Quantcast

Wanted: A Few Good Girls | The Nation

  •  

Wanted: A Few Good Girls

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

It's hard to tell whether Christina Hoff Sommers, stumping for the Young America's Foundation and its kid sister, the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute, is the darling of the far right or whether she is doing penance for some great sin committed against her conservative brethren.

About the Author

Karen Houppert
Karen Houppert is a Baltimore-based freelance journalist. Her book on indigent defense will be published by the New...

Also by the Author

An overwhelmed system struggles to meet President Obama’s order to fast-track deportation hearings on 62,000 lone child migrants.

Seven years after Katrina, poor people accused of crimes are being denied their right to counsel and left to languish behind bars.

As gale-strength winds whip and rattle the windowpanes of a small lecture hall, she is hunkered down behind a podium talking to a half-dozen professors and a smattering of students--fifteen by my count--in the nether reaches of Long Island at a college no one has ever heard of.

She talks about her latest book--The War Against Boys--and she talks about her old book--Who Stole Feminism?--and she explains to these Dowling College students that she is a feminist, or anyway was a feminist until she realized that feminists today have gone too far. "We've had a decade of antimale propaganda like the world has never known," she insists. It troubles her. "We are pathologizing maleness," she says.

Hoff Sommers carefully explains to the students that much of the fault for this unfortunate phenomenon lies with women's studies departments. There, "statistically challenged" feminists engage in bad scholarship to advance their liberal agenda. As her preliminary analysis of women's studies textbooks has shown, these professors are peddling a skewed and incendiary message: "Women are from Venus, men are from Hell."

Her lecture is a dance of some delicacy. She deftly twists and turns her narrative to weave in the big conservative Talking Points: the need for school vouchers, school uniforms, school discipline, schools with sex-segregated classrooms; the need for male role models ("to help a young man become, this is a slightly Victorian term, but, a 'gentleman'") and thus the essentiality of the two-parent, role-model-providing family; the need for a return to the three Rs; a quick deification of standardized tests; and finally, as she winds down, a call to celebrate the obvious triumph of nature over nurture. We must revel in the many "hard-wired" differences between boys and girls, like their differing intellects. Her concluding gem? She smiles: "As the French say, 'Vive la différence!'"

Notably absent from her list--perhaps too much of a turnoff for this crowd?--is any mention of abortion or women's return to the home.

Instead, hers is a carefully scripted yet lighthearted romp through the issues of the day, colloquialized with a liberal sprinkling of anecdotes. Did you hear the one about the school that, thanks to the feminists, wanted to ban freeze tag as too aggressive? What about the one where feminist researchers tried to make boys play with dolls? How about that boy who was raised as a girl? She goes for Reader's Digest quotable quotes: "We're so unaccepting of boys and their simple high spirits. If Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer were alive today they would be put on Ritalin." And finally, formulaically, she invokes that neighborly, over-the-fence standard "common sense" to pit us against those wacky liberal intellectuals. Just the other day, she tells us, she was complaining about all the malarkey those women's studies professors generate. (This marks the fifth time in the hourlong lecture that an anonymous friend is invoked to offer pithy advice.) "And you know, that friend of mine said to me, 'Don't worry about this. Americans don't listen to intellectuals; they have common sense.'"

Enter the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute, purveyor of common sense on campus.

With academia considered the breeding ground of liberals, the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute is the right's attempt to do some breeding of its own--of smart, savvy conservative women. Originally launched by Michelle Easton in 1993 to play "women's auxiliary" to the mostly male Young America's Foundation, the institute is less a think tank than a consciousness-raising organ, dedicated to convincing disgruntled students that feminism is the source of their woe.

Though the Luce Policy Institute has mostly skirted the media's radar screen, this may be the conservative group to watch in the coming years. It's not big or powerful--yet--but its existence and agenda speak to the right's next great assault: Guns are trained on the nation's women's studies programs, and smart, secular young women are being recruited as the foot soldiers.

