Let Young Women Speak for Ourselves

By Erin Matson, NOW Action Vice President

Note: The fabulous and wonderful Fair and Feminist announced a THIS IS WHAT A YOUNG FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE blog carnival for today. For this carnival, I’m reposting excerpts of a speech I gave at both the Virginia NOW and Florida NOW State Conferences earlier this year.

April 16, 2010. Newsweek posts an article from its April 26, 2010 print issue. It is titled:

Remember Roe! How can the next generation defend abortion rights when they don’t think abortion rights need defending?

I’m going to quote two paragraphs straight from the article:

So if Democrats won’t stand strong for abortion rights, who will? The predicament weighed particularly heavily on NARAL Pro-Choice America, the country’s oldest abortion rights group. Founded in 1969 as the National Association for Repeal of Abortion Laws, NARAL has helped protect Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case legalizing abortion, against countless legislative challenges. NARAL president Nancy Keenan had grown fearful about the future of her movement even before the health-care debate. Keenan considers herself part of the “postmenopausal militia,” a generation of baby-boomer activists now well into their 50s who grew up in an era of backroom abortions and fought passionately for legalization. Today they still run the major abortion- rights groups, including NARAL, Planned Parenthood, and the National Organization for Women.


These leaders will retire in a decade or so. And what worries Keenan is that she just doesn’t see a passion among the post-Roe generation — at least, not among those on her side. This past January, when Keenan’s train pulled into Washington’s Union Station, a few blocks from the Capitol, she was greeted by a swarm of anti-abortion rights activists. It was the 37th annual March for Life, organized every year on Jan. 22, the anniversary of Roe. “I just thought, oh my gosh, they are so young,” Keenan recalled. “There are so many of them, and they are so young.” March for Life estimates it drew 400,000 activists to the Capitol this year. An anti-Stupak rally two months earlier had 1,300 attendees.

As an officer of NOW, I must in good conscience make two corrections before continuing:

Fact: NOW was founded in 1966, making it the oldest group referenced in the story.

Fact: NOW is more than an abortion rights group. NOW stands for equality for all women. As one of our six core issues NOW affirms that reproductive justice is a matter of life and death for women, not a mere matter of choice.

The article continued by referencing a poll showing an “intensity gap” on abortion rights views between anti-abortion rights voters and abortion rights voters under the age of 30, an age group that fits in the millennial generation. 51 percent of anti-abortion rights millennials reported their views as “very important” when voting, compared to 26 percent of millenials supporting abortion rights.

With this information the article concludes a paragraph with:

So the challenge is not necessarily shoring up support for the cause but convincing the next generation that legal abortion is vulnerable.

The article also quotes former NARAL President Kate Michelman and NARAL pollster Anna Goldberg. It continues on with questions like: So what might prompt the next generation to take up the cause?

The article ends with a swirling pile of negativity about the uncaring, unknowing young women who just have no idea they must defend Roe v. Wade. It also concludes that young women have decided abortion is personal, not political, and the more personal abortion becomes the more morally complex, or in other words, in need of nuance. Finally, it concludes Nancy Keenan and her allies have failed to connect with the next generation.

All without asking a single young woman.

This is hardly the first time the media has painted a picture of abortion rights activism, or for that matter feminism in general, as a few grannies in a moving truck stalled somewhere between the assisted living facility and the nursing home. It is a serial genre novelette we can only call Invisible Young Woman.

In late November 2009, the New York Times published a nearly identical article, also featuring Nancy Keenan and Representative Louise Slaughter, age 80 and co-chair of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus. To give you a sense of how quickly the media is aging feminism into obscurity, the most marked contrast between this piece and the Newsweek piece is the use of the phrase “menopausal militia” rather than “post-menopausal militia.”

