Sarah Kliff's article describing the graying of the abortion-rights movement has started a really smart, useful online discussion about the status of that movement. The piece, which published exclusive NARAL data about the opinions of young Americans regarding abortion, decried what NARAL leaders saw as both a decline in pro-abortion-rights sentiment and an absence of leadership among younger women.
There’s no question that because abortion is still legal (despite barriers to access and regulation that chips away at the law from the outside, like Nebraska’s recent legislation concerning fetal pain), it’s sometimes hard to rally support around abortion rights in the face of other pressing social concerns. As Kliff writes:
The challenge is not necessarily shoring up support for the cause but convincing the next generation that legal abortion is vulnerable. If they don't act to protect it—in the voting booth, at a rally, or with their checkbooks—it could well fade away with the postmenopausal militia. Paradoxically, the better that NARAL defends abortion rights, the less pressing its cause seems.
Over at Jezebel, the discussion of Kliff’s take produced a panoply of reactions from readers, some of whom validated this point. For a generation of women who have grown up without knowing the reality of back-alley abortions or total reproductive restrictions, the fight for abortion rights, while important, seems less urgent:
Growing up in a post-Roe world has definitely colored my level of activism. I grew up in California and then in Boulder, Colorado. For two summers, I worked within walking distance of a clinic that would do abortions. Now I live in DC, and I know where the nearest women's health clinics are here, too. Even if I moved somewhere that restricts abortions, my family's finances and my mother's support mean that I could easily travel across states to have access to an abortion.
While I am unequivocally pro-choice, I've never, ever felt that my right to choice was actively being threatened, and I'm sure that's part of the reason I've never participated in a pro-choice organization. (Commenter "Peppermint")NARAL's data showed that young people were morally conflicted about abortion, and other polling indicates that younger voters skew more conservative than previous generations. But as Kliff noted, anyone familiar with the concessions made regarding abortion access during the health-care battle (concessions made by pro-choice House Speaker Nancy Pelosi) knows that importance of abortion protection overall has taken a back seat to other political concerns.
But that doesn't mean that the movement is dead, or that older activists are all that's left. In fact, the claim has younger activists seething. NOW’s Erin Matson, who started an online petition to demand that NEWSWEEK interview younger pro-choice leaders, wrote that she was “shaking with anger.” For while NARAL and other more established pro-choice groups may be headed by the so-called menopausal militia, there are still plenty of younger women involved with the cause. And to them, the oft-repeated meme that the movement lives and dies with boomers has them speaking out, once more, imploring to be heard and demanding to be counted. Feministing's Jessica Valenti suggested a walkout of sorts until the contributions of younger activists were recognized:
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.
Aside from criticizing a lack of recognition at the lower level, Valenti also noted that established feminist organizations make it difficult for younger women to get involved and assume leadership roles, a sentiment echoed in some of the Jezebel comments:
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. (Commenter "Maritsa")
But many of the women displeased with the depiction of youth involvement weren't frustrated lower-level NARAL staffers. They were grassroots organizers, activist bloggers, or leaders of smaller, more recently established, or outside-the-Beltway pro-choice groups. (They also weren't all young or outsiders: Matson is both a young activist and a VP at NOW; Debra Haffner, a boomer blogger, wrote an impassioned post about the younger activists with whom she works.)
In fact, in the blogosphere, it’s younger women who are much more prominent: witness 27-year-old Angie Jackson, who live-blogged her abortion as a way to remove stigma about the procedure. Her activism was by many accounts the most visible pro-choice demonstration in the past year, witnessed by YouTube viewers worldwide, readers of NEWSWEEK, the Huffington Post, and various other news outlets, including ABC World News Tonight.
As Shelly, who blogs at Fair and Feminist, notes,
If the only activism that counts is how many people donated to NARAL, well then young feminists without a lot of money are going to be absent from that conversation. And if the only thing that counts is showing up to a rally in D.C. which also takes money, young feminists may be absent there too. But what about those who made it to the rally against Stupak in December, the Bowl-a-thons for choice taking place across the country this week, or the online blogging, tweeting, and facebooking for reproductive rights?But what’s the net effect of Angie Jackson’s well-publicized actions vs. quiet backroom meetings between NARAL lobbyists and Obama officials? How much value should be placed on blogging and tweeting versus fundraising and policymaking? Is a fearless protester more valuable than a staff lawyer?
The question of "what matters most"—of how best to serve as a catalyst for lasting change—is one being asked by numerous political movements as power shifts from generations older to younger. NEWSWEEK’s Eve Conant has reported extensively on the tension between the Human Rights Campaign and new gay-rights organizations like GetEQUAL. The former wants to work via established political channels and amass publicity, legitimacy, and cash via lavish fundraising dinners, arguing that deep coffers, political clout, and incremental change are the best way to achieve long-term success. Leaders of the latter chained themselves to the White House gate to protest "don’t ask, don’t tell," and think civil disobedience beats black-tie affairs and that playing politics wastes time and prevents progress.
The parallels aren't exact, but they do speak to the larger issues that arise when younger, less established activists care just as much as older, more seasoned veterans but have different ideas of what works. And those issues are exacerbated by the digital divide. The good news is that at the end of the day, both NARAL and the women who feel ignored by NARAL are working toward the same end, as are the people at HRC and GetEQUAL. The bad news is that it's often difficult to reconcile the two approaches, and as a result factions feel left out, resources are left untapped, and infighting and hand-wringing slow the pace of progress.
At least at first: witness MoveOn, DailyKos, and other democratic upstarts that once rattled the cages of the DNC (and sometimes still do). And yet it was the tactics used by the Netroots organizers—microdonations, viral campaigns, and blog outreach—that led in large part to the election of our current president. Eventually, the best and most effective practices from each side will endure, while more outdated (or faddish) tactics die out. And eventually, the young upstarts become the established figureheads, and the tug-of-war over power and legitimacy will ensue again. But that's a problem for a later generation.
What's at issue now is the current state of the abortion-rights movement. To that end, we hope to facilitate a discussion later in the week between established groups (many of which also have younger members) that worry that the movement lacks an organized base of younger leaders, and younger activists who worry that the establishment organizations are ignoring methods and strategies that deviate too far from the familiar. Leave your thoughts below, and stay tuned ...