After completing an exhilarating Capitol Hill internship in 2004, Karin Agness returned to University of Virginia eager to find a group of conservative women with whom she could continue her political education. But when she approached the school's women's center about co-sponsoring a club to that end, she was rebuffed by a faculty member.
"She just looked at me like I was crazy," Agness recalled. "She chuckled and said, 'Not here.'"
Undeterred, Agness founded her own club for young conservative college women — an organization, Network of enlightened Women (NeW), that has since grown to 20 chapters on campuses across the country, and that Republicans hope will offer a foothold in their outreach to an elusive voting demographic: female college students.
According to 2012 exit polls, Mitt Romney won only 36% of women under 30 years old. Republican National Committee spokesperson Sarah Isgur-Flores blamed the party's trouble reaching these voters, in part, on their message getting "distorted through the lens of liberal academia."
"We're a party of ideas that really resonate with college students," said Isgur-Flores. "Liberty, self-governance — once they hear those ideas from us, they're meaningful and they identify with them. I think part of this for us is finding messengers and getting them on college campuses."
As part of the effort to elevate such messengers, the RNC identified Agness as a "rising star" at their summer meeting in Boston this week and touted her work with NeW, which operates as a campus book club for conservative women. Suggested tomes that appear on their book list include Domestic Tranquility: A Brief Against Feminism; Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman's Crusade; and Rick Santorum's book It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good.
"There's no question that we have to expand among college-aged women," Isgur-Flores said. "Here's someone reaching young women at an early age with a conservative message on college campuses. That's something the party's really excited about."
But Agness' own experience demonstrates how difficult it can be to turn a conservative club into a widespread movement on a progressive college campus.
At NeW's second meeting, two writers for a "feminist magazine" on campus showed up and later wrote a cover story that was accompanied by an illustration of a young woman holding a recipe book and standing next to an assembly line that was spitting out babies.
"That just really confirmed to me the need for NeW on campus," Agness said. "These young women show up on campus and what do they find? They're faced with chapters of liberal feminist organizations like the National Organization for Women, they're faced with women's studies programs pushing radical feminist ideas, and women's centers that are not open to all women. It's all pushing them to the left either overtly or covertly."
Of course, Democrats argue that college women vote for their candidates because they tend to align on key social issues, including abortion rights and access to contraception. And even Agness is under no delusions that a campus book club will convert vast numbers of liberal women to her cause. Instead, NeW functions as a safe place for conservatives temporarily residing in enemy territory (academia).
"There's a real niche that needs to be filled to provide a home to conservative women," Agness said.