Social Text 21.4 (2003) 99-125
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Conservatism as the "Sensible Middle"
The Independent Women's Forum, Politics, and the Media
During Clarence Thomas's contentious confirmation hearings, an ad hoc group of female lawyers rallied to the defense of the embattled Supreme Court nominee. By calling itself "Women for Clarence Thomas," the group—several of whose members were personal friends of the nominee—pointedly demonstrated that not all women, simply by virtue of their sex, found Anita Hill's allegations of sexual harassment credible. Following Thomas's confirmation, the group, feeling that neither feminists nor socially conservative women's organizations like Concerned Women for America spoke for them, broadened its agenda and evolved into the Independent Women's Forum (IWF). The IWF's mission is to oppose the mainstream feminist movement, which, in the organization's view, is unnecessary because women have already achieved full equality with men. To support this position, the IWF claims that women have attained legal and economic parity with men and minimizes the significance of such gender-based social problems as sexual harassment and domestic violence. The IWF further argues that the feminist movement is detrimental to women because it encourages them to see themselves as victims. This victim mentality, according to the IWF, leads feminists to advocate unreasonable and irrational policies that are divisive, anti-male, and antifamily.
The IWF has an elite membership of approximately 1,600, and, while the organization claims not to maintain demographic information on this cohort, its most active and visible members are white professionals. The IWF does not seek a mass base, preferring to exert influence from "inside the Beltway." The organization concentrates its efforts in the arenas of public relations (sending out press releases, writing editorials, supplying spokespeople to appear on television and radio talk shows) and legislative and judicial activity (testifying before Congress, filing friend of the court briefs); the IWF also produces two publications, the quarterly newsletter Ex Femina and the magazine the Women's Quarterly (WQ).
By the mid-1990s, the IWF had successfully constructed and circulated a "woman's" viewpoint that distinguished itself from both feminist and traditionally conservative worldviews. The organization generated a remarkable amount of press for its membership of enterprising career women who not only did not hold feminist beliefs but were in fact seeking to destroy the very movement that enabled them to realize their ambitions [End Page 99] in the first place. Every few years, it seems, the American media rehashes the question "Is feminism dead?" The IWF appeared to provide compelling evidence for the affirmative side of that longtime cultural debate.
In addition to having a cultural impact, the IWF made its voice heard in the policy arena, sending spokespeople to testify before Congress on a number of issues, including the Violence Against Women Act and affirmative action for women, and filing friend of the court briefs in high-court battles concerning the coeducation of the Virginia Military Institute and the fate of Title IX. Moreover, representatives of the IWF have routinely appeared on network and cable news programs providing commentary on issues of the day.
How did the IWF manage to succeed when so many other new organizations find themselves unable to survive? The IWF's rapid and seamless rise to media prominence and political legitimacy can be explained in large part by the organization's prestigious membership, which has included such prominent conservative women—many of whom are married to prominent conservative men—as Lynne Cheney, head of the National Endowment for the Humanities under Presidents Reagan and Bush and wife of the current vice president; Ricky Silberman, vice chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under the first President Bush and wife of Laurence Silberman, conservative judge on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia; the late Barbara Olson, a conservative writer who was married to Theodore Olson, the solicitor general who represented George W. Bush before the Supreme Court during the 2000 presidential election fiasco; economist Wendy Lee Gramm, wife of...