Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Retiring from my main volunteer job: generational change in the feminist movement

Retiring from a volunteer job is more complicated than retiring from paid employment. It’s clear I won’t be coordinating the Women’s Studies program at CCP and won’t be teaching classes. I hope to maintain a connection with the College (e.g. guest lectures, serving on advisory boards), but there will be no ongoing responsibility, no significant commitment of time and energy.

Retiring from my main volunteer job (president of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for Women) is not so clear-cut. I want to stay involved, but need to step back so new leadership has room to develop.

Progressive organizations often have trouble with transitions to new leadership. I’ve seen quite a few bad transitions and would like to model a good one—staying involved, being supportive, but not meddlesome.

I’ve seen so many people in my generation who want to hang onto leadership—even if they are just grassroots volunteer positions. Politicians are the worst; they never want to make room for younger folks. A while ago I decided I didn’t want to be one of those old people hanging on far too long, wearing out my welcome, blocking opportunities for younger people.

I am fortunate that there are wonderful younger women taking over my job coordinating Women’s Studies, teaching my service learning course, and taking over my main volunteer job, the Presidency of Phila NOW. (It’s a lot harder to find someone who wants to take over an unpaid job.) Thanks, Mary and Tara and Lauren!!!

NOW seems to be filled with women who want to hang on to chapter presidencies they’ve held for decades. Too often NOW chapters consist of a president-for-life and a mailing list. No wonder membership is falling.

As Katha Pollitt noted in recent Nation article,

“For twenty years, young feminists have complained that older women have kept a lock on organizational feminism. Robin Morgan famously told young women who protested that her generation wasn't passing the torch to "get your own damned torch. I'm still using mine." ( )

We had a real opportunity for generational change at this year’s national NOW convention, but sadly the members chose another course. See my post on the convention at the Philadelphia NOW blog

Granted, it’s easy for me to step aside and make room for a younger generation. I am so ready to retire from both my paid and unpaid jobs, but then not everyone is. Here’s where it gets complicated. Should women who have struggled hard to reach positions of real power and influence (think Ruth Bader Ginsberg) be under any pressure to make room for younger people?

But if everyone hangs on, what happens to younger people in a very tough job market? And how do progressive/feminist organizations, develop the next generation of activists if people in their sixties hang onto most of the leadership positions?

I’m really interested in your thoughts on this.


  1. I think two years as president of "most" non-profit organizations is enough. In our FEW (Look it up) organization that is the rule. Many people get stuck at President because I have noticed in the last few years no one wants to take on the responsibility of leadership. Why is that? I stepped down and have had to make sure all the decisions a president has to make are directed to the new president. I developed my replacement by making her VP and then mentoring her the two years I was in office.
    Karen, I don't think you should retire from NOW just help the next leadership NOW will need in the next several years. This is my $.59 cents worth (Smiles!)

  2. Joycelyn,
    Thanks for your wise advice! That’s what I intend to do. I will stay involved with NOW, but step back to make room for new leadership to develop.