Ellen McCormack campaign material.

New York Grandmother Seeks Democratic Presidential Nomination! Ellen McCormack (1926-2011)

No, not that one!

Exactly forty years before Hillary Clinton’s historic run and nomination, Ellen Cullen McCormack (1926-2011) ran for president as a Democrat in the 1976 primary campaign that ended with the nomination of Jimmy Carter.

But Ellen McCormack was a different kind of female Democratic candidate. In fact, while Hillary Clinton famously rejected the idea of staying home and baking cookies, McCormack was a self-described Long Island “housewife.” Furthermore, at the height of the second-wave feminist movement of the mid-1970s, McCormack ran an almost single-issue campaign as an anti-abortion candidate whose political goal was to overturn Roe v. Wade, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court just three years earlier in 1973.

Born in 1926, just a few years after American women gained the vote, McCormack was inspired to enter politics in the late 1960s when her home state of New York passed one of the first laws legalizing abortion. The Catholic mother of four had no formal political experience, but soon became a founder and chairwoman of the New York Right to Life Party and was at the forefront of the burgeoning anti-abortion movement.1

Demonstration protesting anti-abortion candidate Ellen McCormack at the Democratic National Convention, New York City, 1976. (Warren K. Leffler/US Library of Congress)
Demonstration protesting anti-abortion candidate Ellen McCormack at the Democratic National Convention, New York City, 1976. (Warren K. Leffler/US Library of Congress)

In 1976, McCormack took the anti-abortion platform national by running as a Democrat in support of a Human Life Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. She did not win any state primaries, but garnered over 260,000 votes overall and was awarded 22 delegates at the Democratic National Convention held that year in New York. The DNC of 1976 itself was remarkable in terms of the presence of women and of feminism, with Congresswoman Barbara Jordan’s keynote speech and Congresswoman Lindy Boggs as the first woman to chair a major party’s convention.2 McCormack’s agenda was a marked departure from the Democratic Party platform of 1976, which supported upholding Roe v. Wade as well as passage of the ERA.3 Indeed, McCormack explicitly positioned herself against feminism; she pointed out that feminism did not speak for all women and was quoted as saying that she wanted to “neutralize what feminists are doing.”4

McCormack ran for president again in 1980, but this time she ditched the Democrats and ran as the Right to Life Party candidate, seeking a Human Life Amendment.5 The Right to Life Party had supported other anti-abortion (and anti-ERA) female candidates in New York, such as Barbara Keating in an unsuccessful run for U.S. Senate in 1974, and RTL Party co-founder Mary Jane Tobin in a campaign for governor of New York in 1978. In 1980, the RTL Party had its sights set on the presidency and McCormack ran with another woman, Carroll Driscoll, as her running mate. As third-party candidates, McCormack-Driscoll were only able to get on the primary ballot in 3 states.

Despite her two unsuccessful presidential campaigns, McCormack still accomplished some “firsts” as a candidate, notably that she was the first woman candidate to get federal campaign funding, which allowed her to run national TV ads and bring the issue to the forefront of voters’ minds.

In the 1970s, the pro-life movement was not yet specifically associated with the Republican Party. In the partisan world of 1976, the Democrats had a female anti-abortion presidential candidate, the Republican Party platform supported “a continuance of the public dialogue on abortion” and proudly claimed to be the party of the ERA, and the Republican First Lady (Betty Ford) was a vocal supporter of reproductive rights as well. A lot has changed in 40 years! The rise of the religious right by the early 1980s meant that social conservatism around issues of reproduction, sexuality, and feminism would become a firmly entrenched part of the Republican Party platform and, even though she was ultimately unsuccessful, an anti-choice candidate like McCormack would unlikely launch her campaign in the Democratic Party in the first place.

Further Reading

Durkin, Erin. “Two-time presidential candidate Ellen McCormack dies at 84.” New York Daily News. March 28, 2011.

Taranto, Stacie. “Ellen McCormack for President: Politics and an Improbable Path to Passing Anti-abortion Policy.” Journal of Policy History 24.2 (2012): 263-287.

McBride, Dorothy E. Abortion in the United States. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2008.

Williams, Daniel K. Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade. Oxford University Press, 2016.

Ziegler, Mary. After Roe: The Lost History of the Abortion Debate. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Notes

  1. Lynn, Frank. “Right To Life Slate: All L.I.New York Times. September 28, 1986. Return to text.
  2. Interesting aside: Boggs, who died in 2013, was the mother of journalist and women’s history author Cokie Roberts. I love history! Return to text.
  3. It is notable that both the Democratic and Republican Party platforms of 1976 supported passage of the ERA. See the Democratic Party Platform of 1976 and the Republican Party Platform of 1976. Return to text.
  4. Stacie Taranto, “Ellen McCormack for President: Politics and an Improbable Path to Passing Anti-abortion PolicyJournal of Policy History 24.2 (2012): 263-287. Return to text.
  5. On the Human Life Amendment, see Taranto and McBride, 149. Return to text.

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