Three years ago Barbara Ledeen was at home with her three children, watching the Bush campaign for president unfold. Once a leftist, an anti-Vietnam War marcher and dedicated supporter of women's rights, she had moved slowly rightward over the years and was feeling politically homeless.

"All the Republicans could offer in terms of women's issues was opposition to abortion," said the registered independent, a former co-editor of Biblical Archaeology Review and onetime Defense Department consultant. The feminist movement, she felt, had accomplished its major goals and was now mired in a campaign of whining. The conservative women's groups, on the other hand, offered no solace either. Concerned Women for America was too Christian for her, and the group's leader, Beverly LaHaye, was the focus of a personality cult, she felt. "The Federation of Republican Women? I'm not a Republican, and anyway they were too much the pearls and Ultrasuede. That's not me."

Ledeen finally found an ideological home at the newly formed Independent Women's Forum, of which she is now the executive director. In a few years the group has grown from an informal lunch-and-speaker network to a surprisingly successful voice for conservative women, most of them well-educated, well-connected white professionals. It has 550 dues-paying members, a mailing list of 1,500. Its members put out a newsletter and a magazine and get published on the Op-Ed pages of major newspapers, quoted in news stories and invited on talk shows with astonishing regularity.

IWF originally came together around opposition to Anita Hill's testimony at the Clarence Thomas hearings, emerging out of a group of female lawyers organized to testify on his behalf, including former EEOC vice chairman Ricky Silberman. Wendy Lee Gramm, wife of the senator and presidential candidate, was also influential in shaping the group's agenda. Her Op-Ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, arguing that economic issues like taxes and deregulation were more important to women's well-being than child care or abortion, defined the philosophical home that women like Barbara Ledeen were looking for.

"We were all in various ways saying there's a hole in the marketplace of ideas," Ledeen said. But -- if they are opposed to feminist causes like affirmative action, gender equity in education, the Violence Against Women Act, and so forth -- why form a women's group?

"You can't have white guys saying you don't need affirmative action," said Ledeen. "We feel we have credibility to say, Not all women think the way you may expect.' "

It is no surprise that the IWF has infuriated the mainstream feminists at the National Organization for Women and elsewhere. They are "a right-wing anti-woman organization formed by the wives and handmaidens of conservative politicians," wrote Martha Burk in one of her weekly Feminist Faxnet epistles, this one titled "The Judas Wives." She called them a "pack of she-wolves" in "states' rights sheep's clothing." (IWF President Anita Blair, a classics major in college, called that an "ad feminem attack.")

"I think their ideas are dangerous," said NOW President Patricia Ireland. "They're dangerous because they are more effective than Phyllis Schlafly or Beverly LaHaye, who have large grass-roots organizations but do not actually believe in women's rights. {The IWF} are professional women, they are more sophisticated and savvy. And they do have access to having a voice. But I'm not afraid to compete in the marketplace of ideas with them. I think we have a better product."

It can be a challenge to sort out exactly where the IWFers sit on the political spectrum. They believe in women's liberation but not in feminism, said Blair, a lawyer. "Women's liberation fought against the destiny of women being limited to raising children," she said. "But then feminists imposed a destiny of everyone being a single mother holding down a job and trying to manage. . . . Feminism has become a word like racism, a person who irrationally puts her sex above others."

The women who form the IWF ranks are impressively accomplished. They include a slew of lawyers, PhDs, economists, budget analysts, businesswomen and journalists. Nearly 300 members are listed in the group's recently published media guide, which is available to reporters looking for dial-a-quotes to balance more liberal spokeswomen.

Sometimes the women at IWF can sound like they're singing a Tammy Wynette song -- "that's no white male, that's my husband," they like to say. They're the sort of women who don't mind being called ladies or even girls on occasion. And they sure like to have doors held open for them. They really don't care what you call them, as long as it's not Ms.

Some of the names are familiar -- Bennett, Bork, Laxalt, Cheney. There seems to be an even sprinkling of those who have taken their husbands' names and those who have kept their own -- but at least they feel ambivalent about it.

"I've always regarded a woman's tenacious use of her maiden name as a display of insecurity rather than a show of strength," wrote IWF's Women's Quarterly editor Danielle Crittenden. "I shake hands with her thinking, she is willing to share her bed, her house, her bank account, her offspring and eventually her grave with her husband -- but not his name?" Crittenden then admits that in fact she uses her own name for "literary vanity," because her husband (former Wall Street Journal editorial writer David Frum) is a journalist also.

Ambivalence seems to shadow these gals like the ghost of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. While they are very clear on issues such as welfare reform and affirmative action, they do not issue position papers or write articles on the subject of abortion, which many women see as central to a woman's ability to control her own destiny. "There's too wide a range of opinions among our members," explained Ledeen. "And there are a lot of other groups that focus entirely on that issue."

This is part of what led feminist writer Susan Faludi in Ms. Magazine to call IWF and two other ideologically attuned groups "pod feminists" who practice "no-risk feminism for a fearful age: just post your achievements, make nice with men, and call it a day."

Fearful or not, this is surely an age in which passion is suspect. Pleas for justice and equality must be cloaked in numbers to prove their practicality. There is a growing uneasiness among women whose husbands, sons and brothers have been downsized out of jobs or believe they are the negative in affirmative action. There are also new generations of women who say they have never felt the sting of sexism. Add to that the women who react to the pressures of combining a career and motherhood with a desire -- however fleeting -- to simply be supported by a husband and you have a fertile pool of antifeminist resentment.

