The pro-choice movement would fail without young women

Young pro-choice activists at the March for Women's Lives
Activists (ages 15-18) from Wisconsin, at the 2004 March for Women’s Lives.

Given how popular “young women don’t care about reproductive rights” articles are, you would think by now that I would be used to it. After all, it’s a media favorite. But no matter how many times I see this tired old theme, it never fails to really piss me off.

Take this latest article from Newsweek, “Remember Roe! How can the next generation defend abortion rights when they don’t think abortion rights need defending?” The gist of the piece is this: young women are clueless about abortion rights and the majority of work is being done by older women, what NARAL Pro-Choice America president Nancy Keenan calls the “postmenopausal militia.” There is so much bullshit to call on this article (and this sentiment), it’s hard to know where to begin.

Like this:

[Keenan is part of a] generation of baby-boomer activists now well into their 50s who grew up in an era of backroom abortions and fought passionately for legalization. Today they still run the major abortion-rights groups, including NARAL, Planned Parenthood, and the National Organization for Women.

Um, perhaps these organizations are all run by older women because institutional feminism is not very good at passing the torch and/or sharing power. It is certainly not from a lack of young women trying to be in leadership positions! Because let’s be honest, young women are often kept from being visible in the feminist movement. Remember Shelby Knox’s recent response to generational apathy claims?

Yesterday at the National Day of Action, every speaker fell all over herself to thank young women for simply showing up. The stage behind the podium was carefully dotted with young faces sporting bright pink t-shirts and signs. Yet only one speaker was under the age of thirty – a white woman from a private college whose only role was to list the universities from which student activists had traveled.

And then there are quotes like this (from Newsweek again):

This past January, when Keenan’s train pulled into Washington’s Union Station, a few blocks from the Capitol, she was greeted by a swarm of anti-abortion-rights activists. It was the 37th annual March for Life, organized every year on Jan. 22, the anniversary of Roe. “I just thought, my gosh, they are so young,” Keenan recalled. “There are so many of them, and they are so young.” March for Life estimates it drew 400,000 activists to the Capitol this year. An anti-Stupak rally two months earlier had about 1,300 attendees.

Our power to successfully organize aside, a Planned Parenthood representative tells me that half of the anti-Stupak attendees were born after Roe. (Not to mention the fact that one-third of the people at the wildly successful March for Women’s Lives were under 25 years-old.)

It would be bad enough if this sentiment was only repeated by the media – but it’s one we’ve heard again and again from pro-choice leadership as well. That young women are apathetic, we take our rights “for granted,” that we don’t know how good we’ve got it. Well I’m sorry – but who do you think has been making your photocopies and volunteering and organizing for these big organizations all of these years?

The work of the mainstream pro-choice movement is built on younger women’s labor – unpaid and underpaid – who do the majority of the grunt work but who are rarely recognized. And I don’t know about you – but I’m sick of working so hard on behalf of a movement that continues to insist that we don’t exist.

Where would NARAL Pro-Choice America or NOW be without the work done by younger women?

Who would do their outreach? Who would volunteer? Who would take unpaid internships? Who would carry their action items on blogs and forward them by email, Facebook and Twitter? Who would Blog for Choice?

Seriously, what would happen if young women decided they had enough of being ignored and started simply decided to stop working for these organizations? Even if for a month young women boycotted the organizations that refuse to acknowledge their hard work – the movement would fall on its ass.

And maybe that’s something said movement should consider before they give another quote about our “apathetic” generation.

Join the Conversation

  • uberhausfrau

    Um, perhaps these organizations are all run by older women because institutional feminism is not very good at passing the torch and/or sharing power.
    also, there’s just the plain old (no pun intended) truth that in order to run/lead/be some upper level muckity-muck, it means you’ve probably been doing that job for a long time and, surprise, are going to be older. really, because some green, just out of college gal isnt prez of NARAL, it means we dont care? no, it just means that even most entry level positions nowadays require experience!

  • Maeve

    I’d take it a step farther and say that maybe we should start up our own Abortion rights group. Then the next time someone says that young women don’t care, we can shove our non profit down their throats.

  • Ariel

    Thank you Jessica. I know a majority of the FPAC here in Springfield, MO is made up of young college women and I definitely know that a majority of young women do care about reproductive rights even in the buckle of the Bible-belt.

  • firstripegrapes

    I agree 1000000%. Don’t know how many times I have to yell for older feminists to hear me. WE’RE HERE!
    I wrote about it on the Abortion Gang blog: http://abortiongang.org/2010/04/note-to-older-feminists-we-exist/

  • Nazza

    I think that our generation is highly motivated, and to agree with you, but they are totally led astray by older activists who don’t want to share the power or to pass the baton.
    What I wrote about today on my own site concerned that that very topic. These days, young activists get pigeonholed into very specific job functions, very limiting job functions whereby they never see the light at the end of the tunnel and can never see how the ultimate goal reaches its conclusion.
    And that’s bad for everyone involved.

