Independent Women’s Forum: Koch-Funded Group Defends Pesticide, Oil, Tobacco Industries

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The Independent Women’s Forum is a nonprofit organization that partners with Monsanto, defends toxic chemicals in food and consumer products, and argues against laws that would curb the power of corporations. Funded largely by right-wing foundations that push climate science denial, IWF began in 1991 as an effort to defend now Supreme Court Justice (and former Monsanto attorney) Clarence Thomas as he faced sexual harassment charges. In 2018, the group also defended Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in the face of sexual assault allegations, and described Kavanaugh as a “champion of women.

See: “Meet the ‘Feminists’ Doing the Koch Brothers’ Dirty Work,” by Joan Walsh, The Nation 

With a budget of roughly $2 million a year, the Independent Women ‘s Forum now says it works for policies that “enhance freedom.” Its programs include lobbying and advocating for the deregulation of toxic products, and deflecting blame for health and environmental harms away from polluting corporations and toward personal responsibility. In 2017, the group’s annual gala in Washington DC, which celebrated IWF board member Kellyanne Conway as a champion of women, was sponsored by chemical and tobacco companies.

Read more about the gala and its sponsors in HuffPost, “The Politics of Infertility and Cancer,” by Stacy Malkan. 

Funding by right wing billionaires and corporations

Most of the known donors of the Independent Women’s Forum are men, as Lisa Graves reported for the Center for Media and Democracy. IWF has received over $15 million from right-wing foundations that promote deregulation and corporate free rein, according to data collected by Greenpeace USA. IWF’s leading contributors, with more than $5 million in donations, are Donors Trust and Donors Capital Funds, the secretive “dark money” funds connected with oil moguls Charles and David Koch. These funds channel money from anonymous donors, including corporations, to third-party groups that lobby for corporate interests.

IWF’s top funder: dark money from undisclosed donors

Koch family foundations have directly contributed more than $844,115 and other top funders include the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, the Randolph Foundation (an offshoot of the Richardson Foundation), and Searle Freedom Trust — all leading funders of climate-science denial efforts and campaigns to defend pesticides and keep them unregulated. 

ExxonMobil and Philip Morris have also funded IWF, and the tobacco firm named IWF in a list of “potential third party references” and “those who respect our views.” Rush Limbaugh donated at least a quarter of a million dollars to IWF, which “defends him whenever he launches into a sexist tirade,” according to an article by Eli Clifton in The Nation.

IWF leaders

Heather Richardson Higgins, Chair of the IWF Board and CEO of the Independent Women’s Voice, the lobby arm of IWF, has held senior positions in numerous right-wing foundations, including the Randolph Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation and the Philanthropy Roundtable.

Kellyanne Conway, White House advisor and former Trump campaign manager, is an IWF board member. Directors Emeritae include Lynne V.Cheney, wife of Dick Cheney and Kimberly O.Dennis, president of the board of directors of Donors Trust and president and CEO of Searle Freedom Trust.

Nancy M. Pfotenhauer, a former Koch Industries lobbyist, left Koch Industries to become president of IWF in 2001 and she later served as Vice Chairman of IWF’s Board of Directors. She has a long history of promoting dirty energy and pushing for deregulation of polluting industries.

IWF’s agenda closely follows the lobbying and messaging agenda of tobacco, oil and chemical industry interests. Following are some examples:

Denies climate science

A 2019 tweet and article from the Independent Women’s Forum praises President Trump’s “pragmatism” in not acting to curb climate change. 

Greenpeace describes IWF as a “Koch Industries Climate Denial Group” that “has spread misinformation on climate science and touts the work of climate deniers.” 

Jane Mayer reported in The New Yorker in 2010: “The (Koch) brothers have given money to more obscure groups, too, such as the Independent Women’s Forum, which opposes the presentation of global warming as a scientific fact in American public schools. Until 2008, the group was run by Nancy Pfotenhauer, a former lobbyist for Koch Industries. Mary Beth Jarvis, a vice-president of a Koch subsidiary, is on the group’s board.”

Opposes teaching climate science in schools

The Denver Post reported in 2010 that IWF “thinks global warming is ‘junk science’ and that teaching it is unnecessarily scaring schoolchildren.” Through a campaign called “Balanced Education for Everyone,” IWF opposed climate science education in schools, which the group described as “alarmist global warming indoctrination.”

IWF President Carrie Lucas writes about the “growing skepticism about climate change” and argues “the public could pay dearly for the hysteria.”

Partners with Monsanto

In an April 21, 2016 proposal to Monsanto, IWF asked Monsanto to contribute $43,300 for “Super Women of Science” events designed to undercut political support for Proposition 65, a California law that prohibits companies from discharging hazardous chemicals in waterways and requires them to notify consumers about toxic chemical exposures. The proposed events were part of IWF’s “Culture of Alarmism” project that was created “to debunk media hype about the risks Americans face from the products we use, the foods we eat and the environment surrounding our families.” 

In February 2017, Monsanto partnered with IWF on an event titled “Food and Fear: How to Find Facts in Today’s Culture of Alarmism,” and an IWF podcast that month discussed “How Monsanto is Vilified by Activists.”