While the organization's 2000 tax returns show that it operates on a mere half-million-dollar budget--compared with, say, the Heritage Foundation's $32 million this year--it is quietly linked to some heavy hitters. Buried in that same tax return is a list of board members, one of whom is Frank Donatelli, the former executive director of Young Americans for Freedom and, later, the first president of the Young America's Foundation (YAF--no relation), whose mission is to seed a new generation of conservatives. (Donatelli, who also served as assistant to the President for political affairs under President Reagan, is still on YAF's board.) But the ties go deeper: Ron Robinson, current president of YAF, is married to Easton, current president of the Luce Policy Institute.

With her mission firmly in mind--"taking conservative ideas to young women and mentoring them into effective leaders"--Easton, a minor player in Republican politics, has hooked her star to some of the big names in the conservative camp. Folks like Bay Buchanan (president of American Cause), Carmen Pate (former Concerned Women for America president), Ann Coulter (attorney and author of Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right) and Hoff Sommers have recently joined the institute's Campus Speakers Program.

"We want to give young women the courage and plain old gumption to stand up and defend their conservative views," says Easton. A round, matronly woman with an easy smile and straightforward manner (the personification of common sense), she sees the speakers' program as key. "Otherwise, it can be very lonely being a conservative on campus." In addition to helping out with speakers' fees, the institute holds regular luncheons, conferences and "how to" sessions to help young conservatives master the right's rhetoric and organize student groups.

According to Jean Stefancis and Richard Delgado, authors of No Mercy: How Conservative Think Tanks and Foundations Changed America's Social Agenda, the Luce Policy Institute is following an astonishingly effective cradle-to-grave strategy developed in the 1990s: Conservatives narrow their sights on a few promising targets, handpick their young leaders and spend a bundle bringing up baby Right.

This is a lesson the Young America's Foundation, Luce's big brother and neighbor (the headquarters are adjacent), knows well. At its best, it unfolds as it did at Swarthmore in 1993: YAF sent Dinesh D'Souza to lecture at the college; in the aftermath YAF collected six enthusiastic conservative students and invited them to its headquarters to plan a yearlong conservative speakers' program; by 1994 YAF boasted that Swarthmore's Conservative Union had swelled from six members to seventy-five, and a new conservative campus newspaper had been started--thanks to $37,000 funneled toward the college from a conservative matrix.

Today, YAF employs marketing and sales incentives to motivate students with its "Club 100 Program." "This unique program thanks YOU for constantly striving to promote conservative ideas to your fellow students," promoters say. YAF awards students points for each conservative event they organize or participate in, then offers special access to "mentors" like D'Souza, free merchandise (like the poster it sells of a creepy space invader titled "Invasion of the Liberalien Professors"), signed books from conservative authors and, for those who tally 100 points, a trip to Ronald Reagan's ranch.

YAF boasts that members of its organization have landed jobs throughout the Bush Administration, and, thanks to its National Journalism Center, college interns have gone on to the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, CBS, Larry King Live and Newsweek. Students get help starting conservative campus papers--via substantial funding, training programs, internships and a special wire service that churns out "story ideas." Using the campus press as a petri dish, YAF has cultivated a new generation of conservative voices.

But despite its success, YAF has a problem. Recently, it appears to have poked its head out of the sand and noticed a dearth of women's voices. Likewise, in groups like Beverly LaHaye's Concerned Women for America, there is a paucity of young women. A troubling question has emerged: What will happen when Bay and Phyllis and Dr. Laura and the gang retire?

After the lecture at Dowling College, Christina Hoff Sommers joins three faculty members, three students and a journalist at a local Italian restaurant for the requisite postlecture chit-chat. Conversation is stilted, but Hoff Sommers does her job. She asks the students about their majors, encourages them to visit Andrew Sullivan's website, andrewsullivan.com, to get "the best" political analysis of the issues of the day and tries to get them thinking conspiratorially about why there are so few conservative speakers at colleges.

One Dowling College student, 20-year-old Josh Katz, volunteers that he has the solution to the feminists and the "war against boys" problem. "All we would have to do is take all the boy babies away when they're born to live on desert islands and be raised by themselves, away from the influence of feminists and women, and then they would be protected. And when they are grown we can bring them back. And they'll be pure."

He is sincere.

Hoff Sommers gives a pained half-smile. This is what she has to work with.

