Intergenerational Change in Feminism: Why Is It So Hard to Pass the Torch?

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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 need to 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 and 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 '70s 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.

Karen Bojar

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