recall the conventional wisdom in the press and among the college and university elite was that the abortion issue was settled,” said David O’Steen, who has been the executive director of the National Right to Life Committee since 1984.
Despite being a national presidential campaign based out of New York City, The New York Times would write less than two dozen articles about McCormack, and in October 1975, Morton Dean informed Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News that there were no women running for president in 1976. It took two months for the network to issue a correction.
To the consternation of the political establishment, however, the campaign finance laws at the time were advantageously designed for someone like McCormack and the goals of the pro-life movement. Following Watergate in 1974, Congress passed amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act, which created the Federal Election Commission and introduced matching funds to federal politics. Under this system, the federal government would match the fundraising of individuals for presidential campaigns that met a certain threshold.
To understand these arcane and intricate federal election laws, the women were helped by Gene McMahon, a local Long Island attorney who had been assisting the New York Right to Life Party since its founding. With McMahon’s guidance, the women were able to establish their own political action committee and set appropriate fundraising targets.
It was required that McCormack raise at least $5,000 in individual contributions under $250 from at least 20 different states. Tiling among the grassroots, while their candidate participated in speaking engagements to small groups throughout the Northeast, these dedicated wives and mothers began constructing a presidential campaign from their dining room tables.
“They’re literally taking out rolodexes, their Christmas card lists. ‘Oh I have a relative in California, let’s try to get on the ballot there!’ That’s how it’s organized,” said Taranto. “It’s sort of amazing to see and to hear how it was interwoven in their everyday domestic and maternal lives. But they saw this as sort of an extension of mothering.”
By February 1976, Ellen McCormack became the first woman in U.S. history to qualify for federal matching funds or to receive round-the-clock Secret Service protection.
The campaign already knew what they would spend the money on: television commercials. It was the most advanced way to beam the abortion debate directly into people’s homes at a time when major networks like ABC, CBS, and NBC—who collectively accounted for 90% of television viewers—were too tepid to draw the controversy. But under the Federal Communication Commission’s equal time law, a network was obligated to give political candidates equal opportunity to air advertisements for their campaign, no matter the content.
“Did you know that the heart of an unborn baby begins to be formed at three weeks after conception? Did you know also that a million babies have their hearts stopped each year in a very painful way, by abortion?” narrated McCormack’s voice, over the image of a developing fetus, the sound of its heart beating, and then flatlining, in the background. The candidate herself then appeared, holding a cooing infant in her arms. “I’m Ellen McCormack, a Democratic candidate for president. Help me to keep these hearts beating. Together we can help both the mother and her baby.”
In other commercials, McCormack appeared beside Dr. Mildred Jefferson. A surgeon by training, Dr. Jefferson was the first black woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School. She left her practice to serve as the president of the National Right to Life Committee from 1975 to 1978 and was an early endorser of McCormack’s campaign.
Dr. Jefferson expressed to the television audience that “We must find candidates of vision and imagination who will know that we must find better means of solving the social problems than getting rid of the people that caused the problem.”
Describing an abortion procedure, Dr. Jefferson did not mince words. Showing pictures of a fetus at 11 and 24 weeks after conception, she said, “Tragically, many babies like these lose their lives in a very painful way, through abortion. In one kind of abortion, the child is literally pulled apart. In another kind, salt solution sends the baby into convulsions. Together we can stop abortion.”
As David O’Steen told TAC, “You cannot accurately and clearly describe what goes on in abortion without it being strong language.”
At least 40 million Americans viewed Ellen McCormack’s campaign advertisements. Their graphic nature incensed abortion activists, angry both that a pro-life campaign sought to repeal their political victories, and that the campaign was being partially funded by the federal government. The National Organization for Women and the National Abortion Rights Action League sued McCormack’s campaign in an unsuccessful attempt to get the money returned.
“Her candidacy points up the weakness of the law,” said Congressman Charles Wiggins, a California Republican. Wiggins was already an opponent of the matching-fund statute, claiming that it only empowered “spurious, one-issue candidates” like McCormack.
Responding to the outrage, Congress reformed the law that spring and raised the qualification bar. McCormack lost matching funds in May, after receiving a total of $244,000 from the federal government, duplicating dollar for dollar what she was given by supporters. “The professional politicians are making a great many mistakes,” McCormack told Newsweek after the law changed. “I don’t think I should be disqualified just because I haven’t been making those mistakes for the past twenty years.”
Throughout the primary, McCormack fought against the stigma that comes with single-issue campaigns. “I am a serious candidate,” she said. “I stand for the rights of the unborn. I don’t see why that one issue can be overlooked.”
While the pro-life cause was her motivation and dominant focus, McCormack did express opinions on other matters. These included the death penalty (“It is the same kind of negative philosophy that gave us abortion”), busing (“While I favor [racial] integration, I do not approve of court-ordered forced busing”), energy policy (“At the present time I believe that nuclear energy will provide the necessary needs of our country for centuries to come”), and even foreign policy (“We have failed to use our resources for peace, but rather have let [Henry] Kissinger bargain them away, with no peace, no concessions, in return”).
Having no previous experience in government and running against the consensus on abortion held by American elites, Ellen McCormack’s campaign struck a resolutely populist note. “Every American has the right to become involved in politics,” she said. “The professional politician is out of touch with the issues that affect and concern the people.”
“Politics is too important to be left to the politicians,” she exhorted, mentioning elsewhere that “people, not judges” should be “making the basic value judgements about the future of our country.”