  • Nazza

    I think that our generation is highly motivated, and to agree with you, but they are totally led astray by older activists who don’t want to share the power or to pass the baton.
    What I wrote about today on my own site concerned that that very topic. These days, young activists get pigeonholed into very specific, very limiting job functions, whereby they never see the light at the end of the tunnel and can never see how the ultimate goal reaches its conclusion.
    And that’s bad for everyone involved.

  • nonsequiteuse

    Oh hell yeah. HELL YEAH. I have grown old(er) waiting for these stupid complaints about young(er) women not getting it to stop. I have raised money and been told it isn’t enough. Well, how about no money, then? Is no money good for you?

  • Vermin Jerky

    Whoa. Wait a second. Please don’t anyone lose sight of what’s important: women’s rights.
    Being under-appreciated (or outright unappreciated) sucks, yeah. But threatening to quit the cause? What about, you know, keeping the rights to our own bodies? If the movement really would collapse without us, then we really don’t want to abandon it, do we? Especially since we’re the ones most deeply affected by it.
    That’s what the phrase “cutting off your nose to spite your face” means.
    Whatever else it takes to get noticed is fine by me. But not quitting, not ever.

  • Jessica

    I never suggested anyone stop fighting for reproductive justice – just that if big orgs continue to say that young women are apathetic, etc, that young women should reconsider working for said orgs. There are a lot of other way to fight the fight w/o working for particular organizations.

  • ssalcedo

    I agree that quitting is the last thing that any young woman should be thinking about. It is hard to spend so much time and energy fighting for something that you aren’t appreciated for, and that you may never even see results for, but the important thing is that people are still fighting. I also agree with Jessica and Maeve that a better option would be just to stop working for certain orgs and stat up some new ones powered by this generations feminists. Judging by the amount of interest and passion that I see for reproduction rights on my campus there are, no doubt, young women who really do care and would join movements that they felt welcomed to.

  • Marji

    How ironic. I just got into an argument with my friend about this the other day.
    I am fifteen.
    I’m in high school.
    I am also staunchly Pro-Choice. I believe that women should have the choice of abortion, along with adoption and parenthood, and those who do go with abortion should no be persecuted for their decision. I believe abortion should be legal because, whether right or wrong, it will continue happening, although if it’s illegal, women would not be operated on in clean, sanitized environments, or by trained professionals. I believe a woman should always have the right to make her own decisions about anything and everything, including something that will effect her life so drastically, no matter the choice.
    I believe I would fight for that right. I believe I would stand up in defense of this choice, of the women who made it, and I believe I’m not the only one in my age group who would do so.
    We’re here, ready to go.

  • Brianna G

    This is everywhere in politics, too. My partner (25) started the Coffee Party for our town, and a 50 year old guy came in, seized control, started to run the meetings, then he started to diminish the value of the younger members of the group, saying they needed to be “reeducated” and they didn’t care enough. Thankfully, he was so incompetent and my partner was so liked by the rest of the group that my partner was able to regain control. But he was a perfect (if extreme) example of this problem– older activists and political organizers are willfully ignoring the contributions of the younger members and pushing them aside. I actually think it’s a problem of thinking of us as children, uneducated and unimportant, whose opinions can be brushed aside with an “uh-huh” as easily as when a five year old says they want to grow up to be a caveman.
    Yet oddly I haven’t had that problem with anyone except the Boomer generation– gen X leaders and leaders who are of the generation before the boomers don’t seem to have quite the same problem with younger activists. Unfortunately, organizations still run by people in their 80s or already run by a 30 year old are pretty dang rare.

  • rrrachel

    I can totally relate. It is really disappointing that amidst so many struggles for reproductive justice that this generational battle keeps surfacing, that this is what we have to spend time/energy/resources responding to.

  • Bethynyc

    When I signed up for volunteer training at Planned Parenthood, it really struck home that I was one of the oldest people there. Most of the women at the volunteer training were in their 20s, with a scattering of 18-19 year olds and a few over 30. The volunteer coordinator seemed to be in her mid 20s.
    I think perhaps the older women in management/leadership positions don’t always see the young women volunteering. Perhaps they are stuck in the office or in meetings, but the young women are there and are working for pro-choice and feminist issues.
    Yes, they should make more of an effort to bring young women up on the podium! There are so many smart and amazing volunteers that it should not be a problem to find one willing to talk about pro-choice issues.
    (I’m 42, and completely awed by these brilliant fellow volunteers!)

