Independent Women's Forum and Independent Women's Voice Use "Independent" Brand to Push Right-Wing Agenda to Women Voters

By Lisa Graves, Kim Haddow and Calvin Sloan

The Independent Women's Forum and its 501(c)(4) affiliate, the Independent Women's Voice, market themselves to the media and voters as "non-partisan," "independent," and "neutral."

However, a new investigation of the groups by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) reveals them to be anything but that. Joan Walsh in the Nation broke this story today along with other new details about these not-so independent women's groups.

CMD's Reporters' Guide exposes the groups' leaders admitting to—and boasting about—their true role for what it is: finding ways to sell right-wing policies and candidates favored by their funders to reach independent women voters under the guise of neutrality.

IWV Boasts of Its Role in "Republican Conservative Arsenal"

"Being branded as neutral, but actually having people who know know that you're actually conservative puts us in a unique position," Heather Richardson Higgins, the President of the Independent Women's Voice and the Board Chair of the Independent Women's Forum, admitted in a speech to potential 2016 donors at a David Horowitz Freedom Center retreat.

"Our value here and what is needed in the Republican conservative arsenal is a group that can talk to those cohorts [women who are not Republican conservatives] that would not otherwise listen but can do it in a way that is taking a conservative message and packaging it in a way that will be acceptable," she said.

While the Independent Women's Forum and the Independent Women's Voice claim to the public and press that they are a mainstream voice for women voters, their spending and their leaders' speeches reveal the truth.

"Independent" is a PR term these groups use to appeal to women while pushing corporate-backed policies or extreme candidates that actually make things harder for working women and their families, in CMD's assessment.

IWF Attacks Work Policies It Admits Many Women Like

The Independent Women's Forum routinely attacks policies popular with many women, like equal pay, earned sick leave, and raising the minimum wage, as well as Title IX and protections for battered women.

And it has often done so by making extreme claims, which CMD also documents.

CMD's investigation includes analysis of remarks to right-wing donors by the Independent Women's Voice's leader Heather Higgins in 2015.

CMD also analyzed notes from a meeting of the secretive American Legislative Exchange Council in July, at which Independent Women's Forum President Sabrina Schaefer offered to help ALEC legislators "sell" corporate-backed alternatives to paid sick leave, equal pay, quality childcare, and workplace flexibility in their home states.

IWV Spent to Help "War on Women" GOP Candidates

CMD also describes how Independent Women's Voice made "independent expenditures" on political ads or calls to aid some of the most extreme "War on Women" GOP candidates, including the following:

  • It spent $67,242 to aid Missouri U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin with calls and independent voter outreach in November 2012, after Akin claimed on August 19, 2012 that rape victims couldn't get pregnant because "if it's legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."
  • It spent $176,991 on a "Romney wants Mourdock" ad after Indiana U.S. Senate candidate Richard Mourdock asserted that when a woman is raped, she carries a "gift from God" and that such a pregnancy "is something that God intended to happen."
  • Joe Walsh, a GOP Rep. from Illinois claimed in the 2012 race against Tammy Duckworth that abortions to save a mother's life are never medically necessary. Two weeks later, Independent Women's Voice spent more than $5,000 on calls and outreach to independent voters in his district.
  • In the 2014 Senate races, CMD's research finds that Independent Women's Voice spent more than $850,000 on GOP candidates, most of whom had 0% NARAL ratings; it spent more than $5 million that year on related advocacy.
  • Higgins also told donors that Independent Women's Voice made the only significant independent expenditure in Mark Sanford's 2012 congressional race in South Carolina. She said Independent Women's Voice worked to convince "evangelicals to hold their nose and vote for Mark in order to be able to hold onto that seat and not have the liberal win it."

IWF's Koch Ties and More

CMD's investigation also includes an analysis of how the Independent Women's Forum works as part of the Koch policy world infrastructure through its staff and alliances.

No fewer than half of the Independent Women's Forum's full-time staff previously worked directly for Koch-controlled groups or for entities that received Koch funding.

The Independent Women's Forum also pushes numerous policies aligned with Koch-funded groups like David Koch's Americans for Prosperity and the American Legislative Exchange Council.

CMD's analysis also shows that between 2001 and 2014, DonorsTrust and DonorsCapital Fund–funding entities with ties to the Koch network of billionaires–gave the Independent Women's Forum a total of $5,344,000 in donations.

In a similar period, Koch-controlled foundations gave the group more than $800,000. Although many of the names of the Independent Women's Forum's big donors are not disclosed, documents analyzed by CMD reveal funding from the fossil fuel giant ExxonMobil and right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh, among others.

A review of tax filings shows that Higgins is the largest individually identified donor to IWF in recent years.

The full CMD Reporters' Guide is available here. And here are links to materials with quotes from IWF/V in general and about women's rights, civil rights, unions and worker rights, LGBTQ rights, our environment, education, guns, health, and the ACA.

(Arn Pearson, Max Abbott, David Armiak, and Sari Williams also assisted with the report.)

Lisa Graves

Lisa Graves is President of the Board of the Center for Media and Democracy and President of True North Research. She is a well-known researcher, writer, and public speaker. Her research and analysis have been cited by every major paper in the country and featured in critically acclaimed books and documentaries, including Ava Du Vernay’s award-winning film, “The 13th,” Bill Moyers’s “United States of ALEC,” and Showtime’s “Years of Living Dangerously.”