At 23, Karin Agness has already made the world better. While still an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, Karin founded the Network of enlightened Women (NeW), an intellectual home for college women who don’t blindly follow the herd. Described by TIME Magazine Online as “a small but fast-growing campus alternative to the Feminist Majority and the National Organization for Women, with a foothold in seven states,” NeW started as a book club. Karin is a rising second-year law student at the University of Virginia. Karin is a native of Indianapolis and is considering a career in law or politics. She spoke to IWF’s Charlotte Hays and Allison Kasic while interning at a law firm.

IWF: What inspired you to found the Network of enlightened Women?

AGNESS: I had the opportunity to intern in Washington, D.C. during the summer of 2004 for Senator Lugar and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It was a fabulous opportunity. I was surrounded by other conservative women and I loved it. Rather than just debating liberal versus conservative big picture ideas, we got into the nuances of some of the conservative arguments, which I really enjoyed.

When I returned to the University of Virginia that fall for my junior year, I sought out an environment like I had in D.C., where you had conservative women getting together and really talking about issues. I couldn’t find anything. On college campuses, there are hundreds of clubs archery and belly dancing clubs, NOW chapters, and debating societies, anything and everything so I thought there would be something for conservative women. Nothing. Then I looked at colleges around the country and couldn’t find anything.

Finally, I went to the U.Va. women’s center to ask if they had an organization for conservative women. I set up an appointment with the woman who is now the director of diversity at the women’s center. She gave me a nice tour and calendar, which showed me everything they did. At the end, I asked her if they’d be interested in co-sponsoring an organization for conservative women. We just wanted to meet in their spaces and use them as a resource. She looked at me as if I were crazy, chuckled, and replied, “Not here.”

That’s when I decided I was going to start something. I got together with a group of friends and we sat down and discussed what we wanted. I often had been frustrated with clubs that held meetings and didn’t accomplish anything. That is not what I wanted. I wanted something with real substance. So we decided to set it up as a book club. That way we’d really be educating ourselves and it would give us a solid structure. The first book we read was Danielle Crittenden’s What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman. And that’s how NeW began.

IWF: NeW has grown by leaps and bounds. Tell us a little about this.

AGNESS: We had our first meeting at U.Va. on September 29, 2004, and the following spring I received an email from a student at the College of William & Mary. She had heard about NeW through friends at U.Va. and was wondering if it would be okay with me for her to start a chapter. Of course, I was thrilled. I emailed her back and started to correspond with her on how to start a chapter. I went down to her first meeting and gave a presentation. I recommended they start as a book club, and I became their mentor.

When the club did well at William & Mary, I realized that NeW had national potential, I began keeping track of documents to share with others and looking out for other women who might be good leaders of a chapter. I also made the decision that, rather than being an organization that focuses solely on growth, I was going to find women who had a lot of motivation and make sure we had strong chapters.

We’ve had a lot of growth, but it’s been a manageable amount of growth.

IWF:Has there been much negative reaction on campus? I understand that there was a cartoon about you?

AGNESS: First to the cartoon, because I think that’s a great story. We had our first meeting on September 29, and that was an interest meeting. For our next meeting, we had Professor Steven Rhoads, author of Taking Sex Differences Seriously, speak to us. The premise of his book is that men and women are different. For some reason, this idea shocks many on the left; they just don’t understand it. After that meeting, the liberal newsmagazine on campus put a drawing of a woman on the cover who was connected to a machine that was popping out babies. She was also stirring batter and looking at her recipe book. The headline was “Manifest Domesticity.” It was trying to mock our group and what we stood for, and that’s the general reaction we had. What was funny about it was that a lot of people picked it up. And then they’d flip through, and our name was right there, so it helped generate some buzz about what we were doing, which actually ended up helping out the group.

IWF: Now you all had a conference recently, tell me about it.

AGNESS: There was an article about NeW on TIME Magazine Online last summer. Because of it, I was getting dozens of emails, so I decided to plan a national conference. With a conference, I could give information about the organization and it would fulfill our mission of being a network connecting women across the country.

We had our first conference last year, which was a huge success. I wanted to do it again this year. At last year’s conference, I had everybody fill out surveys about what they liked and didn’t like. One thing they all wanted was a keynote speaker. So I asked Carrie Lukas of IWF to be our keynote speaker. She had just written a book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Women, Sex, and Feminism. Our University of Virginia chapter read it in the fall semester and thought it provided a great background on the failures of feminism.

I am a big proponent of NeW helping women to become better educated on conservative principles and also more aware of conservative women who have taken leadership roles on a lot of issues. I also think it’s important to try to develop in our members an attitude of activism. You can make a difference, and, if you tackle an issue, you can effect change. I encourage members to write letters to the editor and develop public speaking skills. At both our conferences, I asked some of the successful presidents to give 10 minute speeches about what their organizations are doing. We had three of our chapter presidents (from Arizona State University, University of Virginia and Mary Washington University) talk about their clubs, what had been their successes, and what had been their challenges. This gave these three presidents a chance to speak publicly and push themselves in a new direction. They all did a tremendous job.

We ended with a brainstorming session. One of the things that I notice most about running this organization is that the women are facing a lot of the same challenges on different campuses. For instance, to start a club, oftentimes you have to have a faculty sponsor. That’s more difficult when you want to create a conservative women’s club because there’s not that many conservative women faculty in colleges around the country. So then you face a choice: Do you try to find a liberal female professor who’s open-minded and would be willing to put her name on this club, or do you try to find a male professor who would be willing to sponsor a female club? You would never think that finding a faculty sponsor would be a challenge, but it turns out to be a huge challenge in starting a NeW club.

