Kate O’Beirne came of age in the 1960s, amid the second wave of feminism, but in a characteristically pungent quip, the conservative commentator said she “learned more about self-worth, ambition and opportunity from my conservative parents and Catholic nuns than I ever did from Eleanor Smeal and Gloria Steinem.”
Such luminaries of the women’s movement were to be looked on with a gimlet eye, she said. Instead, she lionized the nun who coached the debate team at her all-girls’ high school and “encouraged us to go in for the kill” against male opponents. The nun also urged her to go to law school.
O’Beirne, who died April 23 at 67, was a lawyer, an Army wife, a federal employee, a think-tank executive and a journalist. She rose to prominence in the 1990s as a columnist and editor with the conservative National Review magazine and as a TV pundit. She was a regular on public affairs shows including NBC’s “Meet the Press,” CNN’s “The Capital Gang,” MSNBC’s “Hardball” and PBS’ “To the Contrary.”
She was in demand for her good-humored delivery, her policy wonk’s passion for statistics and her skill at pithy, often provocative rejoinders on matters ranging from the role of women in combat (she was against it), school vouchers (she was for them) to welfare (symbolized, she said, by inner-city people “living on a liberal plantation.”)
She took aim at what she considered President Bill Clinton’s legislative shortcomings as much as his persona as a sensitive modern man attuned to the pain of others. “Women don’t want a guy to feel their pain,” she once said. “They want a guy to clean the gutters.”
At times, she chided Republicans for emphasizing “family values” while at the same time producing presidential contenders with high divorce rates.
“Should Mitt Romney join a 2008 race that included John McCain, Rudy Giuliani [and] Newt Gingrich,” she wryly observed in a National Review piece, “the only guy in the GOP field with only one wife would be the Mormon.”
Jacob Heilbrunn, author of “They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons” and editor of The National Interest magazine, said O’Beirne was “not a transformative figure” in conservative thought as much as a “traditional Catholic conservative who made quite a name for herself” through her high visibility.
She was named Washington editor of National Review in 1995 and spent 11 years in the job, writing about Congress, politics and domestic policy. The title of her column, “Bread and Circuses,” was a winking reference to the poet Juvenal and his satiric view of the citizens of ancient Rome desiring diversion over anything else.
She arrived at the magazine at an important juncture. National Review, founded by William F. Buckley Jr. in 1955, long had a “monopoly on conservative intellectual thought,” Heilbrunn said. But the end of the Cold War, the Republican surge after the 1994 midterm elections and competition from the upstart Weekly Standard in 1995 forced National Review to reinvent itself. That meant, in part, seeking out a new breed of writer — less dour, more lively.
With her “feisty and humorous” perspective, Heilbrunn said, O’Beirne seemed an ideal fit.
In addition to policy matters, cultural issues — including the legacy of feminism — became a defining concern of conservatives. To have a woman addressing those points helped usher Mrs. O’Beirne to the forefront of punditry in print, on television and on the dais.
Kate Monica Walsh was born in Brooklyn, New York, on Sept. 23, 1949, and she grew up in Manhasset on Long Island. Her father was a partner in the venerable Manhattan nightclub Jimmy Ryan’s, which focused on traditional instead of progressive jazz. Her mother was a homemaker who raised four daughters — Kate was the second — in an Irish-Catholic Republican home known for its animated dinner-table discussions.
She was studying English and journalism at Good Counsel College, a Catholic women’s school in White Plains, New York, when she left to work on James Buckley’s successful 1970 Senate campaign on the Conservative Party of New York ticket. She completed her degree the next year, then worked in Washington as an aide to Buckley, the older brother of the National Review founder.
She graduated in 1976 from St. John’s University law school in Queens, New York. She briefly practiced law at the Interior Department, then accompanied her husband — an Army officer — on his military assignments until settling in the Washington area in 1985.
After two years as deputy assistant secretary for legislative affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, she joined the conservative Heritage Foundation policy-research organization in 1988, working on domestic-policy studies.
She rose to vice president for government relations at the think tank when she began contributing to National Review. After ending her run as Washington editor of the magazine, she spent six years as president of the National Review Institute, a nonprofit that organizes conferences and hosts fellowships. She was described as a mentor to many young women in the conservative movement.
Survivors include her husband, retired Army Lt. Col. James O’Beirne, and their two sons, Philip O’Beirne and John O’Beirne, all of McLean, Virginia; three sisters, Mary Ann Rowan of Severna Park, Maryland, Virginia Rowell of Potomac Falls, Virginia, and Rosemary Walsh of McLean; and four grandchildren.
The family confirmed the death and said the cause was cancer. Mrs. O’Beirne died at a hospital in Washington.
She had caused a stir in 2006 with her book “Women Who Make the World Worse: And How Their Radical Feminist Assault Is Ruining Our Families, Military, Schools, and Sports.” The book’s premise was in keeping with her view that women were disserved by liberal lawmakers, feminists with a “grievance agenda” and others seeking — in her view — to re-engineer society based on their “antipathy to marriage and motherhood” and their belief that “there are no innate differences between men and women.”
In a C-SPAN interview, O’Beirne said she did not take issue with “consensus goals” such as addressing sex discrimination in wages and employment, which she said had been achieved at the federal level decades earlier.
“Life was certainly simpler when we didn’t have these opportunities,” she said, “but who would want to go back and not have the kind of choices we have? In other respects, I don’t think women are necessarily better off. I think our culture, though more feminized, is coarser. I think traditional manners and mores and male chivalry did a better job of protecting women than litigation over girlie calendars.”