The Independent Women's Forum (IWF) is an activist group founded in the early 1990s that is closely tied to neoconservatism and bills itself as "the leading women's group on the right." Barbara Ledeen, spouse of the well-known neoconservative writer Michael Ledeen, was its first executive director.
The IWF positions itself as a counterweight to progressive feminist groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW). On its website, the IWF states that its "mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty."
Over the years, the IWF has opposed numerous legislative measures, which it terms "expansions of government," like 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. In addition, the group has pushed for hardline "pro-Israel" foreign polices, opposed efforts to reform the U.S. health system, fought against efforts to educate schoolchildren about climate change, and spoken out against gun control.
In May 2015, IWF emphatically welcomed the announcement by former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina that she would seek the Republican Party's 2016 presidential nomination. Said the IWF's Executive Director Sabrina Schaeffer, who is a staunch opponent of raising the minimum wage, including for women: "At IWF our tagline is all issues are women's issues, and that's something Ms. Fiorina understands and appreciates. With Fiorina in the race, I hope we can get past gender politics and look at policies which actually help woman and their families both at home and in the workplace so that we can ensure a stronger economy and more plentiful job opportunities for all."
Other observers had a different take on Fiorina's candidacy. Opined Time Magazine: "As a now-official presidential candidate, there's no way Carly Fiorina can ignore her tenure at Hewlett-Packard, which she ran as CEO for six tumultuous years before the board ousted her in 2005. By that time, the company's stock had lost about half its value and tens of thousands of people had lost their jobs."
On Foreign Policy
Although IWF's main focus has been on U.S. domestic polices, it also weighs in on U.S. foreign and defense policies, arguing that the purported conflict between "the West" and "radical Islam" is about 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 IWF's Carrie Lukas in October 2011. "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 granted—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."
IWF honored controversial Islam critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali at its 2014 "Women of Valor" dinner. During the dinner Hirsi Ali claimed: "There is a link between the religion of Islam, which I worked and believed hard into, and how some of our rights as Muslim women, or all of our rights as Muslim women, are taken away."
The group has also staked out a fervently "pro-Israel" line on Middle East policy. 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 what she claimed was the "the anti-Israel sentiment that characterizes today's Democratic Party." 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."
IWF has strongly opposed the Obama administration's diplomatic efforts to peacefully resolve the nuclear dispute with Iran and has expressed support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's stance on the negotiations. IWF's Charlotte Hays wrote in April 2015: "Netanyahu has put something on the table: it is easy to ignore that he called for a better deal because we know that a better one is not likely with an evil regime such as Iran. But implied is that until a better deal is forthcoming the world continues to squeeze Iran with sanctions. That pressure speaks more eloquently of the west's resolve than John Kerry's concessions and sanctions would also make it more expensive for Iran to weaponize uranium while at the same time supporting terrorism."
Previously, in 2011, Hays accused the Obama administration of naiveté in its handling of Iran and other foreign policy challenges. Echoing several rightwing tropes, Hays wrote: "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."
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 2013 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."
During the George W. Bush presidency, IWF organized several programs 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."
Neoconservative Ties and Bush Administration Connections
Since its founding the IWF has been tightly connected to neoconservative ideologues, including many figures associated with the George W. Bush administration. In particular, IWF was well connected to the Bush administration through the Heritage Foundation's Elaine Chao, who was the labor secretary under Bush and spouse of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Board members have included Lynne Cheney (spouse of former Vice President Dick Cheney) and former Bush State Department official Paula Dobrianksy, who has served as an adviser or fellow at numerous neoconservative groups, including the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Hudson Institute.
The Bush administration appointed IWF President and Chief Executive Officer 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.
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.
Key Domestic Policy Campaigns
The group attracted attention in early 2013 when IWF 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.
IWF has also been opposed to any efforts to increase the federal minimum wage. IWF's Sabrina Schaeffer said in April 2014 that "while raising the minimum wage may sound compassionate, there are serious unintended consequences associated with artificially raising wages. It's not fair to hurt the people who need assistance most."
Schaeffer has also opposed increasing the minimum wage on the grounds that women would stand to benefit significantly, given that two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women. "This statistic just reinforces that women are that much more vulnerable to the potential job losses," she has opined. One commentator quipped in response to Schaeffer's remark: "Or, you know, they might also just get better pay, because the claim that minimum wage increases result in people getting fired is pretty much a myth."
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.