30 Years of Bad Ideas: The "Independent Women's Forum" Brags about Its Anti-Trans Agenda and Rewards Its Big Funder with an Award at Its Gala
What started out as Women for Judge Thomas, a group launched thirty years ago to discredit Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, became the “Independent Women’s Forum” (IWF).
IWF, a 501(c)(3) that uses its “independent” branding to promote partisan right-wing politicians and the legislative wish lists of for-profit corporations, has been funded by the Koch fortune for years as the group has attacked public institutions and programs that advance the public interest. IWF has also received substantial funding from Leonard Leo’s court capture network, which orchestrated the overturn of Roe v. Wade. It has also been funded by huge corporations, such as Amazon and Juul, whose talking points it parrots in the media and before Congress without disclosing such funding, which is a classic pay-to-play front group tactic.
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This October, IWF celebrated its 30th anniversary. At True North Research we marked this anniversary by spotlighting thirty times the dark money group prioritized the interests of their secretive wealthy donors (which have included very rich men whose voices they throw), peddled misinformation, and advanced a far-right agenda.
Last month, IWF held its annual gala, sponsored by a myriad of right-wing special interests and large corporations. IWF has created an award system that seemingly props up the far-right operatives that help serve IWF’s anti-woman, anti-family, agenda. This year they “honored” anti-”woke” hedge funder Vivek Ramaswamy and Kimberley Strassel, a Wall Street Journal editorial board writer whose fables have fueled Trump’s Big (lucrative) Lie. Former Hawaii Rep.Tulsi Gabbard was also given one of IWF’s awards. Gabbard has outrageously compared President Biden to Hitler, while she has campaigned for Kari Lake, a Trump-loving election denier.
Let’s take a closer look at “achievements” IWF touted at its gala and why they are not worthy of accolades.
IWF’s Anti-Trans Agenda
At its gala, IWF continued to push an anti-trans agenda.
IWF president Carrie Lukas began her gala speech with the claim that anyone who fails to define “what a woman is” is incapable of standing up for women’s rights. The irony of IWF’s claim is that it is the leading group opposing the Equal Rights Amendment, which states in its entirety: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.”
IWF’s approach constitutes a manipulation of feminist ideology to project a veneer of care and concern for women. The real issue for IWF seems to be, not whether you can define the word woman, but whether it can require legal compliance with the right-wing's narrow and essentialized vision of womanhood.
That vision is one in which IWF has opposed numerous public policies that help secure women’s equality and that most women and other Americans support, including:
IWF has also been instrumental in supporting extreme and controversial judicial nominees, like Trump’s Supreme Court appointees Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh, and Neil Gorsuch, receiving over $5 million from organizations in right-wing operative Leonard Leo’s dark money network. Leo curated the list of potential Supreme Court candidates Trump chose from. IWF’s vision of womanhood is so narrow that it has supported the packing of the Supreme Court with judges obviously hostile to the ability of Americans to choose when and if to start a family and who were hand-picked by Leo to overturn Roe v. Wade and other legal precedents.
In her gala speech, Lukas repeated the far-right talking point that then-Supreme Court nominee Jackson could not define the word woman, when in fact she did. Justice Jackson made it clear that she knew she was a woman but, as a fair justice should, she insisted she would not go on to discuss the issue because legal definitions around the word were being litigated.
The Independent Women’s Law Center (IWLC), IWF’s legal arm, distributed “suggested SCOTUS talking points” to GOP senators to help them attack Jackson during her nomination process. In that memo, IWLC urged Senators not to attack Judge Brown Jackson for her credentials, which experts have called “extraordinary,” but to question her for not adhering to an invented right-wing legal framework.
All of these points directed gala attendees to focus on IWF’s so-called “Women’s Bill of Rights” (WBOR), which outlines no actual rights for women except for a "right" to exclude trans women. IWF uses its anti-trans messaging as a political wedge argument that cis women need protections from trans women, even though trans women are four times more likely to experience violent crime.
IWF has peddled its WBOR as concern for women athletes, despite one of its leaders openly admitting to not caring about women's sports. In fact, IWF’s history includes actively
That is, IWF actively attacked Title IX and women’s sports until it turned into an opportunity to incite anti-trans rage and push a regressive right-wing agenda.
