If you watch cable news, you’ve seen someone from an outfit called the “Independent Women’s Forum” promoting a conservative take on the women’s issue of the day. It’s no secret that the group leans right; it grew out of “Women for Judge Thomas,” which formed during Anita Hill’s testimony about Clarence Thomas at his 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearing, and was formally launched in 1992 by the late Barbara Olson and Rosalie “Ricky” Silberman, along with a cadre of powerful conservative women that included former second lady Lynne Cheney. Still, it’s always billed itself as “non-partisan” and “independent.” In its early years, it promoted IWF-affiliated author Christina Hoff Sommers’s brand of “equity feminism” and opposed the “radical feminism” of the ’90s women’s movement, which it argued was pushing myths about sexual harassment, pay inequities, and discrimination in the workplace and widespread abuse on college campuses. For years it played no formal role in electoral politics.
But an analysis by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), provided exclusively to The Nation, reveals that since 2010, IWF and its political arm, Independent Women’s Voice, have become aggressive players in Republican politics, embedded in the network of organizations backed by Charles and David Koch, advocating for the Koch brothers’ myriad concerns, and playing on their “independent” label to elect GOP candidates. If this country is to elect its first woman president, Hillary Clinton will have to face down this powerful conservative women’s group to get there.
Increasingly, IWF and IWV are playing a bigger and more open role in Republican politics—while boasting about the way their “independent” label gives them access to voters that groups “branded” as Republican can’t reach. As IWV president Heather Higgins told a convening at the David Horowitz Freedom Center late last year (captured in this video): “Our value here, and what is needed in the Republican conservative arsenal, is a group that can talk to those cohorts [non-Republican women] that would not otherwise listen, but can do it in a way that is taking a conservative message and packaging it in a way that will be acceptable and will get a hearing.”
And at a recent gathering of the Koch-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), IWF Executive Director Sabrina Schaeffer similarly bragged about her group’s success bringing an “independent” message on issues like paid family leave to even “progressive” women. Once IWF provided (highly debatable) information about how such legislation hurts women, “we were able to drop support by a double-digit spread,” Schaeffer told the group, according to notes taken at the event obtained by CMD.
Using their “independent” label to help Republicans isn’t the groups’ only misrepresentation. Although it claims to be neutral on abortion—“The IWF has never taken a stance on abortion,” Sabrina Schaeffer told the pro-choice website Rewire last year—since 2012, all but one of the GOP congressional candidates backed by IWV have had a zero rating from NARAL Pro Choice America, or were newcomers who support strict limits on abortion (the exception was Massachusetts GOP Senator Scott Brown). And while an IWF editor blasted Donald Trump as “Todd Akin on steroids” earlier this year, IWV even spent money to help Akin’s disastrous Senate campaign in 2012.