Meet the Architects of the GOP’s Imitation Paid Leave Scheme: the “Independent” Women’s Forum, a Pay-to-Play Front Group

Meet the Architects of the GOP’s Imitation Paid Leave Scheme: the “Independent” Women’s Forum, a Pay-to-Play Front Group

By Evan Vorpahl

Corporations and the extremely wealthy continue to make record profits during the Covid-19 pandemic while millions of Americans are struggling to pay rent or mortgages and can barely afford other basic needs.

Working women in particular have faced some of the worst of the pandemic’s economic effects, as they have taken on the bulk of caretaking responsibilities made necessary by the pandemic in one of the only countries in the world without paid family and medical leave. The pandemic has driven home the necessity of a permanent paid leave policy to ensure that people and their families can take time to bond with a new child, and have financial security when illness strikes or a serious caregiving need arises.

The Biden administration’s Build Back Better plan includes 12 weeks of comprehensive, permanent paid leave for all American workers. That is a historic first. Paid family and medical leave is a crucial part of what Biden calls the “care infrastructure” and is central to this legislation. As Build Back Together has noted “No one should have to choose between taking care of a loved one and paying the bills.” Congress has the power to help all working families in the United States. 

Recent polling shows 84% of likely voters in battleground states support paid leave, consistent with years of previous polls showing that vast majorities of Americans across party lines are calling for paid leave. 

Despite the popularity of comprehensive paid leave, one pay-to-play group has been the tip of the spear of the right-wing effort to sink this massively popular and urgently needed benefit. The Independent Women’s Forum (IWF) has attacked paid family and medical leave proposals for years.

Unlike IWF’s phony claim that working for less without basic protections is freedom, securing paid leave for all workers provides real freedom. During the pandemic tens of millions of parents have had to shift to having children home from school for significant periods and millions of Americans became ill or needed to help other family members who became ill — and more than half a million people in the U.S. lost their lives.

As millions of Americans began losing their jobs as a result of the pandemic,  IWF insisted that “a crisis is not the time for federal programs.” It also asserted that paid leave is “a gift moms should return.”  

IWF has also tried to deride any permanent paid leave benefits that are part of Biden’s recovery plan as supposedly “cradle to grave big government.” IWF’s opposition to one of the most popular programs in America is just one of many examples of IWF’s siding with a few wealthy billionaires over the will of what most people want. President Biden’s Build Back Better plan would effectively make permanent some of the temporary leave Congress authorized in response to the pandemic, and that paid leave that has helped countless Americans.

In contrast, the scheme proposed by IWF would not ensure paid leave if a person gets ill or if a parent or child gets sick. Instead it would permit parents to engage in the unprecedented act of borrowing from the Social Security Trust Fund, but only for a period after the birth or adoption of a child. IWF initially dubbed its plan “Social Security Paid Leave” and its concept was used as the framework for “New Parents Act” by Senators Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) and the “CRADLE Act” by Senators Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Mike Lee (R-UT).

IWF Conjures the Illusion of Supporting Paid Leave; Its Plan Would Break the Social Security Trust Fund Lockbox

Under the IWF plan, the “paid leave” has to be paid back to retire on time so it is not really paid leave but a loan to yourself. If the funds are not paid back, the borrower has to postpone retiring or receive lower Social Security payments. One effect of IWF’s scheme would be to punish women, the primary users of parental leave, by making them work longer as senior citizens if they do not pay back the “paid leave.” Most women already receive lower Social Security benefits because of the gender pay gap, which IWF also aggressively claims does not exist. 

IWF’s scheme is a tactic to give rightwing politicians something to be “for” as they oppose widely popular paid family and medical leave plans. As IWF admitted in its blog: “as they engage in the forthcoming debate over the government’s role in supporting paid leave, it is important that conservatives understand they can do more than simply say ‘no’ to the Democrats’ proposal.”

In 2019, IWF’s staffer Hadley Heath Manning spoke at the annual meeting of the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the controversial group where corporate lobbyists and special interest groups like Koch’s Americans for Prosperity vote as equals with state legislators on model bills. That ALEC workshop was titled “Paid Family Leave: Politics, Policy Proposals and Potential Pitfalls.” Manning urged state legislators to back IWF’s proposal and conceded that its plan was designed to counter the momentum of the FAMILY Act, the predecessor bill incorporated in President Biden’s Build Back Better proposal.

IWF’s proposal also serves another harmful purpose: it is part of the group’s long-standing effort to undermine and eventually privatize Social Security benefits. As IWF president Carrie Lukas wrote in The Federalist in 2018, “This approach could encourage an important mental shift with lasting implications for government’s safety nets more broadly. This could include how Americans think about Social Security, which has long been considered the untouchable third rail of politics.” 

