Karin Agness

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)–“Out with the NOW, in with the NeW!”

That is 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 campaign for women in military combat roles, pay equity between men and women and ending gender discrimination in the workplace.

The founder and president of the group, Karin Agness, a senior at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, 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 the syllabi and in class discussions. She also aims to get women who hold conservative views on personal and political issues more press in school publications, which she says are often overlooked.

The result of the virtual invisibility of conservative women on campus, she and others argue, is the perpetuation of harmful gender-based myths, such as the assumption that women can only find success in the workplace–and 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 said. “Simply put, they say all women should be CEOs and presidents and lawyers and doctors. But 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.

First Chapter at University of Virginia

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’ve got a conservative women’s club,” said Phyllis Schlafly, head of the right-wing Eagle Forum, based in Alton, Ill., and an outspoken critic of women’s studies programs. “Of course they’re not for women at all,” she said, referring to the programs. “They’re just for their own intolerant, radical feminist and usually lesbian beliefs.”

Following Agness’ lead, women at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., and Drake University in Iowa have started up their own NeW chapters. Agness says she is 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 it 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, 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 is a new openness and a new conversation about having groups represent different women, since clearly those old-guard groups don’t represent all women,” said Carrie Lukas of the Washington, D.C.-based Independent Women’s Forum. “The National Organization for Women doesn’t speak for most women.”

Attack on Progressive Culture

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?” said 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, agreed. “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.”

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, said 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, agreed 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 asserted, noting that the majority of college students favors reproductive choice and is comfortable with same-sex marriage and interracial relationships.

To bolster her case, she pointed to last year’s March for Women’s Lives, a reproductive rights rally in Washington, D.C., that organizers said drew more than 1 million participants.

“Give ’em 10, 20 years and the neoconservative movement is going to be really hurting,” she said. “I really think the majority of today’s students, especially women, don’t buy into it.”

Allison Stevens is Washington Bureau Chief at Women’s eNews.

For more information:

The Network of Enlightened Women:

The National Organization for Women
Chapters and State Organizations:

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