Women’s groups are often considered to be associated with third-wave feminism and, by extension, the progressive movement. But the Independent Women’s Forum often defies that impression by challenging the Democratic establishment.
Meet Sabrina Schaeffer, an emerging voice on women’s issues and an avowed foe of Obamacare. The California native is the executive director of the Independent Women’s Forum, which was founded 21 years ago in the wake of the Clarence Thomas hearings, when the Supreme Court nominee was confronted with accusations of sexual harassment that sparked a national conversation.
“There was a sentiment among a number of women in town that traditional women’s groups “¦ did not adequately represent women’s voices,” Schaeffer said on the phone Monday. “There was a harsh voice associated with women’s-rights activists that didn’t necessarily represent everyone.”
Today, the IWF is a voice for women attuned to gender-specific issues but opposed to the progressive politics espoused by groups such as the National Organization for Women and the American Association of University Women. One of the most contentious issues of the day, the Affordable Care Act, illustrates the schism between IWF and its better-known counterparts.
“Women’s groups on the left are very concerned with negotiating specific advantages for women, like free birth control, free annual exams, elimination of gender-based pricing, and so forth,” Schaeffer said. “But they’ve lost sight of the bigger picture, which is that women and men both lose when we have a one-size-fits-all system. We try to highlight that there are two sides to the Obamacare equation — not just the benefits, but also the costs.”
A native of Palos Verdes, near Los Angeles, Schaeffer attended Middlebury College in Vermont, interning at the Republican National Committee between her junior and senior years. As soon as she left home, her father mounted an unsuccessful bid for the House seat vacated by then-Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif. “I always joke that, when I went to college, I was replaced by a political campaign,” Schaeffer said.
Her first job in Washington was as an assistant to former United Nations Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick at the American Enterprise Institute. Schaeffer has described the implacable anticommunist diplomat, who renounced the Democratic Party in the early 1980s, as a model for conservative women.
After a stint at the White House Writers Group, Schaeffer pursued a Ph.D. in American history at the University of Virginia but migrated to the political-science department after two years. “I realized I did not want to be a history professor,” she said. “I knew that was not going to get me where I wanted to be in Washington.”
She left the university with two master’s degrees and returned to Washington as director of media relations and public affairs at the Republican Jewish Coalition and later as a speechwriter for then-Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio. Before arriving at IWF, Schaeffer set up a conservative political consultancy with her husband that emphasized empirical research and controlled experiments.
When it comes to women voters, Schaeffer does not pretend that Republicans and Democrats are on equal footing. In last year’s presidential election, the incumbent won among women by 12 percentage points. (By contrast, Republican nominee Mitt Romney won among men by 8 percentage points.) “It’s no secret Republicans have a women problem,” Schaeffer conceded in an April op-ed for Forbes.
But, in her view, this has more to do with the clout and wherewithal of progressive women’s groups than with the philosophical underpinnings of the progressive movement. “The reality is when it comes to securing women voters, conservatives are outnumbered, outresearched, and outspent,” she wrote.