Having completed menopause in just five easy months, feminism and abortion rights activism continued its so-called inevitable journey toward death on a highway clogged with so-called “truth trucks” driven by Bart Stupak, Joseph Pitts, Ben Nelson, Orrin Hatch, Scott Roeder, Randall Terry, Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty, Tim Tebow and his mother, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the entire legislature in the state of Utah.

As with the New York Times article, and I want to stress there are more examples of this kind of reportage than I have time to get into, many of them with older leaders supplying the same quotes who do not have the name Nancy Keenan, young women who very much do support and fight for abortion rights poured rage and anger onto the Internet within hours.

I wasn’t even through reading the Newsweek piece when I tweeted my frustration:

Hey media, do you want to talk about young women and abortion rights? Then INTERVIEW YOUNG WOMEN.

That was April 19 at 10:49 a.m. By 11:29 a.m. I had created a Twitter petition to Newsweek to INTERVIEW YOUNG WOMEN WHO SUPPORT CHOICE, WRITE A NEW STORY.

Though you could just resend the link through your own Twitter feed to sign the petition, a web page further explained that Newsweek has just printed an extremely one-sided story that claims young women don’t care about abortion rights:


Not one young woman was quoted in the story.

Our generation is fully capable of speaking for ourselves.

We are ready to hit the streets and claim full reproductive justice for all women, including but not limited to full abortion rights.

We are available to speak with you and will gladly grant interviews to help you correct your misleading story.

Meanwhile, myself and many, many, many young women started blogging. And 30 hours later, a Newsweek reporter rang in to my desk.

In its most simplest purest form, I am hopeful this incident will serve as a loud lesson to both those in the media who cover social movements and the older leaders of women’s organizations: Young women in the women’s movement are fully capable of speaking for ourselves, and while it’s everyone’s right to have an opinion about us, it’s irresponsible to make statements on our behalf.

Reporters need to talk to young women if they are going to report on young women’s attitudes or young women in the women’s movement. Leaders speaking about young women’s attitudes or young women in the movement, if they are not young themselves, have a responsibility to provide reporters referrals with young women they can speak to as well.

That is just the uppermost top layer of what we must do. It is not even the whipped cream — it is just the cherry. We are desperately overdue for a much larger conversation about the so-called second and third waves of feminism, about what constitutes the women’s movement, about the language of social justice and women’s human rights, about what 21st century leadership we have a moral obligation to provide, and frankly what type of crap we’re willing to take from the Democratic party, including folks we generally consider to be very good friends.

These are difficult conversations that have often degenerated into what Virginia NOW President Marj Signer calls attack-dog feminism. We need to remember that social justice is our goal, that progress requires us to be focused, and open to feedback, and to most importantly save our most biting words for the people opposed to recognizing the fundamental and inalienable equality of women and men of all races and ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations. We are not the enemy. We must recognize the auto-immune disease within our own movement and do everything we can to model tolerance for those with different approaches to the end goal of social justice and equality for all.

I am incredibly optimistic that we can do this. I pledge to do my part and do this. I am asking every one of you to do this with me. Courage and commitment and trust are contagious. Feminists can do this.

We need to make it safe to have our own perspectives. I come from a perspective of relative privilege within the young feminist space. Against my own wishes I benefit from white privilege. Against my own wishes I often benefit from heterosexism. I have benefited from holding leadership positions within the movement. These factors and many more affect my ability to be heard.

In 2003, the National Organization for Women formed a Young Feminist Task Force with the purpose of advising the NOW Board of Directors on matters of issue prioritization, recruitment and event programming as it pertained to young women. I was a founding member of that group and served on it through 2008 — I am it’s longest standing member ever. Interestingly, this task force was formed after previous efforts to gain apportioned seats for young women on the board of directors itself had failed. It was seen as a sort-of compromise.

In 2004 I was elected to be the President of Minnesota NOW at the age of 23. I was the youngest state president in the country within our organization. I bring these things up to tell you: My entire experience within the movement has been dominated by the issues I’m speaking about today. Though my experience has been overwhelmingly positive, I have been pigeonholed, discriminated against and made invisible by older women before. I have also been pigeonholed, discriminated against and made invisible by younger women because of my leadership positions and/or organizational affiliations before.