IWF: What’s the prevailing political attitude on campus among students?

AGNESS: A majority of the students and a huge majority of the professors are liberal in their political attitudes. There are also many apathetic folks. At the University of Virginia, probably because we’re a southern school, there are a good number of conservatives, but they don’t speak out on issues or challenge the liberal orthodoxy they hear in the classroom. That’s why it’s important to have organizations like NeW to bring people together so that students will be more likely to have the courage to speak out.

IWF: What do you think about women’s studies as a major?

AGNESS: Women’s studies should not be a major. One of the biggest problems I have with the department is there’s not much academic accountability in it. These departments were created by leftwing women and all their academic work is judged by other leftwing women.

I’ve seen no need for women’s studies departments. If you want to cover women’s history, there is no reason why this can’t be covered in regular history courses. And if you want to study trends and gender, these are studied in sociology. If you really want full equality in the academic world, why not discuss these issues in regular academic courses? When men have taken a leading role in society, we’ll focus mostly on men, and that’s okay. But when women take leading roles, we’ll focus on women. I don’t think you need to separate women’s studies into its own world.

IWF: Why do you think that most people on campus support a liberal philosophy and political system? Is it because of the faculty, or is it simply path of least resistance?

AGNESS: I think it is partly because the faculty are teaching students with a bias. For example, a study came out last year that a huge majority of college faculty gave money to democrat as compared to republican candidates.

It’s so much easier as a college student to be a liberal than it is to be a conservative because as a liberal you are “for” a lot more at least in terms of big government programs. For example, you’re for raising the minimum wage and you’re for socialized healthcare, without looking at broader consequences. As conservatives, we want to look at the bigger picture.

Also, college students often are looking for a way to justify their appetite for instant gratification and liberal policies readily provide that justification. Conservatives inject morality into politics.

IWF: Many campuses celebrate Valentine’s Day with The Vagina Monologues. What about U.Va.?

AGNESS: The Vagina Monologues is a huge production at the University of Virginia, and as you said, it’s on over 500 college campuses nationally. It was performed for two years while I was at U.Va., my freshman and sophomore years, and no one questioned it. In my junior year, after I had started NeW, the signs for The Vagina Monologues started going up in February, and we decided we wanted to challenge it. So we brought in Christina Hoff Sommers to give a speech entitled “Sex, Lies, and The Vagina Monologues.” She exposed the play for what it is. It objectifies women, makes men look pitiful, and even glorifies rape. It’s a ridiculous play.

This shows how an organization such as NeW can be valuable in making people think. Before we came along, this play was performed without any questions being raised. We had more than 200 people show up for Christina Hoff Sommers’ talk. One of the things I’m most proud of is that this event sparked a two-week debate in the school newspaper. There were columns for us and columns against us. This led some of the women in NeW to write letters to the editor for the first time. We got people to think about The Vagina Monologues for the first time.

The next year, when it was time for The Vagina Monologues, we decided to host a debate. We wanted to have NeW versus the directors of The Vagina Monologues. We offered to do all the work, set it up, do all the publicity and make it easy for them to just show up and talk about it. Because they love this play, I was sure they would want to talk about it. So I emailed the directors of The Vagina Monologues and asked them if they would be willing to debate us. They said they were too busy to debate us even though we were going to do all the work. Then I approached the student-run local NOW chapter to see if they would debate us. They also declined, claiming they were not comfortable debating us about the play.

We still wanted to do a debate. The chair of the University Democrats that year was a woman, so I approached her and we decided to do a two-on-two debate, two women from NeW, and two women from the University Democrats. It was standing room only. This debate revealed a contradiction. These feminists who were too busy or uncomfortable to debate us all found time and were comfortable enough to come to the debate wearing “I Love The Vagina Monologues” t-shirts and platform for their cause under the guise of asking questions.

IWF: What advice do you have for conservative women on campus?

AGNESS: One of my favorite quotes is from Alexander Hamilton when he said, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for everything.” I think that’s the advice I like to give conservative women. If you don’t stand up for what you believe, if you’re not fighting for your principles, then no one else is going to. It’s your role, if you really believe in these principles, to stand up and make a difference. Otherwise, you can’t complain about what’s going on. That’s what I tell even non-conservative friends, if you’re going to complain about something, then do something about it.

I think it’s really important to get politically engaged young. If you start writing letters to your school newspaper when you’re young, you’ll continue doing that for the rest of your life because you learn how to do it. You see a lot of people get involved in campaigns in college and then continue on with that for a long time. It’s important to get engaged now, when you’re young and have a lot of energy.

IWF: What are some of the influences that shaped your views? Was it reading? Your family?

AGNESS: I think it was really a combination of my upbringing and then reading. As someone who has always wanted to go to law school, I’ve always been very analytical about things. Through reading and seeing the kind of life I want to live, conservative ideas just made more sense to me.

IWF: Karin, what is your future, you’re in law school now, you’re interning here in the summer, what are you planning to do?

AGNESS: I just finished my first year of law school at the University of Virginia, and I’m working at a firm. I’m giving the law firm path a shot this summer to see if that’s something I like, which I’ve enjoyed thus far. But I’ve been bitten by the political bug. I’d love to stay involved and I think I always will.