The reality that runs counter to their fear mongering over cisgender women losing out to trans women in sports is that less than 1% of athletes are transgender, according to NCAA estimates, and only 1% of the general United States population is transgender. Even some of the cisgender women athletes IWF has platformed in spreading transphobia have won events against the trans women they demonize as “biologically” predisposed to winning against them. It is also absurd to suggest that men are changing their genders to beat women in sporting competitions rather than to believe in trans women having the courage to live their lives in freedom.
Pinpointing a marginalized group lacking the numbers to fight back and fear-mongering about them to unite their base is a longtime right-wing strategy. But far from protecting cis women, attacks on trans people will hurt all women, as the scrutiny of trans bodies inevitably leads to the policing of all bodies, from bathrooms to the Olympics.
In her speech, Lukas also mentioned how “proud” she was of IWF staffer Kelsey Bolar’s anti-trans video series, dubbed “Identity Crisis,” which IWF is using to vilify public education by suggesting that public schools are pressuring kids to transition and then hiding it from parents.
Trans-inclusive policies in schools can help affirm the identity of trans students when they feel unsafe disclosing their identities publicly or to their families. Evidence shows that the anti-trans school policies IWF is pushing will likely harm trans students, 75% of whom already feel unsafe at school. Trans students are also already more likely to miss school out of concern for their safety and are less likely to continue their education than their cisgender counterparts.
The anti-trans series also ignores legitimate studies, instead focusing on anecdotes about the supposed harms of referring to students by the pronouns they prefer, for example. One “episode” even highlights the story of one “detransitioner”–a person who returns to identifying as the gender they were assigned at birth–suggesting that gender affirming care should be delayed because people will change their minds. But new research has demonstrated that 98% of trans youth who took puberty blockers ultimately choose hormone therapy.
Yet, IWF has actively sought to get state laws changed to bar doctors from providing gender affirming care sought by parents for their children. They even applauded the Texas’ efforts to impose state government control over people’s sexuality and gender in ways that doctors, psychologists, and parents have strongly objected to as endangering the health and lives of trans students as well as LGBTQ kids, who are already at high risk of suicide.
Independent Women’s Network
In her speech, Lukas also called attention to Independent Women’s Network (IWN), the social media site for the “Independent Women’s Voice” (IWF’s 501(c)(4) arm). This site is seemingly used to mobilize support for IWF’s policy positions, such as:
IWN has recently used the site to push their anti-trans narratives around public schools. IWN created a submission portal with a pre-drafted letter to Youngkin in order to put pressure on him to pass his public school anti-trans directive, which he did. It has since been reported that over 300 letters were sent by IWN Virginia members.
Throughout this pandemic, IWF has downplayed the negative health effects of COVID-19 and several of its fellows have spread misinformation about the disease and the vaccines. IWF also attacked measures to mitigate COVID-19’s spread and protect public health. At the height of the deadly pandemic, IWF even urged daycares to ease cleaning standards and increase class sizes.
IWF’s Hadley Heath Manning used IWN to post a cookie cutter letter for anti-maskers to use to attack school mask policies, even though studies have shown repeatedly that masking requirements helped slow the virus’ spread, especially before vaccines and effective treatments were available. This anti-masking template was yet another way for the far-right to try and undermine health regulations and experts. Right-wing billionaires and IWF funders, like Koch and Devos were some of the key figures behind the groups pushing to “reopen” America amidst a deadly contagion. IWF itself worked with the Trump administration to demand that schools re-open even as tens of thousands of Americans were dying, a total that now exceeds 1 million people. Additionally, with this template IWF undermined the public education system’s efforts to reopen schools safely during what was at time the highly transmissible delta variant.
IWN, marketed as a “members-only platform that is free from censorship and cancellation,” has been used to platform extremists like:
Jan. 6 conspiracy theorist Julie Kelly, who tried to minimize the violent insurrection at our Capitol as “a four-hour disturbance”
Trump senior advisor Kellyanne Conway (and former IWF board member) who the Washington Post argues “ushered in the era of ‘alternative facts.’” (IWF even gave her an award called “Woman of Valor” after she claimed lies were “alternative facts.”)
Ben Carson, who made his political career out of taking controversial positions, including the time he argued “Obamacare is really I think the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.”
“Education Freedom Center”
At its gala, Lukas also highlighted IWF’s new “Education Freedom Center” (IWF-EFC) which launched earlier this year and is used to peddle the majority of IWF’s anti-public school, pro-school privatization content.
