The Independent Women's Forum (IWF), originally an ad hoc organization called Women for Clarence Thomas, is an activist group founded in the early 1990s that has been closely tied to neoconservatism. Barbara Ledeen, spouse of the well-known neoconservative writer Michael Ledeen, was its first executive director.
The IWF operates as a rightwing counterweight to progressive feminist groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW). On its website, the IWF states that it "is on a mission to expand the conservative coalition, both by increasing the number of women who understand and value the benefits of limited government, personal liberty, and free markets, and by countering those who seek to ever-expand government in the name of protecting women."
Over the years, the IWF has opposed such "expansions of government" as the Violence Against Women Act, measures to promote gender equity in collegiate sports, and efforts to allow women to serve combat roles in the U.S. military. The group has also opposed efforts to reform the U.S. health system, fought against efforts to educate schoolchildren about climate change, and spoken out against gun control.
The group attracted notice in early 2013 when IWF senior fellow Gayle Trotter testified before a Senate committee considering new gun regulations after a series of mass shootings. Trotter claimed that "guns make women safer" because they neutralize the physical advantages of potential male attackers. In particular, Trotter highlighted assault weapons like the AR-15—which she called women's "weapon of choice"—arguing that "using a firearm with a magazine holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition, a woman would have a fighting chance even against multiple attackers."
This claim was strongly disputed by Slate's Amanda Marcotte, who quipped that Trotter "apparently seems to believe most violence against women resembles Buffy the Vampire Slayer facing down a gang of vampires." Marcotte pointed out that violence against women is seldom perpetrated by gangs of anonymous attackers, but rather by individual men who know their victims either socially or intimately. "If someone during a domestic violence incident scrambles for the gun, it's rarely going to be the person who doesn't want this situation to get more violent," Marcotte wrote, pointing to a Harvard study concluding that, in one year of study, 83 women were shot dead by intimate partners for every one who reported using a weapon in self defense. "If Trotter were truly concerned about preventing violence against women," Marcotte concluded, "she would be demanding an immediate closure of [the gun show] loophole that allows batterers to avoid background checks when trying to buy guns. But she's too busy imagining that women might have to fend off the zombie apocalypse to worry about the real dangers that ordinary women face in this country every day."
Talking Points Memo reported that Trotter—like IWF—actively opposed the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), a law designed to provide resources to women and children suffering from domestic abuse. "Trotter based her defense of gun rights on the need for women to defend themselves against those who would commit violent acts against them," wrote Evan McMorris-Santoro. But "[b]ack in 2012, she was not as supportive of the federal government's efforts to protect women with VAWA. The law, she wrote on the website of the Independent Women's Forum, could promote false accusations of domestic violence." Trotter claimed that "Needed resources like shelters and legal aid can be taken by false accusers, denying real victims of abuse access to these supports," but offered no evidence of fraudulent claimants consuming such resources at the expense of others.
The group also weighs in on matters of foreign policy, often casting the conflict between "the West" and "radical Islam" as a struggle over gender. "I believe it's an under-reported story that one of the core disputes in the modern conflict between radical Islamists and the Western world is the rightful place of women in society," wrote Carrie Lukas in an October 2011 blog post. "Many in the United States, particularly those in academia and on the Left, seem reluctant to acknowledge that it is the Western world—yes, that patriarchal, capitalist mess that feminist[s] love to complain about—that best protects women's interests. We are imperfect to be sure, but rights we take for gran[ted]—to vote, own property, receive equal treatment under the law, decide who to marry and divorce—are absent in too many places where radical Islamists dominate."
More recently, the group opposed a rule change by the Obama administration's Pentagon allowing women to serve in combat roles in the military. "The issue of women in combat is more important than gays in the military," read a post on IWF's website. "This is because women, not to put too fine a point on it, tend to be less strong than men. Those who would ordinarily oppose the dilution of military strength are being told that women will have to measure up to the same standards as men." The post approvingly quoted a scholar who claimed, "Uniformed women … are not pulling their weight. Whether this is because public opinion will not stand for large numbers of dead servicewomen or because the women themselves have found a thousand ways to avoid going where the bullets are is immaterial."
The group has also staked out a hardline "pro-Israel" line. In September 2012, after a controversy at the Democratic National Convention over Israel-related language in the party's platform, IWF's Sabrina Schaeffer inveighed against "the anti-Israel sentiment that characterizes today's Democratic Party." And despite the Obama administration's record levels of U.S. military support for Israel and diplomatic backing even of Israeli actions that defy stated U.S. policies on West Bank settlements, Schaeffer claimed that "President Obama has consistently demonstrated that his 'support' for Israel is in name only."
Charlotte Hays, another IWF contributor, has accused the Obama administration of naiveté when it comes to dealing with Iran and other foreign policy challenges. Echoing several rightwing tropes, Hays wrote in November 2011, "President Obama came into office believing that if the U.S., a country with much to apologize for (and, believe me, he's apologized for a lot), would just be nicer, despots would respond. Obama put considerable stock in his own charm, too. This hasn't worked out so well."
Neoconservative Ties and Bush Administration Connections
The IWF was well connected to the George W. Bush administration through various public figures, such as Elaine Chao, the former labor secretary and Heritage Foundation fellow and wife of then-Rep. Mitch O'Connell (R-KY). Former board members include Bush State Department hands like Lynne Cheney and Paula Dobrianksy, and IWF member Lynne Munson was deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The Bush administration appointed IWF president and CEO Nancy Mitchell Pfotenhauer to the National Advisory Committee on Violence Against Women. Pfotenhauer opposed the Violence Against Women Act along with IWF's Margot Hill, who was also appointed to the committee. Pfotenhauer was also appointed delegate to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, commissioner of the Secretary of Energy's Advisory Board, and Secretary of Labor's Committee on Workplace Issues.
On the foreign policy front, IWF organized several programs during the Bush presidency that were ostensibly designed to promote the participation of women in Iraqi and Afghan politics, including securing a $10-million grant from the Bush State Department in 2004 to "train Iraqi women in the skills of democratic public life." The deal was lambasted by feminist organizations like the Feminist Majority Foundation, which described IWF as "anti-women's rights." "Talk about an inside deal," said Feminist Majority president Eleanor Smeal. "The IWF represents a small group of right-wing wheeler-dealers inside the Beltway."
Other Bush administration-connected figures included Gayle Wilson, wife of former California governor and Defense Policy Board member Pete Wilson; Wade Horn, an IWF adviser who directed the National Fatherhood Initiative and joined the administration in the Department of Health and Human Services; and Michael Ledeen, husband of Barbara Ledeen, who was a close adviser to Karl Rove. Danielle Crittenden, spouse of Bush speechwriter David Frum, is an anti-feminist writer.
According to the Bridge Project, IWF receives most of its funding from conservative foundations. The two major funders for IWF since 1998 have been The Randolph Foundation and DonorsTrust. Another multimillion-dollar contributor is the Sarah Scaife Foundation. Other large contributors include the Claude R. Lambe Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, and The Lynde And Harry Bradley Foundation.