Karin Agness, 24, seems like an unlikely officer of the culture wars.
But the University of Virginia law student and founder of the Network of Enlightened Women is so passionate about her organization’s mission that it’s impossible to imagine her not joining the frontlines.
“There are a plethora of young feminist women,” said Agness, who started NEW in 2004 after interning for Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.). “It’s important for us to join the debate and not concede territory,” she added matter-of-factly.
She admires Elisabeth Hasselbeck, the oft-ridiculed young and attractive conservative blonde co-host of ABC’s “The View.”
“She sticks out like a sore thumb. It shows how important our mission is,” Agness said.
At a time when die-hard Hillraisers are demanding the Democratic Party correct “pervasive gender bias in the media” and Barack Obama works to placate female voters, Agness is working to counteract them.
Founded four years ago as a book club, NEW has grown into an organization with a twofold mission: to cultivate a community of conservative women on college campuses and to increase the intellectual diversity on those campuses with discussion of topics that are usually “left off college syllabi,” according to Agness.
So every few weeks, at more than a dozen campuses across the country, a handful of young women meet to discuss books such as Danielle Crittenden’s “What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman” over cookies — a staple at NEW get-togethers.
Crittenden spoke in Washington at NEW’s most recent national conference in June. “These young women are trying to get a new dialogue going, as their name suggests,” she said. “I think [Karin’s] done a phenomenal job of growing it in a short period.”
“What they are doing is not so different from what the young Reaganites were doing in 1979.”
Alison McCormick, 22, was a member of the College Republicans before she started her own NEW chapter three years ago at Indiana University.
“NEW is, I guess, a little more esoteric because it’s a forum, it’s not a political activist organization,” said McCormick, who graduated in May and now works on Capitol Hill as a legislative assistant.
“At our first couple of meetings we had several women from the feminist-type groups on campus come,” said McCormick. “They just wanted to see what we were doing.”
Professor Steven Rhoads, whose “Taking Sex Differences Seriously” Agness describes as one of her “sounding boards,” is the adviser to NEW’s original UVA chapter.
“Culturally conservative women are a little gun-shy about sticking their head out — unlike Karin,” said Rhoads. “She’ll be heard from for a long time, I think.”
Agness added: “I often have to explain it; when I say I run a women’s organization, people always assume it’s a feminist or liberal organization.”
Allyson Walker, a senior at the University of Georgia who plans to start a chapter of NEW this fall, said that on her campus, conservative ideals can be “a little vague” and are quickly getting lost in the current political climate.
“Universities are typically liberal, especially with the election coming up,” said Walker, pointing to Barack Obama’s “huge following” among college students. The first book she wants to read is Dinesh D’Souza’s “Letters to a Young Conservative.”
NEW helps “define what conservatism is,” said Walker, who plans to use Facebook, UGA’s Greek community and e-mail blasts to spread the word about the organization.
It was September 2004 when Agness, then a sophomore at UVA, decided to start her quiet movement with cookies.
As an intern in Lugar’s office, Agness “loved being around these energetic, smart Republican women who really cared about politics.” So when the political science major returned to school in the fall, she looked for a group of young women on UVA’s campus who shared her values “and found nothing.”
When Agness went to the Women’s Center on campus to ask if anyone would be interested in co-sponsoring a new group for conservative-minded women, one woman looked at her and laughed, “Not here.”
“First of all, I think the women’s centers have fallen down on the job,” said Rhoads, who said they seem to have decided “that pro-women means pro-feminist.” NEW, according to Agness, is nonpartisan. “We actually have some Democratic members.”
When word got around that there was a new conservative women’s group on campus, UVA’s liberal magazine featured a cover image of a woman connected to a complex machine that manufactured babies, with the subtitle, “Manifest Domesticity.”
“At this point we had [had] two meetings,” said Agness.
Ann Lane, former director of UVA’s women and gender studies program, told Time magazine that she was embarrassed that NEW got its start at her university.
“I’m not opposed to the group’s existence — I just don’t like it,” she told the magazine.
The UVA chapter has hosted a discussion on whether women’s studies departments are “serving a legitimate function” on college campuses, which brings up the organization’s relationship with another women’s group with a similar-sounding name.
“Everybody’s heard of NOW — they’ve reached their heyday,” said Agness, referring to the National Organization for Women, founded in 1966 to “bring about equality for all women.”
Last month, Agness and a friend attended NOW’s annual conference in Washington to see for themselves whether the organization was more than “30-second sound bites.”
“It seemed they were way too comfortable in the role of victim,” Agness said. She wrote a column about her “Adventures at the NOW conference” for the conservative commentary site Townhall.com.
“Rather than fighting for one cause for women, NOW is focused on fighting for the sake of fighting. They see anyone and everyone as enemies out to oppress women, and this attitude was prevalent throughout the conference,” wrote Agness.
In contrast to NOW, NEW, said Agness, has “so much potential for growth.” In the years to come, Agness plans to launch a national headquarters.
McCormick, the founder of Indiana University’s NEW chapter, is convinced that NEW will become an institutional force on college campuses nationwide. “All you need is women and books.”