Thursday, April 29, 2010

Some good news on the generational front!

Recently there has been a lot of interesting discussion in the feminist blogosphere about generational tensions in the feminist movement, much of it in response to NARAL President Nancy Keenan’s comment that young women lack the passionate commitment to abortion rights which characterized the feminists of her generation.

See my summary/analysis at Why is it so hard to pass the torch? Some thoughts on intergenerational change in the feminist movement

And if you do check it out, make sure you read some of the very thoughtful comments I received on this post.

Today I came across some good news on the generational front. We older feminists have nothing to fear. There are young women out there who are passionate about feminism.

See the Salon review of a new collection Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists, edited by Courtney E. Martin and J. Courtney Sullivan and interview with Sullivan.

Sullivan is optimistic about relations between young and old feminists. She was asked: “There's an argument that pops up in the news every so often that older feminists complain about a lack of passionate young feminists. It came up recently in Newsweek, specifically about abortion rights. Where does this argument come from? What can be done to bring the generations of feminists closer together?” She replied:

When you read about it, it seems like there's this great divide, and in some ways there may be. But when you get in a room with a feminist of a different generation, the whole thing changes. Part of it is just getting together and talking. A lot of women from the last generation of feminism want to know that everything they did was not in vain and that we are carrying it on.

Sure hope she's right!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Why is it so hard to pass the torch? Some thoughts on intergenerational change in the feminist movement

The remarks of NARAL president Nancy Keenan in a recent Newsweek article “Remember Roe! How can the next generation defend abortion rights when they don't think abortion rights need defending?” have generated some very interesting discussion in the feminist blogosphere.

Keenan thinks young women lack the passionate commitment to abortion rights which characterized the feminists of her generation. She points to recent NARAL research:

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. Worse still for NARAL, the millennials surveyed didn't view abortion as an imperiled right in need of defenders. As one young mother in a focus group told NARAL, it seemed to her that abortion was easily accessible. How did she know? The parking lot at her local clinic, she told them, was always full.

Rebecca Traister’s recent Salon post "Where did all the angry young women go?" challenges the notion that the intensity gap indicates apathy among young women but rather reflects a changing landscape:

The fact that young women have been raised without knowledge or experience of back-alley abortion does alter the dynamics of their approach. It makes the issue less personal, less urgent, less terrifying. That is part of the victory of Roe v. Wade. Frankly, that support for legal abortion has remained so high for so long is a testament to the enduring commitment of younger women -- who never experienced the atrocities of illegal abortion or lived without the power to control their own bodies -- to the issues of women's health and freedom.

Traister’s post gets really interesting when she turns to analysis of intergenerational tensions in the feminist movement. The problem of young people impatient to move into leadership positions and old people determined to hang on to power is certainly not unique to feminist organizations. But because so many of us cling to the ideal of sisterly solidarity, the generational struggles can be particularly painful. If older feminists want their organizations to endure they must listen to voices like Traister’s:

Many of the young women who formed and populate the feminist blogosphere will tell you that they took to the Internet because they found no welcome in institutional women's organizations and decided not to work within a system designed and run by leaders who did not trust them, take them seriously, or show any interest in their opinions. Instead, they set out to create their own approach to women's rights, to reach their own peers in their own way, rather than wait to be acknowledged by their elders. As a result, some feminist institutions indeed find themselves with an age imbalance, membership listing precariously toward the senescent.

The Newsweek piece reports that Keenan and her peers at Planned Parenthood and NOW "will retire in a decade or so." But perhaps if, instead of holding on to their crowns like Queen Elizabeth, they might consider passing them down to women who are frankly far better equipped to communicate with future generations than they are, there would not be quite such a perceived crisis.

Traister questions the value of doing pro-choice activism through organizations like NOW and NARAL. Does it matter if younger feminists abandon second wave organizations like NOW and NARAL and turn to the blogosphere? I've heard the argument that these organizations have served their purposes and younger feminists will develop different vehicles for advancing a feminist agenda.

