Mothers Want Federally Funded Childcare. Why Are These Koch-Funded Women Opposing It?

Well-funded right-wing women use their identities as mothers to weaponize disinformation about popular progressive policies with well-documented benefits, from childcare to healthcare.

Heather Ahearn of the American Federation of Teachers (front) tries to block the sign of Arrah Nielsen of the anti-feminist Independent Women’s Forum (IWF), during a rally on April 19, 2005, announcing two bills in the House and Senate designed to help close the gender wage gap. (Tom Williams / Roll Call / Getty Images)

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, women in heterosexual relationships were spending 37 percent more time, or two hours a day, doing unpaid household and care work than their male partners, according to a report published in early 2020. 

The pandemic has exacerbated this gender gap, with more than 10 percent of women reporting new caregiving responsibilities. The International Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has called the disproportionate decline in women’s workforce participation, fueled by the demands of additional unpaid care work during the pandemic, a “momcession.”

As parents and mothers in particular struggled, federally-funded childcare, which would alleviate financial hardships from working while raising families, seemed like a genuine possibility. The Biden administration’s Build Back Better (BBB) bill, an estimated $2 trillion climate and social spending package that passed the House last year but stalled in the Senate, included breakthrough childcare and early education provisions that would increase access for most families. 

However, special interest groups funded by corporations and the ultra-wealthy—like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business and Americans for Prosperity, all of which have close ties to libertarian billionaire Charles Koch—went all out in attacking Build Back Better.

Staffers from the Koch-funded “Independent Women’s Forum” (IWF) also attacked BBB, pejoratively referring to the bill as “Build Back Broke,” specifically going after its childcare and paid family and medical leave provisions. 

IWF and its sister group, the “Independent Women’s Voice” (IWV), have put a woman’s face on the corporate-funded assault on pro-woman policies. IWF is a 501(c)(3) group that pushes out the austerity messaging favored by its funders, and IWV is its 501(c)(4) advocacy arm. IWF is a pay-to-play operation that has taken money from corporations and industries, like vaping and fossil fuel, and then written in favor of public policies these industries prefer without disclosing their financial relationship. 

IWF and IWV seem to play a special role within the right-wing dark money infrastructure. (Dark money organizations receive money from donors whose identities are kept secret from the public to make significant expenditures to influence elections and government policy.)

Independent Women’s Voice is a pay-to-play operation that has taken money from corporations and industries, like vaping and fossil fuel, and then written in favor of public policies these industries prefer without disclosing their financial relationship.

In recent months, IWF fellows and staffers have appeared in the media, identified as mothers without revealing their ties, to promote their right-wing talking points. This tactic lends a woman’s face to anti-feminist policy positions while reproducing social inequalities for families across generations by opposing policies and structures that would advance equality and improve economic mobility. 

On issue after issue—from paid leave, the Equality Act, the Equal Rights Amendment, and reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, all of which they oppose—IWF and IWV position themselves against policies favored by most women and that would benefit almost all women. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that IWV has received substantial donations from men. A rare glimpse into IWV’s funders in 2010, before donor disclosure laws became even weaker as a result of Citizens United and its progeny, showed that 89 percent of their reported donors were not women but actually wealthy white men.

In addition to Koch money, the right-wing Bradley Foundation, which financed groups that have fueled Trump’s Big Lie and has long pushed school privatization, funded IWF to develop messaging kits aimed at countering popular progressive policies like paid leave, federally funded childcare, and increasing the minimum wage. Since 2014, Bradley has donated $1.35 million to IWF.

IWF and IWV are able to carry through the free market extremist, anti-woman agenda of their wealthy donors by positioning themselves as “politically neutral” women’s groups, as The Nation reported. 

Their veneer of neutrality helps to spread their right-wing messaging to larger audiences. In a media obsessed with presenting “both sides,” even when the facts or public sentiment are largely on one side of an issue, IWF and IWV get airtime in major news outlets. For example, IWF representatives have appeared frequently on PBS’s “To the Contrary” to present their right-wing position on healthcare accessdefend Bill Cosby, even though 60 women accused him of sexual assault; demonize transgender athletes; and oppose women’s legal equality

IWF and IWV’s assault on federally subsidized childcare is a case study in the way well-funded right-wing women can use their identities as mothers to weaponize disinformation about a popular progressive policy that has well-documented benefits.

A poll conducted by Data for Progress found that 70 percent of respondents supported universal childcare. Research also shows that the expansion of affordable childcare would likely increase full-time, year-round employment for women without a college education by 31 percent. Reliable and affordable early childhood education and care has also been shown to help parents get and keep jobs, increase women’s lifetime earnings, and reduce the earnings gap between women and men. Such programs would greatly benefit women of color, who have less access and greater financial barriers to childcare support. 

Despite their professed dedication to advancing policies that “enhance women’s … well-being,” IWV spent an estimated $20,000 on Facebook ads that reached more than 1.5 million people attacking Build Back Better’s childcare provision. 

Carrie Lukas, IWF’s leader, also testified twice in 2022 on the topic of childcare in congressional hearings. She used the opportunity to demean government-funded social programs and argue against any public policy changes “that would make our childcare and preschools function more like our K-12 public schools.” 

Her hit against K-12 schools is no surprise, as Lukas specifically has absurdly claimed that  Democrats indoctrinate toddlers through federal childcare programs. And notably, many of IWF and IWV’s funders—like the Bradley Foundation, ALEC, the Koch network, and former Trump Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children—are outspoken proponents of so-called “school choice.” That phrase is a rhetorical device school privatizers often employ to justify the funneling of resources from public schools to privately-administered institutions.

The current arrangement that leaves families to fend for themselves on childcare subsidies and other pro-woman policies is not inevitable. It is the product of choices fueled by pressure campaigns of groups beholden to billionaires and other elites. And it’s well past the time that people elected to represent us start supporting the intersectional feminist fight for childcare, an important step toward socioeconomic and political equity in this country. 

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About and

Alyssa Bowen received her Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in 2021. She is a contributor for Truthout and managing editor and senior researcher for the progressive watchdog group True North Research, which tracks dark money in politics.
Ansev Demirhan is a senior researcher at True North Research. She earned her Ph.D. in history from UNC-Chapel Hill and is trained as an intersectional feminist historian. Her research focuses on dark money groups and their opposition to policies that advance equity, reproductive justice, LGBTQIA+ rights and public education. Demirhan has bylines in Ms. magazine, The Guardian, Truthout and Rewire News Group.