IWF Is a Pay-to-Play Group and Its Opposition to Paid Leave Is Funded by Secret Sources

IWF is a documented pay-to-pay group. For example, it has a history of attacking efforts to regulate vaping without disclosing that it was funded by Juul. One of its op-eds in USA Today even had to be corrected to disclose such funding after the American Heart Association objected. It has also opposed efforts to address climate change even though it has long ties to the fossil fuel industry, including the Koch fortune and funds made from helping frackers. 

A sizeable portion of IWF’s funding is obscured by DonorsTrust, often referred to as the rightwing’s “dark money ATM.” Between 2011 and 2019 IWF received over $3.4M from anonymous sources through DonorsTrust. In 2020, DonorsTrust described its secretly-funded Growth and Resilience project to:

“Prevent COVID-19 Emergency Paid Leave Programs from Becoming a Permanent, New Entitlement – drawing on its past efforts to fight back against one-size-fits-all paid leave mandates, this project is a multifaceted approach to prevent the creation of a new paid leave entitlement by shaping the narrative, identifying our most persuasive and impactful arguments, and getting this information and messages to policy influencers, policy makers, and the public.”

Notably, the Build Back Better paid leave benefits would be paid for through more equitable taxation of the richest few. However, IWF strongly championed the Trump’s Koch-backed tax cuts, a historic redistribution of wealth towards the richest people and corporations in the U.S.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that IWF’s advocacy arm, the Independent Women’s Voice (IWV), is known to have been funded by some people who would benefit greatly from such massive tax cuts for themselves and their heirs, like billionaire Foster Friess who died a few months ago. What was surprising, however, is that mandatory election filings from 2010 showed that 89 percent of the funders of the Independent Women’s “Voice” were actually men. The largest disclosed funder of that women’s group in that election cycle was Friess, a right-winger who said in 2012 “You know, back in my days, they used Bayer aspirin for contraception. The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn’t that costly.” (Since those election filings, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and related cases have changed what is required to be disclosed and more.)

Additionally, as the Center for Media and Democracy reported in 2016, IWF received six-figure grants from the rightwing Bradley Foundation to develop messaging kits that would erode support for popular progressive policies like paid leave, childcare assistance, raising the minimum wage, and the Affordable Care Act by pushing “free market” claims. In 2016, IWF and IWV also spent more than $3 million on outreach to independent women voters on the Affordable Care Act. As True North documented, IWV even claimed in 2016 that it helped Trump win the election by moving Wisconsin women toward him.

An “Independent” Women’s Group that Opposes Policies Most Women Support and Need

IWV uses its “independent” branding to try to reach independent or moderate women voters. As IWF/IWV’s leader Heather Higgins previously touted to major donors: “(b)eing branded as neutral, but actually having people who know know that you’re actually conservative puts us in a unique position.”  

Despite the branding, IWF has a long history of taking right-wing and far-right positions against the interests of most women. For example, it has supported the deregulation of childcare facilities–during the pandemic–putting the women who disproportionately work in that field at greater risk, along with children, as the group also objected to other pandemic rules to protect public health.

IWF has also long opposed the Violence Against Women Act, until recently pivoting to a messaging bill to replace core provisions of VAWA under the guise of reauthorizing the landmark legislation. IWF has even claimed that women were the most common instigators of domestic violence.

It has also actively opposed Equal Pay proposals, the Equality Act, and the Equal Rights Amendment. It has also both denied that there is any gender pay gap and also appeared to blame women for any pay gap that exists by asserting that it is the result of personal decisions not discrimination or policy. It tried to stop the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.  

Similarly, although IWF/IWV has been described as not anti-choice, they backed Trump’s Supreme Court nominees who were chosen to overturn Roe v. Wade. They did so while receiving funds from the court-packing operation that is coordinated by Leonard Leo, the long-time opponent of reproductive rights who helped hand-pick the list of judicial candidates Trump chose from. IWF/IWV also actively backed Trump nominees-turned-Justices, Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh, who let the Texas law that undermines access to legal abortions, go into effect this past month. It backed Kavanaugh even more staunchly after he was accused of attempting to sexually assault Christine Blasey Ford.

IWF has even dismissed rape culture on college campuses as “hysteria.” It backed the Trump administration’s rollback of Title IX protections to combat campus sexual assault, siding with expanding rights of those accused of sexual assault. It also opposed Title IX for decades until it decided to invoke that law to attack trans athletes.

IWV has even advocated for right-wing politicians after GOP senate candidates rejected Roe v. Wade and longstanding exceptions that allow rape to be grounds for an abortion. Under Higgins’ leadership, IWV launched robocalls for Missouri U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin after he infamously claimed that rape victims can’t get pregnant because “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” IWV did the same for Indiana U.S. Senate candidate Richard Mourdock after he asserted that when a woman is made pregnant as a result of rape, she carries a “gift from God,” and that such a pregnancy “is something that God intended to happen.”

Given this track record, it is True North’s view that IWF/IWV’s claims about paid leave should be viewed with the deepest skepticism. 

For additional information, please contact Evan Vorpahl at

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