Clarence Thomas’ female supporters in the IWF.

How Anti-Feminists Rallied Around Clarence Thomas—and Created a Movement of Their Own

How Anti-Feminists Rallied Around Clarence Thomas—and Created a Movement of Their Own

What women really think.
April 7 2016 9:15 AM

Confirmation Bias

How “Women for Judge Thomas” turned into a conservative powerhouse.

clarence thomas anita hill.
Anita Hill’s televised testimony that Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her is credited for ushering in the Year of the Woman. But it also has another, less visible legacy.

Photo illustration by Sofya Levina. Photos by Jennifer K. Law/Getty Images and David Ake/Getty Images.

Right on the heels of FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson, the HBO film Confirmation offers another opportunity to relive a depressing ’90s spectacle—in this case, Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court hearings. Anita Hill’s televised testimony that Thomas sexually harassed her, and her poor treatment at the hands of the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee, are often credited with raising awareness of the issue of workplace sexual harassment and ushering in the so-called Year of the Woman, the 1992 election of four women to the Senate. (Confirmation premieres April 16 and stars Scandal’s Kerry Washington as Hill and The Wire’s Wendell Pierce as Thomas.)

But the Thomas hearings have another, less visible legacy. A small group of prominent Washington women rallied around the nominee; they were headed by the late Ricky Silberman, a friend of Thomas’ who, like Hill, had worked with him at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Calling themselves Women for Judge Thomas, they pointedly demonstrated that not all women, simply by virtue of their sex, were ready to don an “I Believe Anita Hill” pin. This ad-hoc bunch—which included Anita Blair, Barbara Ledeen, and the late Barbara Olson—went on to form the Independent Women’s Forum, a D.C. nonprofit devoted to waging war on mainstream feminism. 

Stills of Kerry Washington and Wendell Pierce in Confirmation.
Kerry Washington as Anita Hill and Wendell Pierce as Clarence Thomas in Confirmation.

Frank Masi/HBO

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Back in the 1970s, Phyllis Schlafly and her allies had whipped up fears of unisex public bathrooms and female military conscription in order to help kill the Equal Rights Amendment. After that, groups such as Schlafly’s Eagle Forum and Beverly LaHaye’s Concerned Women for America railed against reproductive rights and gay rights and championed traditional gender roles. But among conservative women’s groups, the IWF was something new. If you squinted, its members—enterprising, educated professionals—looked like they could belong to the National Organization for Women. Instead, they had an extreme loathing for the feminist movement. 

The IWF argued that second-wave feminism had solved the problem of sex discrimination. In a 1997 interview with now-defunct conservative magazine Insight, Blair, who was by then IWF president, said that current feminists were “playing out their own Freudian drama on the policy stage, saying, ‘Well, my first husband walked out on me, or I never had dates in high school, so all men are bad.’ ” A 1997 IWF press release called National Pay Inequity Awareness Day “a cruel hoax … designed to brainwash girls and young women into believing that they are victims.” The IWF’s Elizabeth Larson, in the organization’s Women’s Quarterly magazine, called sexual harassment an issue drummed up by “a growing number of women, many spurred on by Anita Hill’s example … [who] find it more profitable to litigate than to work.” After the 1994 passage of the Violence Against Women Act—spearheaded by then-Sen. Joe Biden in what was widely seen as atonement for his mishandling of the Thomas hearings—the IWF argued that the legislation should be repealed or receive zero funding; IWF spokeswoman (and ’90s right-wing It Girl) Laura Ingraham referred to VAWA as feminist “pork” with a “tear-jerker” title. The group also took on affirmative action, headlining a Women’s Quarterly article on the topic “That’s No White Male, That’s My Husband”—a phrase that revealed a lot about IWF constituents’ racial identities and loyalties. (“You can’t have white guys saying you don’t need affirmative action,” Ledeen told the Washington Post when asked why the anti-feminist IWF had organized as women in the first place.)