I know why a number of young women in the movement are frustrated, and let me admit something. I’ve been frustrated, too. Really frustrated.

I am a feminist and sometimes it has irritated me to hear myself identified as a “young feminist,” as if I’m only allowed to occupy a specific niche of issues I can work on, or views I can hold. Other times I’m proud as hell to hear myself described that way. It’s complicated.

You know, views are always different between generations, and look how much has changed for women in the past few generations! Thank feminists for that. So I do know that the way I see the world, and talk, and approach my activism is different than the way other women do — and that age is one large factor in the movement.

Even the definition of what constitutes a young feminist is contested and highly fraught with emotion. Is it age? Is it being in college? What if you didn’t go to college? Is it in your 20s? 30s? U35? Does that leave out women who don’t consider themselves old but can’t relate to being a “founding” second wave ’70s feminist? What about women who fully participated in the ’70s but consider themselves young-at-heart?

In my definition, age is an important, but not defining, factor. Young feminism can be considered an earnestness of purpose. We measure our work against what could be, not what used to be.

Young feminism is a label that should never be used to divide, separate or wage an internal war, and unfortunately that has happened multiple times within our movement. Ignoring young feminists and declaring them invisible by saying they’re not there — and I want to be clear it’s insidious when it applies to older leaders talking about young women in the movement, and when it applies to young feminists or women in the media who bash women’s organizations for not having young activists and leaders when we very much do — this behavior of selective vision is unacceptable. Declaring older feminists lepers or has-beens is unacceptable. We must reject divisions and resolve to do better. We are better than this.

There is something about the Internet that makes it particularly easy to have an unproductive us-versus-them conversation. Without nonverbal communication, it’s even easier to misunderstand the words of someone who speaks and thinks differently than you. Without feedback, it’s also easier to make your words more extreme, and more confrontational, and more combative — and even more so when you’re speaking with a group of people who think like you. As we search for intergenerational partnership and some much-needed healing based upon misunderstandings and even some foul actions taken by feminists against one another, we must take special care not to succumb to the violent extremism in speech patterns that is unfortunately the norm in 2010. We have the power to do this and we must do this, and we will do this.

So a little bit lighter, I come from a digital communications background and find it extraordinarily amusing to see how the words “technology” and “young feminism” are used interchangeably in the movement. Certainly technology is one tool to reach young women. But we are not a website and understand the movement isn’t one, either!

That said, it’s important for the women’s movement to broaden its self-definition to include those who raise consciousness in the online space, and those who use online technologies to directly apply pressure, and those who use online technologies to bring people to physical locations to apply pressure. Let me say it more clearly. Feminists who apply pressure online are just as much a part of the women’s movement as feminists who apply pressure in the street. We all have a role to play and we must honor the legitimacy and relevance of our skills and talents, however we apply them.

Intersectional feminism is at the core of the social justice movement. We believe in more than rights — we believe in equal freedoms and opportunities for all. We believe that social justice doesn’t grant rights but instead recognizes our fundamental right to control our own destinies, ones that had been suppressed for the purposes of social control. We believe that sexism cannot be fought without pouring equal vigor into fighting racism without pouring equal vigor into fighting homophobia. We believe that equality, freedom, opportunity, safety, support, respect and inclusivity are the highest expressions of what it means to be a moral culture.

We are fundamentally positive and promoting of what it means to be good to one another, and the planet. And as feminists, we start with applying these values to women.

Social justice includes reproductive justice, which not only includes the full and unencumbered right to access safe and legal abortion, but also the full and unencumbered opportunity to bear and raise children. Reproductive justice includes comprehensive sex education in schools. Reproductive justice includes access to contraceptives and sexual protection. Reproductive justice includes not segregating abortion care from other forms of health care. Reproductive justice includes non-coercive adoption providers and respective regulation around surrogacy. Reproductive justice includes paid maternity leave and paid paternity leave.

