By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Rosalie Gaull “Ricky” Silberman, 69, a conservative activist whose outspoken public support of then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas led to the creation of an advocacy group called the Independent Women’s Forum, died of complications from breast cancer Feb. 18 at Georgetown University Hospital.
The IWF had its origins in 1991-92, when Mrs. Silberman and two friends, Barbara Ledeen and Anita Blair, started an informal network of women who supported the Thomas nomination despite allegations of sexual harassment from Anita Hill, his former colleague at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Mrs. Silberman also had worked with Thomas at the EEOC and was a close friend. During the bitterly contentious confirmation hearings, she gave interviews and made media appearances on his behalf and also helped edit “The Real Anita Hill,” a book by then-conservative activist David Brock that savaged Hill and sought to portray her charges as a political dirty trick.
The idea for the IWF was to provide a conservative alternative to feminist tenets. After Thomas’s confirmation, the group continued as a prominent voice for conservative women, taking strong stands in the media and bringing together conservative scholars, activists and political figures.
“We were concerned that those who would speak for American women were neither telling the truth about Clarence Thomas nor making sense with respect to issues of crucial importance to American women,” Mrs. Silberman said in 1998. “We listened to the spin of those days — the litany that women are victims and men just don’t get it — and decided that those woebegone women did not speak for us, nor did we think that they spoke for the vast majority of American women.”
In a statement released by IWF, Michelle D. Bernard, the organization’s president and chief executive officer, credited Mrs. Silberman with exposing “the fallacies and hypocrisies of radical political interest group feminism.”
Asked on the occasion of IWF’s 10th anniversary whether the organization was still needed, Mrs. Silberman told The Washington Post: “My dear, any time my college, Smith College, can change its constitution to take ‘women’ out of women’s college because they have to be sensitive to transgendered students, then the culture wars are not over. Can anyone say we’re not in danger of losing a whole generation?”
Mrs. Silberman was a resident of the District for almost 40 years, except for when her husband, Judge Laurence H. Silberman, served as U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia from 1975 to 1977.
Born in Jackson, Mich., she graduated in government, with honors, from Smith College in 1958. She met her husband-to-be in 1955, at a college mixer during summer school at Harvard. He recalled that he knew immediately he would marry the charming and lively young woman.
Silberman said that his wife, like many young women in the 1950s, went to college expecting to get “an MRS degree.” She did, in fact, raise three children while the Silberman family lived in Hawaii during the 1960s, but she also worked as a teacher before getting involved in politics and public affairs.
In Montgomery County during the late 1960s, she instructed teachers on how to teach disadvantaged children. She specialized in creative dramatics.
President Richard M. Nixon appointed her to the Presidential Commission for the Education of Disadvantaged Children, and she also worked as a press secretary for U.S. Sen. Robert Packwood (R-Ore.). When the Silbermans moved to San Francisco in 1979, she did development work for the San Francisco Conservatory.
In 1984, President Ronald Reagan appointed her to the EEOC. She served until 1995 and was the commission’s vice chair.
From 1995 to 2000, she was executive director of the Office of Congressional Compliance, an independent authority established by Congress to oversee the new law requiring that Congress itself abide by many of the same workplace regulations that had covered the rest of the nation. Mrs. Silberman told The Post in 1996 that the office was “breaking new ground.”
In 2001, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld appointed her to the Defense Department Advisory Commission on the Status of Women. She served as an IWF board member and chairman emeritus until her death.
Survivors include her husband of 49 years, of the District; three children, Robert Silberman of Potomac, Katherine Balaban of Bethesda and Anne Otis of Hartford, Conn.; and eight grandchildren.