The Counterfeminist Mystique

Here's a media pop quiz: What does it take to start a "wave of counterfeminism"? Answer: A few hundred women, some money from right-wing foundations and a handful of opinion pieces on the nation's most influential op-ed page, the Wall Street Journal. Last May, a Journal news story heralded the emergence of five new "pressure groups" that have "sprouted up on the right to support the Republican agenda." Prominent among these groups was the Independent Women's Forum (IWF), a Washington, D.C.-based organization whose elite 500-person membership includes Wendy Lee Gramm, wife of Sen. Phil Gramm, and Lynne Cheney, former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Journal further boosted the group's prominence in an October story headlined "A New Wave of Counterfeminists Is Providing Conservatism With a Sophisticated Female Face" that detailed the IWF's short history. "[The National Organization for Women] doesn't speak for a lot of women," IWF Executive Director Barbara Ledeen explained to the Journal. "Traditional feminism has burned out, [and] we've got to get away from the idea of women as victims and whiners." What these two news stories did not reveal is that the counterfeminist new wave "sprouted up" in the rich soil of the Journal's op-ed page. During the last year, the paper has published more than half a dozen op-eds by IWF members bashing liberal feminism, arguing against letting women into the Virginia Military Institute, and calling the "income gap" between genders as the "natural outgrowth of improved opportunities." For IWF members, all of this exposure has translated into dozens of invitations to appear on talk shows and to testify before Congress. In recent months, IWF members have published opinion pieces in the country's most influential newspapers, including the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. While not all of the group's members owe their pundit status to the IWF, some of the most visible members may never have had the chance to air their views on national TV if it weren't for the IWF--and the Journal. The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, for example, recently gave IWF Executive Vice President Anita Blair the chance to deliver her "expert" analysis of the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women. "The exercise took a turn to the radical fringe elements of the United States gender system," she said, "which is simply not going to be helpful to women in the rest of the world." In addition to publicizing the IWF, the Journal has also helped promote the Women's Quarterly, an IWF-funded publication. The Women's Quarterly has only put out five issues, is just 24 pages long and has a few hundred paid subscribers--but the Journal's op-ed page has already printed excerpts from it several times. The IWF may have 249,500 fewer members than its favorite target--the National Organization for Women--but thanks to all the Journal's free publicity, it's now a force in the public opinion wars.

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