IWF has long financial ties to several organizations and people who have invested their riches in dismantling the U.S. public education system. These groups include: the Charles Koch Institute and Charles G. Koch Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, Walton Family Foundation, and the DeVos fortune of Dick and Betsy DeVos. It also has had ties to the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), DeVos’ American Federation for Children and Alliance for School Choice, and the Center for Education Reform, all of which push for school privatization. Indeed, as documented in the Bill Moyers-narrated documentary, United States of ALEC, Milton Friedman called for the abolition of public schools and praised ALEC for its efforts to kill public education, noting that they had not quite succeeded yet, circa 2006.
IWF-EFC is helmed by Ginny Gentles who was a senior political appointee in the U.S. Department of Education under President George W. Bush. Gentles also led Florida's school privatization programs and formed her own school privatization consulting firm in 2017.
IWF-EFC also hosted Betsy DeVos’ inaugural book event. Devos for decades has pushed for school privatization in order to “advance God’s Kingdom.” Devos was appointed Secretary of Education by Trump and proceeded to cut funding for public schools while creating the first nationwide federal private school vouchers program designed to funnel public funds away from public schools to privately administered alternatives. When questioned by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, DeVos refused to say whether the Department of Education would protect private school students from discrimination, despite private schools receiving federal funds. DeVos is also on record declaring, “I personally think the Department of Education should not exist."
Carrie Lukas lauded IWF’s “Champion Women’s” series in her speech. Here are a few of the women who have been dubbed “champions'' in IWF’s calculus:
Far-right extremist Lauren Boebert, who was the first to report on Speaker Pelosi’s whereabouts from the House Chamber on January 6th.
Former head of IWF and current leader of the school privatization group called “Parents Defending Education” Nicole Neily.
Senator Susan Collins, who voted to confirm Kavanaugh, despite Christine Blasey Ford’s compelling testimony against him and his record of hostility toward women’s reproductive rights. IWV’s Heather Higgins took credit for providing Collins with the talking points to vote for Kavanaugh.
The anti-poor, anti-working class, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Beyond her own domestic war on the poor, Thatcher was a close personal friend to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who helped the Thatcher government in its war against Argentina for the Faulkland Islands and was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Chilean dissidents in the 1970s and 1980s, and the torture, imprisonment, and sexual assault of many others.
IWF has also celebrated Marjorie Taylor Greene, the insurrectionist House member who reportedly sought a pardon for her role in trying to stop the counting of legitimate votes for Joe Biden, in a video lauding the right-wing women elected to Congress in 2020 as “Champion Women.”
Diana Davis Spencer “Lifetime Achievement Award”
IWF also gave their “Lifetime Achievement” award to, no surprise here, one of its biggest funders–Diana Davis Spencer.
A new story by CBNC revealed a tax form IWF filed inadvertently showing that in 2021, Spencer was IWF’s biggest funder by far, providing IWF with $2.1 million out of its almost $6.6 million budget. (Amazon, the subject of CNBC’s story, gave IWF the second largest amount, $400K, and in exchange IWF has fronted Amazon’s big tech agenda, even name-checking Amazon positively without telling readers about its funding.) Notably, IWF had told Congress that 89% of its donors are small donors, a misleading statistic that obscures the reality that most of its funding comes from a handful of elites like Spencer and the Koch fortune.
Spencer is the executive chairman of the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation (DDSF)—a foundation that wants to eliminate all federal social welfare programs and safety nets. Once described as “the biggest pot of conservative money you’ve never heard of,” DDFS has spent tens of millions of dollars pushing extreme far-right policies through the State Policy Network (SPN), a far-right network of groups posing as “think tanks.”
SPN groups are major drivers of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate bill mill where corporation lobbyists and special interest groups literally vote as equals with state legislators on so-called “model” bills to limit Americans’ rights, without the press or public present. ALEC has been at the forefront of bills that have made it harder for Americans to vote but easier for gunmen to get away with murder, along with working closely with Cleta Mitchell to help rig the maps for legislative districts to help Republicans draw maps that secure their elections and power in states.
IWF’s 30 years have been filled with anti-woman, anti-family, anti-working class policy positions and measures. The most recent efforts highlighted at the gala indicate that its attacks on trans Americans and women’s equality continue to be a core part of its divisive political agenda.
True North Research’s Lisa Graves, Evan Vorpahl, and Alyssa Bowen contributed to this post.
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