Field Notes
October 1999

"If you want to conquer the world (and men)...remember, the tigress who knows when to roar also knows when to purr."

These words appeared two years ago in the premier issue of The Guide: A Little Beige Book for Today's Miss G. Replete with 1950s-style illustrations, this cheeky introduction to life at Georgetown University purported to introduce a conservative and traditionally feminine voice to a campus where women's politics, the editors felt, were dominated by liberal feminists. Accordingly, the first issue of The Guide presented an odd mixture of old-fashioned advice ("hold out for the date") and attacks on the exaggerated statistics and "scare tactics" employed by campus feminists to raise student awareness of rape and eating disorders. To offer an alternative to the school's freshman orientation materials on such issues, The Guide's editors slipped their magazine under the dorm-room doors of first-year women.

The response to The Guide was swift and hostile. Georgetown's campus newspaper, The Hoya, teemed with commentaries and letters--many from students who claimed that the new magazine was "dangerous": "Perhaps," read one sarcastic letter, "the recommended 'purring' has been an effective deterrent for date rape, sexual assault, and the like." The letter was signed by seven students and a professor of English and women's studies. Georgetown's student-elected assembly issued an advisory, calling parts of The Guide "controversial and questionable."

The Guide certainly grabbed headlines, but at the time, the controversy seemed to have more to do with sexual politics at Georgetown--a liberal arts school ill at ease with its Roman Catholic identity--than with any broader movement. Today, it seems that something larger is afoot: Last year, Portia, a sister magazine to The Guide, was born at Yale, and this fall, a similar publication will appear at Smith. All of these magazines are financed by the Independent Women's Forum (IWF), a right-of-center women's organization in Washington, D.C., which hopes to unleash a wave of conservative women's magazines on college campuses by the fall of 2000.

In pursuit of willing editors, the IWF plans to host an intercollegiate conference in Washington this February. "The Millennium Girl Conference" will address two of the group's defining issues: dating and courtship. One IWF member says the conference is intended to "launch a new movement to 'take back the date'" on campus. "I think that this is the most important thing that IWF can do," says Ricky Silberman, the chair of the IWF board.

Founded in 1992, the IWF sees its central mission as taking on "the old feminist establishment" in the press and the courts. According to the group's literature, the interests of women are best served by a gender-blind approach to public policy: The IWF opposes affirmative action, the federal Violence Against Women Act, and Title IX, which it calls "a crusade to impose unfair quotas in schools." But when it comes to the private sphere, the IWF exchanges gender blindness for gender consciousness. Women, IWF members profess, are biologically propelled toward motherhood, whereas men are predisposed to resist commitment. Many traditional social customs recognize these differences, they believe, and these customs are worth upholding. "Does public autonomy have to mean private autonomy?" asks Amy Holmes, the IWF's liaison to campuses. "Maybe not. Maybe a woman does need a man."

University culture has proven a strange laboratory for the IWF's ideas. The student editors of the new conservative women's magazines closely resemble their feminist peers in their career ambitions. At the same time, however, they embrace values from a decidedly pre-feminist era: femininity, gallantry, modesty, even chastity. Deborah Schmuhl, the editor of Yale's Portia, maintains that the conservative women's movement is feminist at heart. "The entire staff of Portia is proud, without any hesitation, to call ourselves Feminists," she wrote in a fall 1998 editorial. "It is our belief that true feminism does not attempt to silence or limit the expression of any opinions." Of course, the opinions Portia sets forth could not be further from those of Yale's liberal feminists. An article called "Putting the 'Femme' Back Into Feminism" argues that feminists have devalued motherhood and "bullied" women into pursuing careers.

Conservative though it sounds, Schmuhl's magazine won the endorsement of her friends at Yale's left-leaning Women's Center, where Schmuhl was once the coordinator. At Smith, however, the forthcoming conservative women's magazine may face much sharper political opposition. Erin McGlinchey, the editor-to-be, headed Smith's Republican club her junior year. As a freshman, she had felt like a fish out of water with her conservative Roman Catholic views in a dorm that she says was "70 percent lesbian." But after she left for summer break, McGlinchey discovered that her opinions were even more unpopular than she realized: Her roommate had filed a bias complaint against her for comments she had made opposing gay marriage.

McGlinchey has certainly not abandoned her views. If anything, the bias-complaint incident convinced her of the need for a counterweight to Smith's prevailing political culture--something she hopes to provide with her as-yet-unnamed magazine. McGlinchey's magazine, like the Georgetown Guide, will offer a cautionary account of campus rituals like Celebration of Sisterhood Day and Coming Out Day. Nonetheless, the "lesbian issue," she says, "is a touchy one" that she hopes will not become the magazine's "whole focus."

The IWF's Holmes is excited about McGlinchey's project. The magazine "may or may not address the administration-sponsored lesbian propaganda and what they feel is the oppression of heterosexuals," she says with obvious excitement. Should the need arise, she adds, the IWF could offer McGlinchey legal assistance.

But while the editors of the new conservative campus women's magazines may see themselves as members of an embattled minority fighting the feminist academy, campus feminists believe the opposite is true. Genevieve Villamora, a recent Georgetown graduate who served on the board of the school's Women's Center, sees the IWF's protégées as beneficiaries of powerful political alliances. "For me, the most upsetting thing is that The Guide is not a true student organization," she says. "There's a larger agenda at work, and with substantial funding, their side can get access to a lot of things that the average student group would not have access to."

Ricky Silberman defends the IWF's efforts to spread its message onto campuses. "We can put Op-Eds in the paper, we can put women on television, we can raise a different voice," she says. "But unless we get into this university culture, we are doomed to continue to be looked upon as second-class citizens."

Sarah Blustain

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