And indeed, the number of bright, articulate conservative students may be smaller than the number of bright, articulate progressive students, simply because there are more left-leaning students generally. According to the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, which has been surveying incoming freshmen every fall since 1966, last year 29.9 percent of students said they were "liberal" or "far left"--the highest since 1975. Fifty percent described themselves as "middle of the road." Conservatives, undaunted by these numbers, have a strategic plan: (1) They forgo a battle for the hearts and minds of the masses in favor of courting a vocal and visible minority, and (2) they spend a lot of money nurturing and training their handpicked rising stars. It's all about perception. For example, if "objective" reporters are covering a campus abortion-rights demonstration of 500 students, they will seek out a comment from the campus antiabortion organization of fifteen. But there has to be a campus antiabortion presence.

When it comes to the issues the Luce Policy Institute tackles, it's the usual list--with a twist. "Free enterprise" for Lucers means the freedom to enter the marketplace but accept less pay. "Women choose to spend time with family rather than on career," Luce institute program director Lisa De Pasquale explains. "They may not choose to work sixty hours a week at a law firm to make partner." That's not discrimination, or women paying a mommy tax for their mommy tracks, as feminists claim; it's simply a choice. The group also riffs on themes developed by Hoff Sommers, Diana Furchtgott-Roth and Christine Stolba, who claim that Labor Department statistics showing that women earn 75 cents for every dollar men earn is absurd. This is comparing apples and oranges, they contend. Women choose lesser-paying jobs, like those in the service industries (probably because they like helping other people more than men), and they choose to take time off or work part-time so they can be with their kids, so they're simply choosing a smaller paycheck. Discrimination, having been tidily converted to "choice," becomes a nonissue. (The Lucites don't acknowledge this as a false "choice" between a rock and a hard spot.)

Meanwhile, public enemy No. 1 for the Luce Policy Institute is women's studies. After all, if there is no discrimination, what are all those feminist professors yammering about? "The majority of women's studies classes and other classes that teach a reconceptualized subject matter are unscholarly, intolerant of dissent and full of gimmicks," insists Easton. "In other words, they are a waste of time."

The institute urges action (note: from alums, not students): "Sensible alumni of our thousands of colleges and universities should demand a minimum amount of intellectual integrity and ideological diversity at their alma maters." The Luce assault on women's studies dovetails nicely with the broader assault on multiculturalism, gay and lesbian studies, and affirmative action on campuses. Slyly cribbing slogans from the left, they've co-opted the term "diversity" to mean a push for more conservative professors on campus, and they changed "Take Back the Night," a rape-awareness program, into "Take Back the Campus," an ad campaign initiated by sister organization Independent Women's Forum (IWF) to debunk the top ten "most outrageous feminist myths." (These range from the aforementioned "women earn 75 cents for every dollar a man earns" to the "myth" that "women have been shortchanged in medical research.")

According to Lee Cokorinos, research director at the Institute for Democracy Studies and author of the report "Antifeminist Organizations: Institutionalizing the Backlash," getting young women to embrace this old rhetoric is a strategic move. "The Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute, like the IWF, is about feminizing antifeminism," he says. Cokorinos sees this as part of a larger game plan: "Right-wing, neoconservative and libertarian groups are increasingly grooming young, articulate female spokespersons--whom Susan Faludi calls the "pod feminists"--to influence media coverage of gender issues and thereby help shape public opinion." This meshes nicely with the trend to move beyond the kneejerk, emotional antifeminism of the religious right. Nurturing young minds on campus means training those well versed in academy-speak, hopefully giving their future research and work a veneer of scientific respectability.

Interestingly, the Luce Policy Institute gingerly avoids the subject of abortion. Though Easton is antiabortion and plenty of the institute's speakers are, none among its thirty position papers--which dip way down into minutiae, like a paper staking out support for Valentine's Day--even bring it up. Like the IWF, which downplays abortion in its effort to make a secular appeal to professional women, the Luce institute eschews a formal stance. Easton says she is "absolutely prolife" and denies that her organization's silence on the issue is a strategic decision to attract more young women. She says that Luce doesn't take on abortion simply because there are so many capable, single-issue antiabortion groups out there. Meanwhile, program director De Pasquale, points out that about half of Luce's speakers are prolife and about half are prochoice. Four college interns working for Luce who were interviewed for this article seemed uncertain about the organization's official position, though three of them sketched out a personally-prolife-but-opposed-to-government-intervention--i.e., prochoice--response to my query about abortion.

