WASHINGTON—Catholic women have long known that the National Organization for Women does not speak for them.

Now, the media dominance held by NOW and its brand of radical feminism is being challenged by the Independent Women's Forum, a small but feisty upstart in the marketplace of ideas.

Although not explicitly religious, the forum is proving to be an ally for women with traditional religious and social views, including many Catholics.

It's sympathetic but less-than-explicit stand on abortion makes the forum an ally to some but leaves others wondering how a forthrightly conservative “women's” political organization can avoid taking a clear side on the most important women's issue of the century.

Said Anita Blair, the forum's president, lawyer and Catholic, “The forum is nonsectarian because we wanted to provide a voice for women of intelligence and traditional morality, regardless of their religion. Actually, we have many Catholics and Jews as members. NOW's feminism is really a form of extreme individualism and quite removed from the realities of ordinary women's lives. Our goal is to make the arguments for morality, common sense and the true interests of women.”

NOW spokeswoman Elizabeth Toledo counters that NOW is more in touch with women's daily lives because it is a grass-roots organization with local chapters around the country. On its Web site, NOW calls the Independent Women's Forum “faux feminists” and a “small circle of Beltway conservatives.”

The forum, based in Washington, developed from a network of young women lawyers in the Reagan and Bush administrations. After Bush left office in 1992, Anita Blair and Barbara Ledeen began shaping the group into a media presence.

The group has grown to include more than 2,000 members and its witty and impudent journal, The Woman's Quarterly, goes out to 5,000 subscribers.

Meeting a Need

The forum is filling a gap, said Blair, because the average American woman is disenchanted with NOW and other like-minded organizations.

“The Concerned Women of America [an Evangelical group] did a poll in the early ‘90s,” she said, “and the majority of women refused to identify themselves as feminists. It's because NOW is so extreme that ordinary women who don't hate men or children, or who aren't lesbians, don't want anything to do with it.”

NOW's Toledo said such polls don't tell the full story. The media almost always use the term feminism with a qualifier, she said, prefacing it with such words as “radical,” “militant” or “liberal.” This has turned “feminism” into a pejorative, she said, and polls reflect that. “When you break down the term and ask about particular issues” such as concerns about discrimination against women, feminism does well, she added.

Blair said that may have been true at one time, but NOW has become more radical. “Back in the ‘70s, when NOW was working for reasonable objectives such as equal pay, women could relate. … What went wrong with NOW and other feminist groups is that they made women into a special interest group instead of part of the human race.

“They'd pit women against men and against children for the sake of making women's interests prevail. But women don't win that way.”

With a handful of paid staff and scores of high-powered intellectual affiliates, the forum is making its voice heard. In op-ed pieces, on “Larry King Live,” C-SPAN, “Crossfire,” cable TV and talk radio, the group tackles the victim status of women (women are not victims of a patriarchy, according to the forum); the wage gap (misleading because it doesn't account for all statistical factors); and the corporate “glass ceiling” that keeps women from the top levels of management (it doesn't exist except in the minds of feminists).

At every opportunity, the forum champions the traditional family as the necessary foundation for civilization.

Forum members also consider free enterprise the best and fairest economic system. They support equal opportunity for women but reject quotas and decry preferential treatment, and appeal for a return to common sense and civility.

They sponsor speakers on ethics and political responsibility.

They testify before Congress.

They've spoken out against the United Nation's Beijing women's conference.

They sponsor conservative student women's groups at Yale and the Jesuits’ Georgetown University, where they were harassed by a student group called the Lesbian Avengers.

Among its other projects, the forum works with a Quaker group against the female slave trade in Mauritania, and it has trained the wives of Promise Keepers to defend their husbands against a hostile media.

The forum's leaders plan to develop a legal defense fund to support traditional legal advocacy, and they recently acquired a status as a lobby.

Does Ledeen believe that the forum can succeed in redefining feminism?

“We've got a good shot,” she said. “I don't know that we can carry the entire burden, but at least when NOW claims to speak for all women, people know it's just not true.”

Elizabeth Toledo retorted that NOW is interested in addressing the “root causes” of discrimination against women, and that “collectively we have persistently exposed discrimination and pushed … power brokers to challenge [demeaning] stereotypes of women.”

But, said Ledeen, “NOW and other feminist groups did themselves tremendous damage with their reluctance to denounce Clinton's sex scandals. People now know they are just a subsidiary of the Democratic Party.”

Ledeen has lobbied state legislatures to permit doctors to inform mothers if their babies test positive for HIV. She also educates college women about the deadly danger of the Human Papilloma Virus. Despite the ubiquitous “safe sex” campaigns, condoms do not stop this virus, which frequently is found to cause cervical cancer.

“I don't have any problem with abstinence,” said this Jewish mother of three, “it's just that many times, people can't hear you when you use those words. So rather than talk about abstinence or virginity, we talk about the right to know. I tell these girls that condoms are useless against HPV. They are shocked. Then I tell them to make their own decision. That's much more powerful and lasting.”

What About Abortion?

One issue that the forum does not take a position on is abortion, although members generally favor parental notification laws, are horrified at partial-birth abortion, and have published articles about unsafe abortion clinics.

“That was a strategic decision,” explained Blair. “And it doesn't mean that we are for abortion, by any means. But we felt that there are many groups that address this issue exclusively. It gets a lot of coverage, perhaps at the expense of other issues — such as taxes and child care — that need intelligent attention. We wanted to make sure some other issues got a hearing.”

Some on the pro-life front line take exception to this reasoning. Said Judy Brown of the American Life League: “It seems to me that women who call themselves independent and conservative would publicly want to proclaim that all women from the moment of fertilization deserve equal protection under the law. I am horrified that they have not taken a position on abortion.”

Register columnist Mary Ellen Bork, a member of the forum's national board of advisers, sees many advantages to supporting a sophisticated, media-savvy organization of high-powered women who promote genuine values while avoiding sectarian classification or the taint of being a “one issue” pressure group.

“I can understand the criticism [over abortion], but on the other hand there were other things this group wanted to accomplish,” said Bork. “So they knew the abortion issue was there, but they just didn't deal with it directly. They decided they would do other things. So far, I don't have a problem with that. I would say many members are quietly pro-life because they are pro-family and pro-woman. If they were actively pro-choice I wouldn't have anything to do with them.”

Una McManus writes from Columbia, Maryland.