Sexist or racist attacks on Senator Kamala Harris are sadly to be expected in the ugly era of Trump politics, given the historic nature of her nomination to be vice president. What may be unexpected is that attacks on her qualifications may come from women’s groups like the Independent Women’s Forum, which uses its innocuous-sounding “independent” facade to market a right-wing agenda to women.
Heather Richardson Higgins, Chair of IWF and the President of the Independent Women’s Voice, explained her groups’ role in a speech to donors in 2015, before the presidential election. “Being branded as neutral, but actually having people who know know [sic] that you’re actually conservative puts us in a unique position,” she pitched, touting how IWF/V can “repackage” right-wing messaging to appeal to women outside the GOP.
This strategy has been remarkably successful. Though little known, IWF/V claims to have played a pivotal role in swaying independent voters in Wisconsin in the 2016 election, helping give Trump the bump he needed to win the Electoral College. Higgins and IWF also provided a woman’s voice in attacks on Hillary Clinton, the first woman nominated to be president by a major party.
Despite its veneer, IWF’s anti-woman agenda is obvious from its history. It grew out of “Women for Clarence Thomas,” which attacked Anita Hill for testifying that Thomas had harassed her. IWF repeated this pay-to-play playbook to help Brett Kavanaugh get confirmed, despite Dr. Christine Blaisey Ford’s testimony that he attempted to sexually assault her and despite evidence he had lied under oath to the Senate.
IWF/V is not independent in its attacks on progressive women and its defense of regressive men. In fact, its biggest “known” donor is a dark money-funded group trying to pack the Supreme Court with judges opposed to legal precedents that protect women’s reproductive rights and more.
It also tries to undermine support for progressive policies that benefit women. With its long ties to oil billionaire Charles Koch, it told legislators at the Koch-backed American Legislative Exchange Council it would do “sophisticated testing” on how to “sell” ALEC’s corporate agenda to women and the press. This was after admitting that progressive economic policies, like paid sick leave, are popular with conservative women.
IWF has also long acted as the female face of opposition to the core provisions of the Violence Against Women Act and has asserted that women are more often than men the instigators of domestic violence. It has even challenged common sense provisions to limit gun access by abusers with a protective order against them.
In reality, IWF espouses an extreme and partisan agenda, which explains why Higgins attacked potential vice presidential candidate Gretchen Whitmer as a “little tyrant” when the Democratic governor of Michigan issued shelter-at-home orders recommended by health experts. They made no such attacks on the short-statured Republican Governor of Ohio, Mike DeWine, for issuing similar orders in response to Covid-19.
IWF/V even attacked Joe Biden’s pledge to select a female running mate and tried to diminish Harris’ qualifications by repeating talking points that she would not be selected because of her resume but because she “checks enough [identity politics] boxes” and “meets race and sex criteria.”
Hours after the vice presidential announcement, IWF issued a statement from its Senior Policy Analyst, Patrice Onwuka, a black woman, downplaying Harris’ qualifications by asserting what “Harris does offer to leftists is that she checks two key diversity boxes: female and black.”
IWF’s leaders have also promoted sexist tropes against women leaders that they are too ambitious or “transactional.” IWV President Tammy Bruce asserted that “Kamala Harris is a transactional person. She will do and say and become whatever is required to get what it is that she wants.” But Bruce and IWF/V have never said that about Trump, despite the many things he has said and done that undeniably meet that definition.
IWF also attacked Harris during the primary for trying to combat the gender pay gap. IWF asserted: “those pushing Equal Pay Day peddled a victimization narrative and put forward leftist proposals that will backfire on black women,” although black women are demonstrably paid far less than male co-workers.
In sum, buyer beware when it comes to the coming attacks on Harris from IWF/V and its spokespeople. It’s a front group that has a special role in the right-wing infrastructure: to give a woman’s voice to attacking moderate and progressive women political leaders and to erode support for popular progressive policies that actually make women’s lives better.