Barely two years old, NeW is a small but fast-growing campus alternative to the Feminist Majority and the National Organization of Women, with a foothold in seven states. More importantly, it has already gained the attention and support of the most powerful conservative women in Washington.
This Friday controversial pundit Ann Coulter, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao and others will address the leaders of NeW and their peers at the Conservative Leadership Seminar, a Capitol Hill conference where aspiring right-wingers learn from the pros. The seminar is sponsored by the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute, an organization that mentors young conservative women. Though conservatives rising up on campus isn't exactly a new phenomenon, until now there hasn't been a group on campus that has specifically taken on modern feminism the way national groups like the Independent Women's Forum and the Eagle Forum have done in Washington.
Karin Agness, a recent graduate of the University of Virginia (UVA), got the idea for NeW when she returned to college after a summer spent interning for Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) in Washington. "I loved being around other conservative women and wanted to find more women like that at UVA," says Agness, 22, who hails from Indianapolis. "Unfortunately, all the women's groups on campus were really liberal and biased. And when I asked a [women's studies professor] if anybody would be interested in sponsoring a conservative women's group, she just laughed at me."
With a handful of friends, Agness launched NeW in September 2004, initially as a book club that over the semester discussed What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman by Danielle Crittenden. But the women wanted to do more than just read and think about changing things; they wanted to take action and do it themselves.
So on the same weekend that UVA's production of The Vagina Monologues opened in February 2005, NeW hosted a lecture by Christina Hoff Sommers, a vocal critic of feminism and author of The War Against Boys. Her lecture, "Sex, Lies and The Vagina Monologues" drew a standing-room only audience and sparked a weeklong debate in the student newspaper.
"The Vagina Monologues was something at UVA that no one had challenged because when feminists say something, it becomes fact," Agness says. "It's really important for these conservative women to stand up and take on some of these issues."
Professor Ann Lane, a former director of UVA's women and gender studies program, is embarrassed that NeW got its start at her university. "I'm not opposed to the group's existence I just don't like it," she says. "I particularly don't accept their premise that men and women occupy such culturally different spaces."
Lane, who hasn't read NeW's constitution, bases her opinion on Hoff Sommer's lecture and campus rumor. "Someone told me that Lynn Cheney is a major contributor of theirs," she says. Such hearsay, however, is wrong. "I wish Lynn Cheney was a major contributor of NeW!" Agness muses.
What is true is that NeW is catching on across the nation. In the 16 months since The Vagina Monologues debate, NeW has expanded to seven other campuses, including Vanderbilt University, Drake University and Boise State University. While Agness suggests the women form book clubs before turning to activism, each chapter of NeW is autonomous and likely to cause a stir.
How to deal with the rise of NeW is on the agenda at this week's National Women's Studies Association Conference. On Thursday, a panel will discuss how traditionally liberal campus women's centers can respond to conservative women and NeW in particular.
But there's not much they can do that would faze Agness. She has received her fair share of hate mail, and in September 2004, a UVA student newsmagazine published an article about the fledgling organization, complete with artwork. Recalls Agness, "On the cover they ran an illustration of a woman dressed in a perfectly ironed pristine shirt with a checkered apron, connected to a machine with 12 babies popping out while stirring her batter and reading her recipe with the headline 'Manifest Domesticity.'
"We were really portrayed as baby-making machines, and at that point I knew we were onto something. We were a threat."