Mar 1 1996

Conservative Women Are Right for Media Mainstream

Media Have Finally Found Some Women to Love

After years of ignoring the expertise of women’s organizations, one women’s group has stepped into the media spotlight.

Members of the conservative Independent Women’s Forum aren’t pigeon-holed in the arena of “women’s issues”–you can find them critiquing the State of the Union address on Charlie Rose (PBS, 1/23/96), ridiculing liberalism on Politically Incorrect (Comedy Central, 12/4/95) and discussing prostitution on Crossfire (CNN, 7/13/95). They’ll hold forth on human rights on All Things Considered (NPR, 9/4/95) and the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour (PBS, 9/19/95); they argue about everything from the budget to the V-chip on CNN & Company, where one of their members is a regular guest.

The IWF came together in 1992 to answer a need, says Anita Blair, the group’s executive vice president. “We’ve heard from the media that it’s hard to find views that are alternative to the feminists,” she told the Washington Times (12/16/93). There certainly was a vacuum, but not because news outlets were crammed with advocates of women’s rights. Throughout the ’80s and early 90’s, although key policy debates took place on traditionally female turf–over “social” questions of family, health, security, the rights and responsibilities of the individual and the state–mainstream media preferred to ignore women experts altogether than feature an actual feminist.

Nonetheless, popular pressure continued to demand a space for women in media discourse. When a group of conservative females came along, they were a convenient way to fill the media’s gender gap.

Lip Service

The IWF calls its newsletter, the Women’s Quarterly, an “intellectual antidote to Ms.,” and claims to be a “non-partisan” group determined to take on the feminist “establishment.” Conservative syndicated columnist Mona Charen (Women’s Quarterly, Summer/95) recognizes her allies: She lauded IWF for refuting “feminist nonsense that is swallowed so uncritically by the mainstream press.”

The mainstream, however, sometimes seems to have trouble discerning the group’s perspective. According to the Washington Post‘s Megan Rosenfeld (11/30/95), “It can be a challenge to sort out exactly where the IWFers sit on the political spectrum,” wrote Rosenfeld (11/30/95). The New York Times (11/20/95) has identified IWF neutrally as “a policy group.” A glance at the IWF’s positions, however, reveals a consistent role–as the female lips for the Republican line.

In 1995, IWF leaders testified in Congress against affirmative action and for defunding the Violence Against Women Act; they took an active stand against integration at the Virginia Military Institute, and came out in favor of tort reform. (“Women have been needlessly frightened by [silicone breast implant] scare stories,” the IWF asserts–press release, 12/11/95.)

The IWF’s Melinda Sidak testified (8/2/95) in support of denying tax funding to nongovernmental organizations and non-profit groups, and she singled out the American Bar Association for vilification. No wonder. As a lawyer for the Tobacco Institute (the cigarette industry’s lobbying organization), Sidak once asserted that “smoking has not been shown to cause cancer or any other disease.” (Adweek, 5/28/90)

Echoing the far right’s U.N.-panic, IWF Executive Director Barbara Ledeen urged Congress (7/18/95) to shun the Fourth World Conference on Women because participation was tantamount to permitting an “other entity to dictate this country’s domestic policies.” IWF’s Blair promoted the papal line that the use of the word “gender” in the Beijing Conference Platform for Action would lead to a “sexual free-for-all.” (Washington Times, 7/24/95)

No one seems to label this conservative rhetoric “strident.” The Washington Post‘s Rosenfeld called it “provocative” when an article in the Quarterly promoted hiring more domestic servants as a solution for unemployment (11/30/95). In fact, an insider at CNN told Extra!, IWF members are useful on panel discussions precisely because “they’ll take a sharp line.”

The Right Moves

CNN also likes Laura Ingraham and other IWFers because they “put out the Generation X look.” But so do equally articulate young feminists like Susan Faludi, Rebecca Walker and Urvashi Vaid who seldom find their way onto CNN. What has Ingraham got that they don’t? Conservative credentials.

Ingraham got what she called her “first experience as an activist” at the new right’s flagship campus publication, the Dartmouth Review. Following in the footsteps of her one-time fiance’, Dinesh D’Souza, she served as the paper’s editor-in-chief; in line with the paper’s bigotry-building tradition, Ingraham sent a writer to infiltrate Dartmouth’s new Gay Students’ Association, published transcripts of the meeting and sent secretly recorded tapes to the parents of the members of the group (CounterPunch, 9/95). She also did a stint at Princeton’s Prospect, a magazine founded in 1972 by right-wing college alumni to protest the opening of the university to female students.

Ingraham went from college to the White House, where she was a domestic policy adviser and speechwriter under Reagan. She participated in biweekly meetings of young “Third Wave” conservatives at the Heritage Foundation–which called her a “young conservative leader” to watch in a 1987 report. Ingraham later clerked for Judge Clarence Thomas in his pre-Supreme Court days. Ingraham, like many IWF members, participated in Women for Judge Thomas, an ad-hoc group that attracted media attention for defense of Thomas against Anita Hill.

The Boston Globe (5/29/94) called the rise of anti-feminist groups like IWF an “insurgency,” accepting the “anti-establishment” characterization that the IWF projects, but it’s hard to get much closer to the establishment than these women. Sidak, another IWF honcho who participated in the Heritage Foundation’s Third Wave meetings, was a special counsel at age 27 to then-Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole.

IWF officers include would-be First Lady Wendy Lee Gramm; former NEH Director and arts-defunder Lynne Cheney (wife of Dick Cheney, Bush’s secretary of defense); and Barbara Ledeen, whose husband is Reagan-era National Security Council consultant Michael Ledeen (who played an active role in the Iran-Contra scandal).

Media Splash

The Washington Post‘s Rosenfeld (11/30/95) expressed surprise at the IWF’s success getting into the media: IWF members get published, quoted in news stories and invited on talk shows with “astonishing regularity.” The group’s financial backing helps lessen the surprise: According to 1994 foundation records, IWF received $100,000 in start-up funds from the Carthage Foundation, and the Bradley Foundation gave the group $40,000 to produce a media directory of conservative women to distribute to media outlets nationwide. (The directory lists other Bradley grantees like Christina Hoff Sommers, who promotes a similar anti-feminist agenda.)

Conservative credentials and ready cash help to explain why a brand new group with roughly 550 members has managed to make a media splash. The New York Times published six opinion pieces by IWF leaders in 1995, the Wall Street Journal published five, the Washington Post three. But it doesn’t explain why during that same period those same papers chose to publish no commentary on any subject by anyone from NOW (with 275,000 members) or the Feminist Majority Foundation (with more than 60,000).

Nor does the agility of conservative women explain why mainstream news outlets ignored two major demonstrations in Washington D.C. last fall (11/15/95, 12/15/95) protesting federal budget cuts organized by the feminist Women’s Committee of 100. It may be “influence” that gets IWF included. It is politics, and a lack of journalistic integrity–that causes a coalition of groups representing close to one million women to be ignored.

Research Assistance: Tran Giang