Monday, April 19, 2010

younger women, movements, and institutional feminism

I'm not entirely sure how to address this one. I want to both defend and call out the large national pro-choice organizations involved here, because I believe in their potential and I think they have their hearts in the right place. But potential can only be realized through critical analysis of strategies and approaches, so I'm going to try to do that, and to tread carefully here.

This weekend, Newsweek published this story by Sarah Kliff about a recent poll that NARAL Pro-Choice America just released on the attitudes of younger voters and reproductive rights. The poll itself was, in my belief, a way to prove what most young people in the reproductive justice movement already knew: that younger people aren't engaged in reproductive rights at the level they could/should be, and that major pro-choice organizations need to step up in their attempts to engage younger voters and activists.

That's not the way that Newsweek presented the poll, though. Disappointing, because Sarah Kliff is usually a remarkably good journalist when it comes to covering abortion-related issues. Kliff used the poll, and select quotes from NARAL president Nancy Keenan,  to make another hand-wringing case of "these young folks don't get it and they don't care and now we have nobody to pass the torch to and dammit, why don't any of them care?" Again. Because the (totally bogus) "young women don't give a shit about feminism" meme hasn't quite run its course yet, apparently.
Kliff did a lot of paraphrasing of Nancy Keenan's statements, so I'm not sure if they were accurately paraphrased. Maybe Keenan didn't disparage young women and just wring her hands in the way Kliff made it seem. Things like:
And what worries Keenan is that she just doesn't see a passion among the post-Roe generation—at least, not among those on her side.'s just straight-up bullshit, and I want to believe that Keenan actually sees and acknowledges the many, many young women working FOR her, in her own organization, who are phenomenally passionate.

But this isn't about calling out Keenan or the organization she represents.* It's bigger than that.

Younger women are passionate, and we DO care, as is evidenced by the responses to this piece.
-Jessica wrote a really great response on feministing today: The pro-choice movement would fail without young women."
-A friend of mine, Elise, just got her piece published on RH Reality Check: Reflections by a Young Pro-Choice Activist.
-And, because it's still relevant and still so well said, Shelby Knox's response to the hand-wringing over generational apathy (from during the Stupak debacle in health care reform): From a Young Woman to (Some) of the 'Menopausal Militia'.
Further evidence is here, from a PPKM action in December 2009, thanking Senator McCaskill (D-MO) for her opposition to the Stupak ban in health care reform. (I'll note that it was -5ºF during the visibility action, which was outside.) Of the 9 activists in that picture, 6 are under 30, and 2 are not much over 30.

Thing is, it's not a matter of the argument of whether young women care or not. While I haven't seen this poll data or methodology, the conclusion - that younger pro-choice women don't see abortion rights as an important issue when it comes to voting - seems believable to me. From the article:
A survey of 700 young Americans showed there was a stark "intensity gap" on abortion. More than half (51 percent) of young voters (under 30) who opposed abortion rights considered it a "very important" voting issue, compared with just 26 percent of abortion-rights supporters; a similar but smaller gap existed among older voters, too.
There is no "intensity gap" when it comes to my circles of friends...but I fully realize that the friends I select generally share my intense passion for feminist politics, and that we probably don't represent the majority of young women. I'll admit that my peers are not as intensely invested in reproductive freedom, and that some women in my generation do take their reproductive rights for granted.

The problem isn't in recognizing that younger voters aren't as engaged or invested in reproductive justice as they could be. That's a fact. I'll give you that.

The problem is in turning this into another bullshit "but NONE of them care!" argument. Playing that game means that the responses will be "but we DO care! and we ARE here!" It's important to note the contributions of younger women, but it's an unproductive game to play, because a) it creates a distrustful animosity between "postmenopausal militia" and "millennials," and b) it provides no options for moving forward.

Here's what the poll really means:
  • There is a big gap in engagement and investment in reproductive justice among younger voters.
  • AND there are a ton of very engaged, passionate, young "full-time feminists" who are doing great things in their communities to increase engagement and investment among their peers.
  • AND the large, national pro-choice organizations have not always done a great job in either recognizing the work of these younger feminists or in supporting their work.

See what I did there?
Both the "post-menopausal militia" and younger feminists are right.
My contemporaries don't always see how very tenuous their reproductive rights are. They do sometimes take it for granted, in part because of the incredible work that's been done by the generations that came before us.
Younger feminists are here, though, and we're doing some pretty incredible stuff. We're also doing it in a different framework than the abortion-rights framework of the generations before us, because the concept of reproductive justice is one that resonates more with our generation. We're ready to mobilize and engage our peers, the other "millennials" who are so often cited as the reason our entire generation has failed. We are also ready to take over, to share that torch with the older generations.
But first, we need to be acknowledged and supported by these organizations. And therein lies the way forward.

It was very poorly communicated in the article, but that's what this poll really says. It gives numbers to the truth that younger people in the reproductive justice movement - and especially younger people who've been involved with these larger pro-choice organizations - have known for years: that resources haven't been adequately or efficiently expended to engage the generation of younger people. And, therefore, that those resources need to be adequately and efficiently used to do just that.

Pro-choice organizations who are so worried about not having anyone to pass the torch to should (as Jessica said in her feministing post) look within their own organizations. There are plenty of young women working for them, doing the field work. Pro-choice organizations also need to start valuing these individuals, and need to start cultivating leadership among their younger activists.

Don't know how to do that? It's ok. If you stop making us invisible, we'd be glad to help you. There are plenty of younger feminist organizers who really get it, and who would be glad to help you craft a field plan to organize younger voters. You could ask the Obama campaign for help with engaging young people. Ask Choice USA, if you want to connect with an organization that really has their shit together when it comes to youth organizing.
Most of all, though, if you want to expand your base to include more young people: listen to the younger activists who are already involved in your organizations. You've got too many resources and connections and history within your organizations to let it go out with the retirement of your current baby-boomer leaders.

I truly believe in the potential of these organizations. And I truly believe that they want to do right by younger activists/progressive voters. I don't think that the Newsweek article accurately portrayed the way that NARAL, as a whole, sees younger people. But I think it did show that major pro-choice organizations have a long way to go to truly engage and honor the younger activists and leaders that they have.

*There's a lot of bullshit that should be called out for this article. The "moral complexity" piece is problematic. There is a place for that conversation. The general disparagement of younger women in the movement is a problem, as is the part where Kliff (paraphrasing Keenan, maybe or maybe not accurately) makes invisible the many younger women working in this field. But that's not where I'm going with this particular post. This time.

1 comment:

Elise said...

Perfectly nuanced, loving, and productive. Everything a post about this topic should be. I'm definitely the person who responded with "But we DO care!" and recognize that wasn't a terribly productive way forward, (even though it was cool as shit to get published and quoted in your blog).

I'm glad to have mentors like you. Thank you.