Why you should care

Because intellectual freedom means giving voice to all sides of the political — and feminist — spectrum.

The fall of 2004 found Karin Agness back on campus and fairly bursting with excitement. Fresh off an internship with then-Sen. Richard Lugar’s office, she was determined to organize a conservative women’s group at her college, the University of Virginia.

But a visit to the school’s women’s center stopped her in her tracks: “She just laughed at me,” says Agness, describing a faculty member’s reaction to her proposal. A spokesperson for the center couldn’t comment — the incident was a long time ago — but whatever the exchange, it only galvanized young Agness. Within weeks, she’d created a book group and discussion space for right-leaning women on campus, which she called the Network of Enlightened Women. And a decade later, NeW has delivered on her pluck, with more than 20 campus chapters, plus young professional groups in New York and Washington.

Admittedly, NeW is a minnow compared to student organizations that embrace a more traditional brand of liberal feminism, even on campuses that might be considered conservative. In the South alone, the American Association of University Women — which advocates for “liberal” causes like reproductive rights and LGBTQ issues — counts 26 college chapters. But for Agness and her followers being the underdog is part of the ethos — “we’re just trying to promote intellectual diversity” she says. Thanks to Agness’ mastery of the media megaphone, NeW has been able to punch well above its weight in the national discussion. Now in her early 30s — she is coy about exactly where in her early 30s she is — Agness has become a fixture on right-leaning lists of “rising stars” and a frequent commentator across national news sites and cable talk shows, liberal as well as conservative, offering the counterpoint to the Second Wave feminist orthodoxy that tends to dominate most talk on women’s issues.

… the way the term [“feminist”] has been hijacked by the Left makes me not want to be associated with it.

- Karin Agness

Few would argue that conservatism has a stellar track record on women’s empowerment and yet, with all the conservative ferment in U.S. politics, it’s a bit head-scratching that they’re still so hard to find among today’s college women’s groups. NeW is by far the most prominent. Agness chalks it up to apathy: “Oftentimes, the students who are more outspoken are further to the left.” Rebecca Dolhinow, coordinator of the Women and Gender Studies Program at the conservative California State University, Fullerton, offers a slightly different take: “If the status quo is working for you, you don’t have reason to stand up and speak out.” She also worries that NeW has an outmoded view of feminism, assuming “that there’s nothing in feminism for them if they’re conservative.”

In person, Agness doesn’t much conform to any stereotype, let alone the docile homemaker type. When I met her at a D.C. cafe early one chilly January morning, she was the picture of professional poise in a brown skirt suit and a shiny bob that seemed untouched by winter hat-hair. I was bleary-eyed, but she was peppy as though it were mid-afternoon. Ambitious and earnest, the Indianapolis native was a high school tennis champion before going onto UVA for her undergrad and law degrees. She worked at D.C. law firm Wiley Rein as she built NeW into a stand-alone organization in Washington.

A portrait of Karin Agness.

Karin Agness

Source Michael Conroy/AP

So does Agness consider herself a feminist? At my mention of the f-word, a grimace flashed across Agness’ face, upsetting her composure for a moment. “Ahhh, I mean, I honestly believe in equality for women,” she says finally. “But the way the term has been hijacked by the Left makes me not want to be associated with it.” She’s not the only one. According to a YouGov poll conducted in July 2014, just a quarter of U.S. adults say they would describe themselves as “feminist.” Among those who hold the most negative view of the term, the biggest knock against it: that it’s liberal.

Diana Stancy felt a similar disconnect last spring at Elon University, in North Carolina, when an undergraduate women’s group held a “slut walk” to raise awareness about sexual assault and victim blaming. Stancy, now a junior, found the parade of women in their underwear “disrespectful to women, instead of empowering them.” Now she’s the president of the private liberal arts school’s NeW chapter, launched last fall, and says most on campus have been welcoming.

Elsewhere, the discussion hasn’t been quite so civil. In 2013, the University of North Carolina student government rejected the College Republicans’ request for funding to bring Fox News regular Katie Pavlich to campus, provoking an uproar in conservative media. Agness helped fan the flames, and in the end, the students (with Pavlich’s help) crowdfunded the money they needed for the event.

National conservative groups and leaders have rallied around NeW in much the same way. The group relies on dues, grants and individual donations for its annual income, which was $145,000 in 2012, according to the organization’s IRS filing. Past funders include the Charles G. Koch Foundation, run by the conservative mega-donor — and liberal bête noire — of the same name. While Agness says its staff is growing, and is currently at roughly a half-dozen, including part-time employees and interns. The organization didn’t record any spending on salaries in 2012.

For now, Agness books speaking gigs and weighs in across media platforms on everything from companies that offer egg freezing benefits (evidence that the market forces will make companies woman-friendly) to why young women don’t want feminist boyfriends (not all women want to work full-time). She spends the rest of her days fundraising, recruiting and trying to engage men in the movement with something called the “Gentleman’s Showcase.” It’s a competition intended to honor old-school chivalry. The concept might make liberal feminists gag, but, then, Agness has never been one to pay heed to the haters: “We’re trying to focus on the positive,” she says.

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