Ilyse Hogue understands the perceived irony in her present circumstances. She is 36 weeks pregnant. With twins. And she has the swollen ankles and sleepless nights to prove it.
She is also president of NARAL, the nation’s largest abortion rights advocacy group.
“It’s been really interesting,” she says of the reaction to her pregnancy. “I find it so humorous when the other side gets sort of knocked back on their heels when they see me.”
Hogue, 45, took over the top spot at NARAL in February 2013. She is tasked with ushering the organization — and the abortion rights movement — into a new era of engagement that would galvanize younger supporters.
And at first, no one thought she was an odder pick for the job than Hogue did.
“When NARAL called and asked me to throw my hat in the ring, it was a little bit like, ‘Do you have the right number?’ ” she recalls.
Hogue grew up in Dallas, but debate team practices drove any trace of an accent from her voice. She studied environmental science at Vassar College and the University of Michigan but found that she was too social a creature to spend her days collecting soil samples or working in a lab.
The daughter of engaged — if not particularly political — parents, she shifted into international human rights and ecology work, happily building a life and career based in San Francisco. But the Iraq war and the 2004 elections galvanized her into applying her advocacy skills here at home, so she joined the team at the progressive organization MoveOn.org. Hogue’s bosses entreated her to move to Washington before the 2008 elections and ultimately appointed her MoveOn’s director of communications and political advocacy.
What she swore would be a one-year stint in the nation’s capital has stretched to more than seven. She met her now-husband, communications strategist John Neffinger, at the U Street bar Local 16. And, she says, she developed, “a pretty sharp understanding, even reluctantly, of the dynamics in Washington.”
When the previous president of NARAL, Nancy Keenan, announced her resignation in 2012, she was explicit about her desire to see someone from the next generation lead the organization. But Hogue had never worked in reproductive rights advocacy. She had marched in an abortion rights rally during college, but it hadn’t become one of her central issues. And, she says, “I think I had an ingrained sense of being a feminist, but I don’t think I was a card-carrying member of any feminist organizations.”
But she threw her hat into the ring at NARAL and, as she dived into researching the position, said she came to fully appreciate reproductive freedom as “a foundational issue upon which everything else is built.” The campaign trail comments about rape and pregnancy by 2012 Republican senatorial candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock further convinced Hogue that her political acumen might be of good use to NARAL.
“They were just incredibly outrageous comments,” she says. “To me, as a political strategist, it was like, ‘Huh, this is what they say when we’re not even trying to make them speak their truth. What if we had a strategy of trying to make them own what they truly believe in the public sphere?’ ”
She presented the NARAL board with a three-pronged proposal that focused on moving the organization’s vision and narrative beyond Roe v. Wade, putting it in an offensive rather than a defensive position, and painting a public portrait of the opposition and their beliefs.
Hogue and Neffinger married four months after she took over as NARAL president, and she spent much of the next two years traveling, getting to know volunteers and statewide leaders and assisting with 2014 campaigns. Under her leadership, the organization led a fight to block the nomination of antiabortion judge Michael Boggs to a federal judgeship and another to stop ads for crisis pregnancy centers from appearing on Yahoo and Google when people search for local abortion clinics.
In January, Hogue told her staff that she was pregnant after years of trying. “I admit, I had trepidation about telling people,” she says during an interview in her corner office in downtown Washington. Hogue, who has gray-green eyes and wavy auburn hair, says she wondered, “Is it going to change the way they look at me? Are they going to treat me differently?”
But her staff and board of directors greeted her announcement with nothing but support.
“I think it speaks to who supports abortion in America,” says René Redwood, who has served on the NARAL board for eight years. “The majority of abortions are opted for by women who have children already. It says that it’s a family issue. Her being pregnant with twins and still being quite vocal up until when she gives birth — it’s the reality of many American homes. Having the opportunity to make those kinds of decisions for yourself.”
The reaction beyond NARAL, however, has been much more complicated, Hogue says. “There is this whole mentality that anyone who fights for the rights that we fight for must hate children and not want to parent,” she says. “So to have the leader of a reproductive rights organization — an abortion rights organization — show up pregnant, it’s just jaw-dropping.”
At one point, she says, she walked into a hearing on Capitol Hill and an antiabortion advocate looked at her swollen belly and asked, “Is that real?”
“As though I actually had strapped on a prosthetic baby bump to wear to a hearing for some reason,” recalls Hogue, who is due in early July. “It’s like, ‘What don't you get about choice meaning choice?’ ”
And, she says, she’s gotten plenty of comments to the effect of, “ ‘Now you know what it’s like, so there’s no way you can stay in your position and continue to do this work.’ As though as soon as you get pregnant, you abandon any previous sense that you had around a woman’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy.”
If anything, she says, it has reinforced her position. And pushed her to fight harder for a woman’s right to choose — whether she chooses to terminate an unintended pregnancy or chooses to be a parent. Hogue says she feels incredibly fortunate to have job security and paid parental leave and to not have experienced pregnancy discrimination.
She sees it as intrinsic to NARAL’s mission to fight to ensure that all women have those same advantages. “This is the aspirational view of where the movement needs to go, to embrace that whole vision of reproductive freedom in the 21st century and to build a movement around it,” she says. “And my personal experience and my gratitude and relief in choosing to become a mother and being supported in that just makes me feel so much more strongly that other people should have the same support.”
As Hogue moves toward her final days of pregnancy, she says she believes in NARAL’s work more than ever — even as she knows that people on the other side of the issue find that hard to comprehend.
“They think, ‘Oh, you can think it’s fine to do this stuff because you just have never experienced the bliss of being pregnant and motherhood,’ ” she says. “And most people, including me, can hold both.”
Her pregnancy, she says, “is amazing for me. Because it was my own decision to do it.”