As a long time NOW activist and recently retired chapter president, I’m admittedly not exactly objective here. I believe there is a need for a multi–issue feminist organization which operates on the local, state and national levels. Effective social change activists understand how to navigate our complex system of government; they know which issues are best addressed on which level of government and are capable of mobilizing activists who lobby their local governments, their state legislatures as well as come to national marches/lobby days in D.C.

And just as we need multi-issue organizations like NOW which make the connections between issues and participate in broad based feminist coalitions, we need single issue organizations like NARAL which focus laser-like on abortion rights.

These organizations will no doubt evolve as new leaders take over. But there is a danger they will die if older feminists do not take Traister’s message seriously.

Not every disagreement within feminist organizations is generational at its core. The divisions over sexuality that divided the movement in the early 70’s have been largely overcome, but the feminist movement is still struggling with issues of race and class.

However, the major challenge for the continuation of the organizations of second wave feminism is generational. NOW will hold regional conventions in May to elect members to the national board. I hope that that young women will run for and win these slots. We’ll see.

NOW has elected young women to the ranks of national officers, such as VP Erin Matson who posted an angry reply to the Newsweek article, Have period, will rally: let young women speak for ourselves about abortion rights which defended her generation’s commitment to abortion rights and castigates Newsweek for “bringing that same tired old narrative back."

Although young women like Erin Matson have been officers of National NOW,some of NOW's local and state organizations have been less hospitable to young women. This appears to be the case with other established pro-choice organizations. From Maritza, one of the commenters on Anna North’s post on The Graying Of The Abortion-Rights Crusade at

I wonder if a part of the problem isn't local chapters of PP/NARAL and their leadership's unwillingness to let in new voices. When I was a summer associate, my mentor took me to a PP board meeting (she's on the board) and the women were all older, and the fundraiser they were doing skewed older and wealthy. There didn't seem to be any interest in reaching out to younger women, but then again I don't know what happened in the past, maybe they'd tried and found no interest.

It’s clear that there is interest on the part of young women. From Jessica Valenti’s post Young women respond to Newsweek erasure at

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.

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.

Valenti suggests that young women should boycott organizations that do not honor their work:
Even if for a month young women boycotted the organizations that refuse to acknowledge their hard work - the movement would fall on its ass.

In the responses to Valenti’s post the idea of starting new pro-choice organizations run by younger women comes up frequently. I hope young feminists don’t start new organizations, but rather take over existing ones. It is so much harder to start a new national organization from scratch.

Organizations like NOW and NARAL have a history, resources and a donor base. They are the legacy that second wave feminists have to leave to a younger generation. Let’s hope the older generation listens to Traister and Valenti gets serious about passing the torch.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Thanks Mary Kay, Linda, and Fran for keeping my blog alive while I was in Peru!

Thanks Mary Kay, Linda, and Fran for keeping my blog alive while I was in Peru.

Mary Kay's post about the role of poetry is her life is beautifully written. As always, I love Fran’s garden writing and think she should write a book about gardening as one ages. Linda has a very interesting post about how the opportunities for publishing have changed over her writing life time.

I haven’t had email access since April 12 so I have come home to the usual deluge of email. Once I get though this mountain of email, I’ll post my thoughts on the pro’s and con’s of group travel.

A suggestion: if you have any desire to go to Machu Picchu and you are in your 50’s or 60’s, don’t wait. I wish I had gone when I was younger and had the stamina to see more of this amazing site. But better late than never!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Poetry Suggestions from Mary Kay

Good morning Karen,
I share your love of poetry and find that it has been there for me at all the significant moments of my life. Like you, I always have a book of poetry at hand and look forward to reading something new or to re-read a favorite daily. After gardening, open a book of poems by Wendell Berry or Mary Oliver—they know just what you’ve been up to. Difficult conversations with my daughters have been helped along by Rilke, especially his insights in Letters to a Young Poet. My struggling marriage had me turning to John Ciardi with some frequency. My friends get a birthday poem along with their card from me, and our book group, at least annually, selects their favorite poem to bring to the table.

Poets were there when my dad died, when my daughters were born—and through all the momentous events in their lives. There is some wonderful poetry for fly-fishing, for taking a train in England, for my divorce, for passing (though not knowing when), the day you will die. Poetry is outrageous, cynical, comforting, in-your-face, amazingly beautiful, often cryptic, but it is always there for us.

Philadelphia is filled with poetry readings, open mikes and slams this month and Billy Collins is in town for a lecture on the 22nd. Derek Walcott, (Feast on Your Life is a favorite), is releasing a long-awaited compilation this month—reportedly his finest since, Omerta.

Finally, I was saddened earlier this year to hear of Lucille Clifton’s passing. I was sure that she wrote the following poem just for me to give to my beloved daughters…and she did—for all of our daughters, sons, family, friends…and for us.

blessing the boats by Lucille Clifton

(at St. Mary's)
may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that

Thursday, April 8, 2010

This is national poetry month!

I try to read a poem or two a day. I thought I would be reading a lot more during retirement. I expected I’d devour books; it would be like a return to my adolescence when I was a voracious reader.

But to my surprise (and chagrin), retirement has not been a return to the compulsive reading of the last period in my life when I had a lot of free time. I’ve been trying to figure out why and have identified a few likely culprits.

First, I’ve always been something of a political junkie and the internet has been a real enabler. I spend far too much time reading online newspapers and blogs.

Also, my husband and I subscribe to far too many periodicals. When I was working, I usually did not have time to get through them all and would read an article or two and then throw them into the recycle bin.

Now we have these long breakfasts every day and slowly get through the stack. I may not be reading many books, but I sure am reading a lot of book reviews! There is something really wrong with this picture.

To make sure that I have some connection each day with literature, I try to dip into one of the poetry anthologies scattered around my house. No matter how packed my day, I can always find time for a poem or two .

And another tremendous advantage of poetry—-it forces me to slow down. The internet has turned so many of us into skim-readers. But you can’t skim poetry. It has to be read word for word or it’s not experienced. I find it very satisfying to spend time really reading one short poem.

And has Audre Lorde said in her 1984 essay, “Age, Race, Class: Women Redefining Difference," in Sister Outsider:

Of all the forms, poetry is the most economical. It is the one which is the most secret, which requires the least physical labor, the least material, and the one which can be done between shifts, in the hospital pantry, on the subway, and on scraps of surplus paper. Over the last few years, writing a novel on tight finances, I came to appreciate the enormous differences in the material demands between poetry and prose. As we reclaim our literature, poetry has been the voice the major voice of poor, working class and Colored women.

I’m planning to compile my own personal anthology of poems I love. Any one have any suggestion of poems I should include?

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Thoughts of an Aging Gardener by Fran Waksler

Thank you, Karen, for encouraging my occasional posts here. I enjoy and learn from all your posts, but those on gardening especially motivate me to respond.

What I find most discouraging about being an “aging gardener” is that my body can’t work as long as my mind wants to. I have to pace myself—something I’m not very good at. I find it frustrating that I can’t keep up with projects and tend to forget that with gardening one is always behind anyway.

My approach this spring is to focus on cleaning areas just before things are coming into bloom. Unfortunately the forsythia beat me and are now blooming in a patch of fall leaves—I never get to that area on time! My current tasks have been to prune the kerria of dead wood before the flowers open (just made it) and to make sure that the many clematis, which love my yard and reseed freely, all have support so they will climb the stockade fence. I always find working with clematis fussy. They transplant easily for me, in part because it was only recently that I learned one needs to be careful and I just dug holes for them and stuck them in—a process that worked remarkably well. The fussy part is being sure that the stems of the old ones have sufficient support without my breaking them. They require the softness of a hand that holds a baby bird.

My next job: plant ground phlox on the little rise made by the racetrack the dogs dug out. I hope the phlox with stave off erosion. Gardening with dogs is an adventure and requires innovation. They used to run through my vegetable garden, with expected damage, but once I made them a path through the middle of the garden, they use that and my plants stay safe.

With all the past wild weather the ground is covered with sticks, mostly from the birch tree—my mother warned me that it is a messy tree, but I love it nonetheless, sticks and all. I save some sticks to use as kindling in my wood stove, but the rest has to go in the yard waste bags for the city to pick up. I’m envious of those people who put out 10-15 yard waste bags at one time when I only have the energy to fill a few. Of course I compost a lot, but I still end up feeling like a wimp with my two bags.

Now that the weather is good, I can put extra house plants out on the sidewalk for passersby to take. (I feel a moral compulsion to root everything that breaks off even though I have no room for more plants.) I also put out things I have to clear from the yard—raspberry seedlings that have run amok, pachysandra from the neighbor’s yard that strays into mine (for some reason I hate pachysandra), invasive bee balm, and other odds and ends. Whatever I put out is taken (I hide them when trash is collected), which I find very rewarding.

The best retirement days for me are writing in the morning, gardening in the afternoon, and reading in the evenings. I’ve been having a lot of best days lately.

free lance publishing after retirement

From Linda Beckman

I am a free-lance writer after having published academic books and articles as an English professor (plus an article on poverty in Alabama in Ramparts back in 1968 after my civil rights experience). Since retirement I have been doing local journalism, with plans to do something far more ambitious.

I returned to Gee’s Bend to research for a piece on what happened to the African American hamlet where the famous quilts come from, the ones that have been called ”modernist art” and been shown in nearly every art museum in the country. My essay is inappropriate for a blog or other on-line venues since it is 9,000 words. Many reader/friends like it a lot—but so far I haven’t been able to bring it out.

It is harder than ever to publish now because of the decline of print culture. There are fewer serious print magazines, and those that exist, such as Harper’s, the Atlantic, and Mother Jones now only take articles that are shorter than mine. This must be because of budget constraints and also the decline of people’s willingness to read longer articles.

Others, such as Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, which do publish lengthy pieces, almost always focus on celebrities: it’s the take-over of what Chris Hedges in his latest book calls the Empire of Illusion. I will find a place for my article about Gee’s Bend, but I had wanted maximum exposure since mine is about the heist of the Benders’s artistic heritage by an unscrupulous entrepreneur.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The gardening season has begun, but there’s a dark little thought in the back of my mind.

After one of the hardest winters in recent memory, we are enjoying 70 degree weather in early April!

Usually the sight of the first little purple crocus brings tears to my eyes but this year was something special. And despite all the ice and snow I didn’t lose any more plants than usual—just a few ancient rhododendrons that had been looking sickly for the past few years .

One of the really fun things about gardening is the element of surprise: we never know which plants will survive the winter and we ever know when the show will begin. (According to my gardening records the appearance of the first crocus can vary by up to 2 and half weeks.)

But there is one constant. The crocuses always follow the snowdrops, the early daffodils follow the crocuses, then the scilla, hyacinth, the early tulips, mid and late seasons tulips, the alliums, the irises. The succession of bloom never changes. For reasons, I can’t quite explain I find this very gratifying.

The flowering shrubs have their own invariable sequence: witch hazel in February, followed by winter honeysuckle (the aptly named lonicera fragrantissima), pieris in mid March; forsythia, quince and early rhododendrons in late March: magnolia and cherry trees in early April; the explosion of azaleas and the over- powering fragrance of lilacs in late April; the rhododendron and tree peonies in May, the mountain laurel, peonies, and roses in early June.

Will this predictable succession of bloom be upended by climate change? There might be some gaps in this amazing sequence of bloom but the sequence would remain, wouldn’t it?

Since the scientific literature on climate change is way above my reading level, and since at my age it is unlikely I will be around for any really dramatic changes, I haven’t made much of an effort to try to sort it all out.

Yet fear of what climate change might do to the beauty of my little patch of earth is in the back of my mind. (I’m convinced there is no place on earth more beautiful than the Delaware valley in Spring! We’re the southernmost zone for many northern plants and the northernmost zone for many southern plants—the variety is astonishing.)

I don’t brood about the impact of climate change all that often. Usually I am happy just playing in the dirt, but sometimes the thought surfaces: Just how fragile is all of this????