The presidential primaries turn national this week, with states as diverse as New Mexico and Delaware voting to select their Democratic challenger. Contenders must swap the retail politics of Iowa and New Hampshire for a campaign to build national appeal. One group sure to be courted is women. Yet for advice about how to appeal to them, candidates should look beyond the self-proclaimed feminist groups. These dependency divas sell a tired mix of victimization and big government that’s out of touch with most modern women.

But don’t take my word for it. In a recent interview, Martha Burke, chairman of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, noted this discontent between the “movement” and most American women: “I think it’s a little bit sad that some women are not aware of what the women’s movement in general does for them, and some of the ways they’re experiencing discrimination. It’s my job to make them notice.”

What’s really sad is that Burke thinks awakening women’s sense of victimization is a worthy goal. Most people rejoice that American women are too busy succeeding to feel wronged. Women are thriving in schools and universities, and excelling in industries that just a few decades ago were almost exclusively the domain of men. Cause for celebration? Not for Burke and the women’s groups that feed on women’s sense of victimization.

Yet Burke does make one important point: Women ought to take notice of “what the women’s movement does.” So what does it do? The National Organization for Women (NOW), one of the most prominent feminist groups, advocates for government-provided healthcare, steeply progressive taxes, and more regulations of how businesses compensate employees. NOW fights Social Security reforms that give workers control over more of their retirement savings, and education policies that empower parents. Seemingly, NOW envisions a nanny government that provides for most of women’s needs — the clear implication being that women are incapable of caring for themselves.

NOW’s view is hardly novel. Throughout much of history, society assumed that women required economic support. Women were their father’s property until they married, at which time they became their husband’s charge. Early feminists fought this notion and for the right for women to live and compete on their own.

The modern feminist agenda steps back from the promotion of independence for women. Instead, it offers an agenda that replaces dependence on men with dependence on government.

Adding injury to insult, the big-government policies many feminist organizations promote often have unintended consequences harmful to women. Workplace regulations make hiring more expensive and job opportunities scarce. High marginal taxes discourage some married women from entering the workforce, while forcing others who would prefer to stay home with children to go to work to pay the bills.

Self-proclaimed feminists often use explicitly paternalistic arguments to justify their political and economic agendas. Consider the following statement of the Feminist Majority Foundation, arguing against the 2001 tax-cut package: “The economic well-being of women in the United States is severely threatened by President Bush’s tax cut proposal…women have little to gain and everything to lose from this plan.”

Allowing women to keep more of their money and reducing government’s take of the economy is portrayed as economic Armageddon for women. The Feminist Majority Foundation suggests that women — not just low-income women or disabled women, but women generally — so depend on the government to provide for them that their “economic well-being” was “severely threatened” by a tax cut.

So Martha Burke is right. Women need to know what the modern women’s movement does. The most prominent women’s groups have hijacked a once-honorable campaign for true equality and independence for women, draining it of its intellectual force and leaving only a husk of tired, big-government policies. In doing so, they spread an image of women as helpless children, dependent on government to care for them.

These dependency divas aren’t serving women’s best interests. The only ones truly dependent are the women’s groups themselves — dependent upon the perpetuation of a sense of victimization. Candidates who want to appeal to mainstream women shouldn’t assume these groups speak for most women. Women are better served by limited government and expanded spheres of personal freedom and choice. Candidates that recognize that will do more than win endorsements from women’s groups — they’ll win the support of women themselves.