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  • Ellen McCormack for President: Politics and an Improbable Path to Passing Anti-abortion Policy
  • Stacie Taranto (bio)

After the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973 in the landmark cases of Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, opposition mounted immediately. Opponents in Congress focused on two strategies to weaken or overturn the decisions. Some introduced bills to end the federal financing of abortions. Others proposed a series of Human Life Amendments to grant constitutional rights to unborn fetuses from the moment of conception. Much has been written about the related lobbying efforts of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and, in particular, the National Right to Life Committee, which was formed just months after the Supreme Court decisions. These groups focused on electing sympathetic political candidates and lobbying them to pass anti-abortion policies. But change was not immediately forthcoming, which prompted some activists to try to expedite matters by entering politics themselves. 1

This article describes how the most unlikely assortment of politicians—a group of housewives from Long Island—attempted to pass a Human Life Amendment by running a candidate for president of the United States. In 1976, one of the housewives, Ellen McCormack, ran in the Democratic presidential primary. She and the other housewives had formed a small Long Island–based Right to Life Party in 1970. Their limited local political experience, however, paled in comparison to running for president in a major party’s primary. McCormack’s campaign was managed from kitchen tables across Long Island with guidance from a sympathetic Catholic priest and a local [End Page 263] attorney well versed in election law. This help, along with the support of a small but dedicated group of volunteers across the country, enabled McCormack to appear on the ballot in twenty-one states and garner 267,590 popular votes. Remarkably, she was the first woman to qualify for federal matching funds and Secret Service protection. Yet McCormack and her Democratic presidential primary campaign have received little scholarly or popular attention. 2

McCormack and her team of mostly white, middle-class, Catholic housewives were motivated to act by two principal factors: a conviction that abortion was akin to murdering somebody out-of-utero and an abiding concern that legal abortion, even feminism, undermined family life. “I am running for president,” McCormack wrote, because “women who support traditional values must express themselves in order to neutralize what the feminists are doing in our name.” 3 McCormack and her supporters opposed abortion based on their belief that fetuses were no different than full-term babies living outside their mothers’ wombs—an idea that the Catholic Church advocated as well. But McCormack’s comment about neutralizing feminists indicates that her campaign for a Human Life Amendment (HLA) was also a proxy for discomfort with changing social norms and values in the 1960s and 1970s. 4

McCormack’s disagreement with feminists stemmed from fundamentally different views of gender. Feminists argued that gender was a socially-constructed concept. As a result, they promoted a political program designed to help men and women share familial and societal responsibilities more equitably. They encouraged women’s access to greater job opportunities and education, government-funded day care, and the right to have a legal abortion. McCormack and her supporters, by contrast, saw gender as a fixed, divinely-ordered, biologically-based distinction. They felt that humanity was divided into two different sexes, each with distinct roles. Whenever possible, they thought that men should support their families in the paid workforce, while women tended to children and the home. 5

By the mid-1970s, however, the American social order and economy had been so transformed over the past decade that McCormack’s vision of the family seemed increasingly untenable. New sexual freedoms and, above all, legal abortion allowed women to opt out of motherhood. More educational and job opportunities for women, and an economic downturn that disproportionately affected men, posed additional challenges to the traditional division of gendered labor. Ellen McCormack, like a lot of her female supporters and a majority of women opposed to legal abortion at that time, was a [End Page 264] first-generation suburbanite. Many of these women had grown up...


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pp. 263-287
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