NeW not NOW: Lady Hoo takes on the Left
"Out with the NOW, in with the NeW!"
That's the motto of the Network of Enlightened Women (NeW), a fledgling college group in Virginia that wants to change the campus culture of feminism and challenge the agenda of groups such as the National Organization for Women, which has more than 100 official and unofficial campus chapters in the nation.
Staking out turf for more traditionally minded women, members of the startup– who number between 20 and 30– have not formulated a collective issue agenda but do consider themselves social conservatives. As such, they tend to oppose policies backed by their feminist peers who, for instance, campaign for women in military combat roles and celebrate The Vagina Monologues.
The founder and president of the group, fourth-year Karin Agness, is a history major and aspiring lawyer. She hopes to influence the agenda of the campus women's studies department, which she says ignores conservative women and their views in syllabi and in class discussions.
Agness also hopes to get more press in school publications for women who hold conservative views on personal and political issues.
The result of the virtual invisibility of conservative women at UVA, she and others argue, is the perpetuation of harmful gender-based myths, such as the assumption that women can find success only in the workplace– not in the home– and that the traditional family headed by a heterosexual couple is "dead."
They say a liberal orthodoxy in women's studies classes unfairly paints men as evil and society as an oppressive patriarchy, and ignores differences between the sexes.
"In the women's studies department, they're not focusing at all on children," Agness says. "Simply put, they say all women should be CEOs and presidents and lawyers and doctors. They don't include anything about children and husbands. They're not talking about how to balance work and family."
Agness hopes the group will serve as a sanctuary from college Republican and other conservative clubs, which she says tend to be male-dominated, career-oriented, and not focused on issues of concern to women.
After spending the summer of 2004 as an intern on Capitol Hill, Agness began to search for a group that would address her interests as a traditionally minded woman. When she didn't find one, she started up her own. It's structured as an informal book club that features works about conservative women and hosts speakers. Members had their first meeting last year and met regularly while school was in session. The group has had two meetings this year.
"Now, fortunately we have a conservative women's club," says Phyllis Schlafly, head of the right-wing Eagle Forum in Alton, Illinois, and an outspoken critic of women's studies programs. "Of course they're not for women at all," she says of the programs. "They're just for their own intolerant, radical feminist and usually lesbian beliefs."
Following Agness' lead, women at the College of William & Mary, and at Iowa's Drake University have started up their own NeW chapters. Agness says she's working with other women to help them inaugurate more chapters on campuses this fall.
Despite its name, NeW's mission is not new. It aligns itself with organizations such as the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute, the Independent Women's Forum, and Concerned Women for America, all of which are organizations in and around Washington, D.C., that have tried to reach out to college-aged women for years.
What is novel, however, is that this group appears to be run for and by college-age women.
Supporters say the group is the natural outgrowth of an emboldened religious right that now exerts strong influence over the White House and both chambers of Congress, and is further energized by conservative radio and television news programs that have mushroomed over the past decade.
"I think there's a new openness and a new conversation about having groups represent different women, since clearly those old-guard groups don't represent all women," says Carrie Lukas of the Washington, D.C.-based Independent Women's Forum. "The National Organization for Women doesn't speak for most women."
Critics depict the group as the latest attack on progressive culture in the United States. First came welfare, they say, then came media, and now the target is academia.
"How much can they continue to go after the welfare state and the liberal media when it's kind of obvious to most Americans that they dismantled the welfare state and there is no liberal media?" says Esther Kaplan, author of With God on Their Side: How Christian Fundamentalists Trampled Science, Policy and Democracy in George W. Bush's White House.
Martha Burk, chair of the Washington, D.C.-based National Council of Women's Organizations, agrees. "Conservatives have been taking on women's studies departments ever since women's studies departments existed. It's part of larger strategy by conservative forces in society to legitimize their own point of view," she says.
While NeW is still quite small, some say it could grow fast.
Katie Blouse, the 20-year-old president of the NOW chapter at Rutgers University, says she doesn't think it would be "too much of a jump" for a group like NeW to start a chapter even on her strongly liberal campus in New Jersey.
Suzannah Porter, the 28-year-old president of NOW New Jersey, agrees that right-wing campus groups have become more vocal in recent years, energized by conservative and Republican groups that are funneling millions of dollars to college groups to tilt opinion in their favor.
Students for Academic Freedom, based in Washington, D.C., is one such group. It opposes the sway of liberal thought on college campuses–especially in women's studies and English literature departments– by pushing colleges and universities to adopt an "Academic Bill of Rights." The bill requires professors to teach a wider range of viewpoints on a given subject, avoid controversial issues unless they are germane to the course's subject matter, and end what some say are unfair grades for conservative students.
Still, Porter is not overly concerned about NeW gaining the upper hand on campus.
The current generation of students is "far more progressive than previous generations," she says, noting that the majority of college students favor reproductive choice and are comfortable with same-sex marriage and interracial relationships.
To bolster her case, she points to last year's March for Women's Lives, a reproductive rights rally in Washington, D.C., that organizers said drew more than one million participants.
"Give 'em 10, 20 years and the neoconservative movement is going to be really hurting," she says. "I really think the majority of today's students, especially women, don't buy into it."
This story originally appeared in the September 8 edition of an online magazine called Women's eNews.
The Women's Studies department doesn't impress Karin Agness
PHOTO BY GEORGE KAMIDE