  • akgib

    Don’t forget about the young men that get involved too!

  • Heather Aurelia

    I am a young feminist (and Feminist Witch). With the little resources that I have I am trying my best to do my part. I’m not looking for recognition, rather a safe place to communicate, become involved, work to bring equality and awareness with others of like mind. What I am saying is I would do my part regardless of how much or how less visiblity I have in feminism but that doesn’t mean that I would work towards creating visiblity for younger women in feminism.

  • Lisa

    I understand where you are coming from. Sandwiched between the “post-menopausal militia” and the “young women” who allegedly don’t care is me– the Gen-X’er. Some days I see myself as the “translator” who is doing my best to speak youth to old power. Mostly I see myself as the bridge between the generation ahead of me and the one behind me. I have learned from the young activists who are on my staff, who volunteer in my organization, who blog, and who speak out for reproductive rights. I try to advocate for their needs and put into practice what my mentor told me: “as you climb the ladder, reach back and pull a young woman along with you.” It’s not easy, sometimes it’s downright hard. But that’s what it means to be an activist. For everyone of you who is frustrated to hear “where are all the young women” when you are sitting there in the room, there is a me in the back of the room cringing along side you and trying her best to find ways to help you get the opportunities (and respect) you deserve. At politics power sex (http://politicspowersex.wordpress.com, I am collaborating with an activist in her 30’s and an activist in her 20’s to talk about the issues in this movement from our perspectives as women from 3 different “generations”.

  • Cat

    After reading all these responses I can say at least I’m not alone! It is unfortunate that older activist are unwilling to see the worth in allowing the next generation to take the reins.
    In my case I worked for a rather large (won’t name any names) affiliate of a rather large, some would say the largest, reproductive health provider in the nation. I did my time in the background learning, training, obtaining a Master’s degree. When I was ready to step up and take leadership they allowed me to, without changing my title or pay. I did all the work in silence for a year or so until I started seeing higher positions in my organization being filled, by older individuals who were, to put it nicely, idiots. These people did not have more experience specific to the job than I, did not have higher degrees than I, were unable to preform the job better than I was already doing. The ONLY difference I could see was in age. I asked politely when I could be officially promoted and I was told soon. I asked again and again over the years always being assured it would happen in time. Eventually I asked and got the professional equivalent of f off.
    I quit.
    I still know more about the mission of the org than 90% of the people employed there but they lost a PASSIONATE, INTELLIGENT, hardworking, feminist. I recently had a friend who visited the org and said the girl she interacted with could not even explain the stupack amendment to her!!!!!!!!!!!! (more precisely she did not try to she simply said “I don’t know”).
    It is time for us the start our own org.s with fresh minds and fresh ideas and the ability to change! I just hope when we all turn 50 we remember our experiences and are able to pass on the touch to the next generations!

  • tophersez

    This !@%* is why I stopped volunteering for NOW a few years ago. I used to organize rallies and gave massive amounts of time and energy to feminist activism. I gave conference presentations and helped create a mentoring program to try to bridge the generation gap in NOW. Then it became clear that the NOW leadership just wanted me and my fellow volunteers as a prop for their campaign for reelection – nice, young faces in the background of their pictures – and had no interest in actually supporting the work we were doing. A couple people stayed, but most of us got fed up and left. Some of us tried again with NCWO’s Younger Women’s Task Force, only to have the money we raised for our campaigns siphoned off by the parent org when they ran out of funds. At that point, only a couple of people were willing to keep trying – most of us just gave up and went on to other issues.
    I wonder how many other strong feminists have had this same experience. More to the point – I wonder how many activists the movement has lost because of what you describe.

  • dancerjess

    I would love to start my own organization…but how many young people (I’m 24) have the financial backing to do so? There are TONS of badass young feminists out there, but I think it takes a significant amount of privilege to be able to start your own reproductive rights organization. It’s certainly a whole lot easier for a young feminist to do something like volunteer with PP/NOW/NARAL…it’s certainly the most accessible way to get involved in the movement.
    I guess the question is, how do we change that?

  • Libbierator

    Marji – thanks for standing up and speaking out. That is EXACTLY how I felt in high school, too. I am now 21, a junior in college. I thought I was one of the youngest people on here – it is FANTASTIC to know there’s high schoolers on here too!!! DON’T EVER GIVE UP!!!
    I am SO FREAKING GLAD you found this site and are posting on it!!

  • pull_rank

    I wonder how many other strong feminists have had this same experience.
    Many! NOW, NCWO, PP, NARAL, Feminist Majority (to a lesser extent) — I’ve seen it with all of them. It sucks.