I say this not to ramble, but to highlight the stark contrast between a social justice frame, and the way many elements of the institutionalized “pro-choice” community refer to abortion rights as rights to be protected from harm. A social justice frame is positive and proactive. The dominant frame, on the other hand, speaks to an experience that is negative. It speaks to fear. Think of many of the slogans: Defend Roe, Remember Roe, We Won’t Go Back, Protect Our Rights, Stop a Roll-Back of Reproductive Rights.

Think of how this dominant frame speaks to young feminists. Everything important has already been done. If you do not act things will go back to the way they were. Abortion rights is framed as a part of the past instead of our own futures. Speaking for young women, it is our own futures. We are the ones who are on see-saws. We are the ones who are just one forced pregnancy away from poverty. That said, we all have a responsibility and a stake in ensuring our country inflicts that future on no woman or girl.

Is this one reason why older women don’t see young women fighting for abortion rights? Perhaps. While acknowledgement and understanding are certainly large battles, I think the more we can stand together across generational lines and change the dialogue to abortion rights as fundamental human rights we must be able to express as women, and abortion rights about our futures rather than our pasts — the more young women we will see.

I believe another way to draw more young women is to provide real platforms for action – the sweaty, messy stuff that happens in the streets. The proposed Stupak-Pitts abortion ban unleashed young women. I started getting telephone calls from young women who’d never so much as signed an online petition and now wanted to organize a nationwide walk-out, and could I tell them how to do it? Absolutely we were galvanized. On behalf of NOW, I’m proud to have organized what I think was the first demonstration against the ban less than 48 hours after the House adopted it into its version of the health care bill last November — and so many women showed up outside those Senate office buildings that the cops kicked us out!

Many groups that NOW works with organized a national lobby day, and from a young feminist perspective, I do not think that lobby day was enough. I think we need to take leadership within our organization, as the grassroots wing of the women’s movement, to organize demonstrations everywhere for abortion rights. We do not need to hide in the halls of Congress wearing our best loafers or heels, although we need to be there too — it’s all part of the spectrum of must what happen. But particularly for young women, we need to have somewhere to pour our energy, and I’m telling you, the streets NEED OUR ENERGY. Legislators and voters need to see they’re not talking about social issues but instead our own bodies.

Again, I want to be clear that I believe that there is a spectrum within the women’s movement and it all must be supported, but there seems to be a very dominant strain of fear of rebelling from the Democratic party powers-that-be. Fear of calling out President Obama for breaking his campaign statements that he supported the repeal of the Hyde Amendment and instead signing an Executive Order that made it worse. Fear of calling the abortion restrictions in the health care bill what they actually are: the Stupak-Pitts abortion ban with slightly different language, language that will achieve the same effect with after a few years have passed. Fear of losing influence in the halls of Congress.

These fears are understandable, but as activists and leaders in the grassroots women’s movement we do not need to bog ourselves down with these concerns — we are here to demand social justice, not to have a seat at the table. Those groups that do lobby and have close ties with elected officials must mitigate their language are our friends, and not our targets, but we must not succumb to the pressure on them to compromise.

Frankly, I’ve only changed policies in my feminist career by holding rallies in the streets that others desperately wanted cancelled, in some cases allied organizations that stand for reproductive rights. And I can tell you something: young women like to be part of the future, because we know we have to spend an awfully long time living in that future, and women have waited too damn long for equality.

I have gone on long, and the justification I offer is that, like many of you here, there is nothing more important to me than the unabashed pursuit of justice for women. We do have work to do in bridging the gap between generations in our movement, but I am optimistic and radiant and know we can do it. I hope that what we are doing here together, today, is just the first step in long conversations we will have together, late into the nights, as we continue to broaden our circles. This Is What A Young Feminist Looks Like

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