Would they be there if the organization were overtly antichoice? Clearly the IWF and Luce institute suspect they might not, but Cokorinos warns against surmising that there is, therefore, a political gulf between neoconservatism, libertarianism and the Christian right. He points out that they're all bankrolled by the same foundations, like the Olin, Sarah Scaife and Carthage foundations.

"The purpose is strange," says Feminist Majority Foundation president Eleanor Smeal. "It's not simply recruiting aimed at the student body but it's focused on the alums, hoping to get the alum to cut off programs on campus." Pointing out that 80 percent of students are prochoice, she says campus antiabortion groups are appealing to a small minority. "Conservatives think they've lost students on social issues, and they have, so they're going after the administration, the faculty and the alums." And the resources are disproportionate. FMF's main rival in terms of presence on campus is the Campus Crusade for Christ, which boasts a campus organizing staff of 1,800. "We have twelve full-time organizers on staff," says Smeal.

Clearly, the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute is a different animal from the Campus Crusade for Christ. A sleeker, smarter, more urbane creature, the Luce institute strives for hip. "Some people think all young conservatives look like George Will in a bow tie," says De Pasquale, explaining that young conservatives battle an image problem on campus. And Luce interns are a far cry from the choir; at one gathering a young Lucite in goth garb confidently navigated among Heritage Foundation interns.

But beneath the style, the substance remains similar. At a recent women's luncheon, co-sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, the Luce institute had invited Bay Buchanan to speak. Nothing new here: Immigrants are pouring across our borders; immigrants are overwhelming our compassionate hospitals, which treat them even though they lack insurance; immigrants are making us learn Spanish.

What about the young women attending the luncheon? Those who are the object of the institute's recruitment efforts? They seem attracted, yet perplexed.

All the students listening to Buchanan preface their remarks by saying they "totally agree" with what she's saying. But such xenophobia rests uneasily with these college-educated women. One student wonders how to reconcile her basic Christian values, like "love thy neighbor," with Buchanan's anti-immigrant agenda. Another, a first-generation immigrant, wonders what criteria Bay would employ to sort the "good" immigrants from the "bad."

The conversation becomes more interesting later, when four young Lucites, who are summer interns at the institute, talk about feminism and work and family. They seem confused. They don't think childcare is bad. They're not opposed to amending the Family and Medical Leave Act to mandate paid leave. They don't think women should be back in the home. "I think it should be a flexible choice," says Melinda Haring, a junior at Pennsylvania's Grove City College, asserting that women should do what they want to combine career and family.

I feed them lines: the Christian right stance (God says Mom's place is in the home), the libertarian stance (Mom can do whatever she wants; Uncle Sam ain't payin' for childcare/flextime/maternity leave). They throw back feminism lite.

Not suprisingly, these young women, who are struggling to articulate and anticipate a work-family balance that is totally abstract at the moment, sound not dissimilar to their twentysomething counterparts at the other end of the political spectrum. It seems mean to point it out, to pick apart ideas so embryonic and unformed.

But they're learning. Christina Carroll, a sophomore at the College of William and Mary, tells me that conservatives on her campus are afraid to speak out and that she's trying to do something about it. She took a women's studies course last semester and the professor so disliked her conservative take that she got kicked out of class once for her opinions.

Pressed, she's vague. "I believe, I'm not exactly sure, I think that day we were talking about education in rural Africa."

"She kicked you out because you disagreed with her about education in rural Africa?"

"Well, it's more that she got fed up with me in general."

Firm in her understanding of the power of the isolated anecdote, Carroll is struggling to gain command of the convincing details. Still, she's in good company. She is being tutored.

What Bay Buchanan and Christina Hoff Sommers and YAF and Clare Boothe Luce and all the other organizations courting campus conservatives know is that the way to counter "statistically challenged" progressives is not with better statistics (after all, those might be hard to find) but with good stories. Passion motivates.

And in the battle for young minds in the academy, it's all about perception. Targeted attacks and cultivating a few loud voices can generate media attention to the conservative presence on campus. A little money, well spent, can create an illusion of discontent. And, when speaking in neighborly, over-the-fence yarns, sometimes all you need is one good anecdote.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.