IWF pushes the talking points of Monsanto and the chemical industry: promoting GMOs and pesticides, attacking the organic industry and moms who choose organic food, and opposing transparency in food labels. Examples include:

  • Vermont’s GMO labeling law is stupid. (The Spectator)
  • Sinister GMO labeling will cause grocery costs to skyrocket. (IWF)
  • Anti-GMO hype is the real threat to the well being of families. (National Review)
  • Reasonable moms need to push back on the mom shaming and guilt tripping organic food narrative. (IWF podcast)
  • GMO critics are cruel, vain, elite and seek to deny those in need. (New York Post)

The “Culture of Alarmism” project, since renamed the “Project for Progress and Innovation,” is run by Julie Gunlock, who writes frequent blogs arguing against public health protections and defending corporations. She has described “FDA’s refusal to promote e-cigarettes” as “a public health crisis.” 

Argues ‘Philips Morris PR’

In August 2017, IWF lobbied FDA to approve Philip Morris’ IQOS e-cigarettes, arguing that women need the products for various biological reasons to help them quit smoking regular cigarettes.

“Clearly, the FDA doesn’t intend to punish women, simply for their gender. Yet, that’s precisely what’s going to happen if women are limited to smoking cessation products that biologically cannot provide them with the help they need to quit traditional cigarettes,” IWF wrote.

In response to the IWF letter, Stanton Glantz, PhD, Professor of Medicine at the UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, said: “This is standard Philip Morris PR. There is no independent confirmation that IQOS are safer than cigarettes or that they help people quit smoking.”

Champions corporate-friendly “food freedom”

IWF attacks the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as “government nannies,” for example describing the agency as “food Marxists” and “completely out of control” for issuing voluntary guidance to food manufacturers to cut sodium levels.

A June 2017 IWF event tried to stoke fears about public health guidance

In 2012, IWF launched a “Women for Food Freedom” project to “push back on the nanny state and encourage personal responsibility” for food choices. The agenda included opposing “food regulations, soda and snack food taxes, junk science and food and home-product scares, misinformation about obesity and hunger, and other federal food programs, including school lunches.”

On obesity, IWF tries to shift attention away from corporate accountability and toward personal choices. In this interview with Thom Hartmann, IWF’s Julie Gunlock argues that corporations are not to blame for America’s obesity problem but rather “people are making bad choices and I think parents are completely checking out.” The solution, she said, is for parents to cook more, especially poor parents since they have a worse problem with obesity.

Attacks moms for trying to reduce pesticide exposures

IWF pushes industry messaging, using covert tactics, in attempt to ostracize moms who are concerned about pesticides; a prime example is this 2014 New York Post article, “Tyranny of the Organic Mommy Mafia” by Naomi Schafer Riley. Under the guise of complaining about “mom shaming,” Riley – who is an IWF fellow but did not disclose that to readers – attempts to shame and blame moms who choose organic food. Riley’s article was sourced entirely by industry front groups and sources that she falsely presented as independent, including Academics Review, a Monsanto front group; the Alliance for Food and Farming and Julie Gunlock of the IWF’s “Culture of Alarmism Project,” who was also not identified in the article as an employee of IWF. For more on this topic, see the “Assault on Organic: Ignoring science to make the case for chemical farming” (FAIR, 2014).

Partners with chemical industry front groups

IWF partners with other corporate front groups such as the American Council on Science and Health, a leading defender of toxic chemicals that has been funded by Monsanto and Syngenta, as well as other chemical, pharmaceutical and tobacco corporations and industry groups.

  • In a February 2017 IWF podcast, ACSH and IWF “debunked Rachel Carson’s alarmism on toxic chemicals”
  • ACSH was “fully behind” IWF’s “culture of alarmism letter” opposing efforts to remove hazardous chemicals from consumer products.
  • IWF events attacking moms who are concerned about toxic chemicals, such as this “hazmat parenting” event, featured ACSH’s Josh Bloom and chemical industry public relations writer Trevor Butterworth.

For further reading:

The Intercept,”Koch Brothers Operatives Fill Top White House Positions,” by Lee Fang (4/4/2017)

The Nation,“Meet the ‘Feminists’ Doing the Koch Brothers’ Dirty Work,” by Joan Walsh (8/18/2016)

Center for Media and Democracy, “Most Known Donors of the Independent Women’s Forum are Men,” by Lisa Graves (8/24/2016)

Center for Media and Democracy, “Confirmation: the Not-so-Independent Women’s Forum was Born in Defense of Clarence Thomas and the Far Right,” by Lisa Graves and Calvin Sloan (4/21/2016)

Slate,“Confirmation Bias: How ‘Women for Judge Thomas’ turned into a conservative powerhouse,” by Barbara Spindel (4/7/2016)

Truthout, “Independent Women’s Forum Uses Misleading Branding to Push Right Wing Agenda,” by Lisa Graves, Calvin Sloan and Kim Haddow (8/19/2016)

Inside Philanthropy,“The Money Behind the Conservative Women’s Groups Still Fighting the Culture War,”by Philip Rojc (9/13/2016)

The Nation,”Guess Which Women’s Group Rush Limbaugh has Donated Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars to? Hint: it’s the one that defends him whenever he launches into a sexist tirade,” by Eli Clifton (6/12/2014)

The New Yorker,”The Koch Brothers Covert Operations,” by Jane Mayer (8/30/2010)

Oxford University Press, “Righting Feminism: Conservative Women and American Politics,” by Ronnee Schreiber (2008)

Inside Philanthropy,”Look Who’s Funding This Top Conservative Women’s Group,” by Joan Shipps  (11/26/2014)

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, “Conservative Women are Right for Media Mainstream; Media Have Finally Found Some Women to Love,” by Laura Flanders (3/1/1996)

originally posted October 6, 2018 and updated in February 2020