Her message found an audience. McCormack’s kitchen-table campaign had worked to get her name on the ballot in 22 states, the most of any female candidate up to that time. Her best performances were garnering 9.4% of the vote in Vermont, 7.8% in South Dakota, and 6% in New Jersey. By the end of the primary, she had earned over 267,000 votes, with 22 delegates to the national convention from five states. McCormack outperformed three U.S. senators and two governors in the race for the nomination.
“She was a candidate who had no national name recognition, no political experience, no business experience, no military experience. So for someone whose only name recognition came within a limited circle of pro-life activists in New York state, for her to actually run nationally (not in every state, but in a number of states), and in some of those states receive votes in the high single digits, that’s not bad,” commented Daniel K. Williams, professor of history at the University of West Georgia, and author of Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade.
One vignette well represents the pro-life tendencies that still existed in the Democratic Party, and that Ellen McCormack was able to tap into. Her campaign put special focus on the Massachusetts primary, which was only the fifth contest that year, immediately following New Hampshire. Another candidate who placed his bets on a good showing in the Bay State was Indiana Senator Birch Bayh. Widely considered to be a major player for the nomination, Bayh had, as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, been instrumental in ensuring proposals for the Human Life Amendment never came up for a floor vote.
“That really hurt him among a lot of voters in Massachusetts who were pro-life. Massachusetts had a substantial number of pro-life Catholics in the 1970s. So Ellen McCormack was getting almost no national news coverage, but she managed to come within eight votes of Birch Bayh’s total in Boston,” Williams told TAC. “It showed, at the time, that at least among Democratic voters, position on abortion really mattered and the winning position was not necessarily the pro-choice position.”
McCormack capped off her presidential campaign by giving the keynote speech at a rally of 10,000 pro-life demonstrators in New York City, the day before the start of the Democratic National Convention. She proceeded to lead this display of political strength in a two-mile march to Madison Square Garden, all the while carrying a sign that read “Jimmy Carter to be born again one must first be born. Stop Abortion.”
At the convention, McCormack had her name placed into nomination but she was unable to turn the tide on abortion within her party. After a contentious debate—many Jimmy Carter delegates were pro-life as well—the Democratic convention adopted a party platform that “recognized the religious and ethical nature of the concerns which many Americans have on the subject of abortion,” but felt that it was “undesirable to attempt to amend the United States Constitution to overturn the Supreme Court decision in this area.” The wording was a milquetoast defense of the status quo, which meant Roe v. Wade would stand as law.
“In response, the Republican National Convention, which met later that summer, adopted a much stronger statement of opposition to Roe, endorsing a constitutional amendment to change the Supreme Court decision and, as they put it, ‘restore protection of human life’,” explained Williams.
This served two purposes. First, the statement would be an outreach to McCormack’s voting bloc, who supported a national ban on abortion. But it was also vague enough for liberal Republicans to interpret it the way President Gerald Ford preferred: that abortion should be decided on a state-by-state basis.
While both parties worked to keep their position exceptionally moderate—polling at the time showed both Republican and Democratic voters equally split on support for a pro-life amendment—it was the first divergence that would pave the way for the culture wars yet to come.
That year, Ellen McCormack refused to endorse either Carter or Ford, equally unimpressed with their wishy-washy positioning on abortion. Her one high-profile endorsement went to New York’s Republican Senator James Buckley, brother of Bill, who had repeatedly introduced the Human Life Amendment in Congress. Buckley was defeated for reelection by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who later on in his public career would have his own internal struggle with his party’s extremism on abortion.
The New York Right to Life Party continued to field candidates for the rest of the decade—in 1978 their gubernatorial nominee outpolled the quintessential Liberal Party of New York—but by 1980 the energy was gone. “At that point, a lot of them kind of got burnt out from it. They didn’t want to be politicians,” explained Taranto. “They just wanted to make sure there was a political party that would strongly come out against legal abortion.”
By the time of the Reagan Revolution, the Republican Party had become the vehicle of pro-life activists and social conservatism. While many of her supporters shifted to become part of the “Moral Majority,” McCormack herself declined. She received pestering phone calls throughout the 1980 election, both from Reagan’s northeast coordinator Roger Stone and campaign manager William J. Casey, begging for an endorsement. She even received a call from the Gipper himself just prior to the general election. But no matter the sincerity of the plea or the earnestness of the assurance, she would never forgive Reagan for signing California’s abortion reform law in 1967.
McCormack herself appeared on the ballot in 1980 as the presidential nominee of the New York Right to Life Party. It was an empty display, however, with none of the vim and vigor seen in 1976. She received 32,000 votes, or .04 percent.
In the end, the efforts of those mothers from Merrick, Long Island did not move the needle on public opinion regarding abortion—little has in the past 50 years. But what Ellen McCormack’s presidential bid did do was animate pro-life sentiment across the country. She made abortion a lightning-rod issue on the campaign trail, demonstrating the untapped potential of social issues in politics. The effort also symbolized a closing chapter in the history of the Democratic Party, whose mantle today is represented by men like Ralph Northam, not women like Ellen McCormack.
Looking back at her campaign, which broke so many barriers for women in politics in service of the rights of the unborn, McCormack expressed, “A traditional woman had to do something untraditional.” And she did.
Hunter DeRensis is Assistant Editor at the Libertarian Institute and a regular contributor to The American Conservative. You can follow him on Twitter @HunterDeRensis.