Laura Ingraham.
Laura Ingraham appears with Sen. George Allen at a fundraiser on Oct. 7, 2006, in Maidens, Virginia.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In 1995, NOW President Patricia Ireland, in a considerable understatement, called it “a little startling” that the new and tiny conservative upstart IWF, with fewer than 2,000 members, was garnering media coverage to rival that of Ireland’s mass-membership organization. It surely helped that stalwart right-wing donors including Richard Scaife and the Koch brothers were funding the IWF, and that its well-connected roster included former National Endowment for the Humanities chairwoman (and wife of Dick Cheney) Lynne Cheney, Who Stole Feminism? author Christina Hoff Sommers, neoconservative writer (and wife of Norman Podhoretz) Midge Decter, and Wendy Lee Gramm and Mary Ellen Bork, married, respectively, to Texas Sen. Phil Gramm and rejected Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. 

While much of the IWF’s campaign against feminism was waged in the media, the group also took the fight to Capitol Hill; the IWF testified before Congress against the Violence Against Women Act and affirmative action, and filed amicus briefs opposing the enforcement of Title IX and the coeducation of the Virginia Military Institute. After the election of George W. Bush, the IWF’s clout grew as its members received posts within the new administration, among them Elaine Chao as labor secretary, Diana Furchtgott-Roth as chief of staff of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, and Blair as deputy assistant secretary of the Navy. Most absurdly, two IWF members, then-president Nancy Pfotenhauer and board member Margot Hill, were appointed to the administration’s National Advisory Committee on Violence Against Women.

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Despite engaging in serious business, the IWF’s spokeswomen never appeared to take themselves too seriously; they loved to bait feminists but always with a smile. Blair said, “There’s a telltale way to find a liberal feminist: It’s the nasty wrinkles around her mouth that she gets from frowning. You’ll probably find my side with laugh lines.” “We have no angry agenda,” Grace Paine Terzian, then publisher of Women’s Quarterly, told a journalist in 1995. When Wendy Kaminer wrote on right-wing challenges to feminism in the American Prospect the following year, the IWF’s Elizabeth Lurie responded in a letter to the editor that she had found the piece “howlingly funny.” All of this forced cheer was intended to highlight the contrast between the IWF’s anti-feminism and its caricatured version of feminism, which, according to Hoff Sommers in a 1996 60 Minutes profile of the IWF, had come to mean “that you’re chronically offended, that you’re looking for oppression and bias under every tree.”  

Plenty of people still see Hill as fitting this description, even 25 years after the Thomas hearings. Although she accused Thomas of repeated graphic descriptions of pornographic films, including scenes of rape and bestiality, and of detailed boasts about his own sexual prowess, Hill was and is often dismissed as overreacting to a joke about a pubic hair on a Coke can. Indeed, IWF managing director Carrie Lukas recently described Hill’s allegations against Thomas as “rather PG-rated.”

Of course, the IWF exists not because its founders thought Hill was overreacting but because, as friends of Thomas, they thought she was lying. In the years since—when downplaying the existence and impact of sex discrimination and of gender-based crimes such as harassment, rape, and domestic violence—the IWF doesn’t suggest that all women are lying. The group has frequently suggested, however, that women who speak out about these issues are whining, and should stop playing the victim, and ought to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. In that sense the IWF, whose current mission is to “improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty,” has ties to Thomas that are not merely personal but philosophical as well.

The women of the IWF continue to stand by Clarence Thomas, and he by them. After Silberman’s 2007 death, Thomas sat down with the group’s Michelle Bernard and Charlotte Hays to talk about his friend for the IWF newsletter. “Sometimes at IWF we are accused of being anti-women and anti-feminist, because our mantra is that all issues are women’s issues,” his interviewers noted. “I wouldn’t worry about that too much,” Thomas responded, proceeding to describe his own experiences being called “traitor” and “Uncle Tom.” “When I am criticized, I take it as a compliment,” he said. “If I weren’t relevant, they wouldn’t talk about me. Don’t worry about it. You just wish them good health and do it with a smile.”

Barbara Spindel is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn.