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.


  1. I wonder why there hasn't been an emergent group specifically focused on issues facing younger women; I'm thinking a little bit about the relationship between the SNCC and the SLC in the fifties and sixties, where the younger student-led groups and the more established pastor-led groups coordinated even though they sometimes clashed. You could also look at the Young Democrats/Republicans as a possible model; it certainly seems to be the case that younger people getting a chance to take continually-turning-over leadership roles can help cement them to the broader movement even as it helps introduce new ideas/causes/methods into the discussion.

    (P.S. Still thinking about your post on older professors/graduate students, which of course ties in! Sorry I've been AWOL -- nagging health issues.)

  2. True mentoring is never "patronizing." It's hard to hand over the reins, but refusal to do so graciously and gratefully will do more to undo the gains feminist agendas have made than anything else I can think of. Unless it's that stupid thing we've done by letting our opposition define our terms; instead of "pro-choice" in reaction to their "pro-life" stance, we should call their position what it is: coerced birth.

  3. Tim, I am so sorry to hear that you are still having these health issues.

    The reason there hasn't been an emergent group specifically focused on issues facing younger women be that younger folks are less into organization building and have more ad hoc ways of getting involved—e.g. meet-ups.

  4. Good points, Nance.
    "coerced birth" is the more accurate term.

  5. Honestly, I think the generational meme we use to talk about this problem is about 1/4 of the puzzle. To be sure there are differences in the way young women see the world - and thank feminists for that!

    I truly believe "young feminism" is an earnestness of approach, a measure based upon what could be rather than what has been. By this definition I know old women who are definitely young feminists. I also know young women in the movement who I struggle to see as young feminists when using that particular measure.

    I also think a large part of the struggle relates to how institutionalized we'd like to be. Is there a point when it's better to wait because you would otherwise lose a seat at the table? Approaches to, and beliefs about the effects of, these questions seem to fall often on generational lines.

    Finally, I think we also need to seriously grapple with the question of two-way communication, as opposed to a top-down, push-out model. Are we willing to consider bloggers part of the movement? Can movement leaders participate in social networking? Again, I think the generational meme often gets pushed on top of this question, even though it's not necessarily about age.

    By the way, I so enjoy your approach to feminism and your openness, inclusivity.

  6. Erin, you’re right that this does not always break down neatly along generational lines—-always exceptions.

    I was struck by your comment: "Is there a point when it's better to wait because you would otherwise lose a seat at the table?"

    Young feminists have a lot of options/ vehicles for feminist activism. They may not be willing to wait all that long for a seat at the table.

  7. I think what we're seeing here is partly what is being recognized in many workplaces as well. That notion of starting at the bottom and working your way up has all but disappeared. So has the sense that experience can (not necessarily, but very much can) be a great addition to knowledge.

    Still, I've found that there are strong young feminists everywhere who do take on leadership roles and do recognize that the generation above them has made life much easier for them.

    But nothing works across the board. I've seen my daughter - who is an ardent and vocal feminist leader in her early 30s - and some of her friends in some ways as much more free than I was at their age and surprisingly perhaps just as mired in old stereotypes as we were fighting against.

    Now 60, I remember being the young one at the table and feeling that "get out of my way" urge. My experience was that as soon as the women who were at the forefront met younger women who were willing to "do the work" they were only too glad to pass things along.

    Then again, it's always hard to give up leadership. I retired from a responsible government position (okay, I know that 'responsible' and 'government' may seem like an oxymoron if we look at the past decade) and am still sometimes caught by surprise by how much I feel lost without any meetings to chair. I often volunteer and am always a little surprised at how much younger than me most of the volunteers are, which is both wonderful and frightening depending on your perspective.

    One last thing. Those of us meeting here in the blogosphere have to be really aware of the ways in which we're breaking down so many barriers; this is a 'room' I can walk into and talk with other feminists and our own age doesn't necessarily even come into the mix. A much more equity-supportive environment for communicating, don't you think?

  8. Your posting and the discussion have been thought provoking and a little elegiac, Karen, so thanks. In addition to the dynamically tough issues of transition, role loss, and worry about who will take up the torch, I wonder if there might also be another potential theme of mourning. Perhaps those who came to the movement as young women experience retirement from leadership as the loss of a group that's inextricably linked to their own development. Retiring from an organization that she helped build as a young woman might be more painful than retirement from a professional role adopted in a less passionate youthful time.
    Congratulations on your being honored for your own leadership years! I can't be there but I'll salute you in spirit.

  9. Sylvia,
    Interesting points about the feminist blogosphere.

    I’ve heard young feminists make the point that the feminist blogosphere is the CR (consciousness raising ) of their generation.

  10. Reni,
    Thanks for congratulations and comment.

    Unfortunately too many feminist leaders retire from their organizations when they retire from leadership. They have a hard time imagining themselves in a role other than as the president/chair of board. It doesn’t have to be that way.

    I’m still involved with Phila NOW. I’m stepping back a bit to give new leaders room, but am still helping out. There’s plenty of work to do!
    And I really like not being responsible for juggling all the balls, doing all the organizational maintenance work

    For me, giving up leadership was easy. I was so exhausted.

  11. I'd like to talk to you about syndicating this post on BlogHer, but I can't find your e-mail address. Can you drop me a line? Thanks!