From that pool emerge women such as Laura Ingraham, a well-connected 31-year-old lawyer who works for Robert Bennett defending white-collar criminals, writes Op-Ed pieces and runs marathons on the side, in addition to jetting around the country to appear on panels arguing the anti-affirmative-action position. During college she worked on the conservative Dartmouth Review; after college she clerked for Clarence Thomas. Fond of leopard prints and short skirts, she is determined to inject some "fun" into the conservative ranks.

To that end she has organized a Dark Ages weekend as a counter to the fabled Renaissance Weekend retreat favored by the Clintons. Taking place over the New Year's holiday, Dark Ages will include a William the Conqueror Golf Tournament in addition to panel discussions of "Life After the Welfare State: What Replaces It?" and "Health Care: Can the Industry Heal Itself?" More than 300 conservative boosters have signed up.

IWF also includes mid-career types like Christina Hoff Sommers, the Clark University philosophy professor who wrote "Who Stole Feminism?"; Bush administration education official Diane Ravitch; and older established names such as Anne Armstrong, former U.S. ambassador to Great Britain.

Established feminists like Burk say that IWF members are not really in favor of women's rights but are a "Trojan horse, a fig leaf for the broader conservative agenda." Those in the group say their intent is to articulate a position of equal treatment for women that is also fair to men. Burk and Ireland see IWFers as marionettes whose strings are pulled by conservative white male puppeteers. But IWF members assert that the response to their work shows that there is a growing coalition of women who feel distanced from feminism, both in terms of style and content. They cite, for example, that their 800 number, which rings in Anita Blair's law office and is sometimes answered by a male, got 200 positive calls the day a piece about the group appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

IWF is not, and has no plan to be, a grass-roots organization with a mailing list in the hundreds of thousands, a direct mail campaign and a large fund-raising apparatus. It is funded largely with grants from individuals and a few conservative foundations ($40,000 from Bradley, $100,000 from Carthage) as well as their $30-a-year dues. IWF's budget was about $250,000 this year, Blair said. That figure could not be verified. IWF's nonprofit tax return for 1994 has not yet been filed. However, Blair said the operation is so lean that even Wendy Gramm licked stamps for the first mailing.

Certainly their digs are not lavish -- Ledeen and assistant Amy Holmes, a 1994 Princeton graduate, work out of a $150-a-month basement room in the Heldref Building, a warren of nonprofits subsidized by the foundation that owns the place. Two other staffers work out of Blair's Arlington law firm. The group holds monthly lunches in the Heldref conference room -- Lynne Cheney speaks next month on her new book. This year the IWF has already had Congressional Budget Office Director June O'Neill speak on "A View From the Trenches," pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick on "Women in the Polls," and House investigator Barbara K. Bracher on "Government Oversight Under the Republican Majority."

The Quarterly, IWF's house organ, has offered some deeply technical pieces: one on the history of women in warfare, as well as an essay advocating mandatory AIDS tests for all pregnant women (one of IWF's major causes). There was an essay by a public housing resident in Chicago claiming that most federal money for anti-poverty programs is controlled by drug gangs. There have been pieces lamenting the demise of family dinner and excoriating the lyrics of "Free to Be You and Me." "There was no tune . . . set to the rhythm of the breast pump emptying the glands of a guilt-ridden mother executive, hunched in a corporate bathroom stall," wrote Elena Neuman, 27, about the Marlo Thomas recording.

Attacks on the International Women's Conference in Beijing are a staple. There are provocative suggestions as well, such as journalist Anne Applebaum's notion that the cure for unemployment is to make it easier for those who have jobs to hire more domestic servants.

Opposition to affirmative action is a favorite issue, along with a campaign to keep Virginia Military Institute all-male. The group spent $50,000 on a VMI amicus brief its first year. Blair argues, among other points, that making the publicly funded school coeducational would threaten numerous programs at private women's schools and programs for women at public schools.

"There is a certain aspect of I've got mine' that bothers me," said NOW President Patricia Ireland. "They've benefited from the women's rights movement, but now they're working hard to roll back policies that have opened doors for them. And I think they have a very limited, inside-the-Beltway perspective. We're sitting here with 600 chapters all over the country and they exist for a year or so and get equal coverage. It is a little startling."

"I hate to use a sports metaphor," said Barbara Ledeen, who is married to writer and former National Security Council consultant Michael Ledeen. "But if you don't field a team, you can't expect to be in the game.

"Every day we're getting calls from women all over the country. There's a kind of assumption about women made by the elite in the culture, in advertising -- and it's just not true." CAPTION: The Women's Quarterly, published by IWF, in which opposition to affirmative action is a favorite issue. CAPTION: Independent Women's Forum members at their weekly meeting include executive director Barbara Ledeen, left, and president Anita Blair, center. "You can't have white guys saying you don't need affirmative action," says Ledeen. "We feel we have credibility to say, Not all women think the way you may expect.' " CAPTION: Independent Women's Forum president Anita Blair, far left, and members Laura Ingraham, center, and Amy Holmes. Says Blair: "Feminism has become a word like racism, a person who irrationally puts her sex above others."