The big story isn’t that Nancy Keenan, the head of NARAL, has stepped down. It’s an important story, sure, but the nature of big organizations is that they endure leadership changes pretty frequently. No, the amazing part of this story is why Keenan made the decision she did. According to an interview with Sarah Kliff of the Washington Post, Keenan decided to step down in order to prevent the further graying of the pro-choice movement, a problem she had come to symbolize and a problem she is bravely trying to fix. Keenan believes the movement will continue to lose ground unless young women are promoted out of the anonymous grunt work positions and into leadership positions, and hopes her resignation will create that opportunity.
Lamenting the dominance of what Keenan calls the “postmenopausal militia” is to the pro-choice movement like lamenting the filibuster is to electoral politics. Everyone sees it as a problem and hates it, but no one really knows what to do about it. While it’s an easy problem to personalize, the reality is that it’s a structural issue. When the abortion-rights movement was young and grassroots-y, it made sense that young people took the leadership positions. Once it became institutionalized, however, it meant that it had to work by the same rules of the nonprofit world, which is similiar to the business world. You spend your youth gradually working up the food chain, and by the time you reach a leadership role, you’re middle-aged.
With the pro-choice movement, however, two factors make the dominance of graying heads a problem. First is the problem of having the most prominent advocates for a right be people who have no personal use for that right, at least they don’t any longer. Keenan herself believes that one reason it’s hard to activate ordinary young men and women on this issue is because they have trouble connecting their own very personal struggles with reproductive health care with older women who don’t have these struggles. Any doubts that a young woman speaking out prominently on these issues carries weight were likely put to rest after Sandra Fluke testified for a special Congressional hearing about contraception access. Yes, she was derided as a “slut” and has to endure having her sexuality questioned on a near daily basis, but that’s the point. Having a woman of reproductive age speaking about reproductive rights in the national eye is galvanizing and powerful. Her likely fertility shouldn’t matter, but because since fertility is the issue, it does.
The other reason is that the dominance of older women in leadership tends to erase the hard work of younger women to protect reproductive rights. A couple of years ago, Newsweek published an article that set off a firestorm in pro-choice circles, because Keenan herself came across as implying that the anti-choice side had all the youthful energy. (It’s really more that while young people are strongly pro-choice, they don’t really think that their rights are in danger, though perhaps recent events are changing some minds on that.) Jessica Valenti shot back with a powerful post where she demanded that the work of young women get respect:
Where would NARAL Pro-Choice America or NOW be without the work done by younger women? Who would do their outreach? Who would volunteer? Who would take unpaid internships? Who would carry their action items on blogs and forward them by email, Facebook and Twitter? Who would Blog for Choice?
The post resonated strongly, because while those young women don’t go on cable news shows and often don’t even get to sit on panels about abortion rights at conferences, they are, for a lot of us, what the pro-choice movement actually looks like. If you call a Planned Parenthood or go to a NARAL event, the people doing all the work and representing the organization are almost all women of reproductive age. But the public at large doesn’t know this, because all they see of the pro-choice movement is postmenopausal women. Who are awesome, don’t get me wrong. But when speaking for women of reproductive age, as the Fluke situation shows, it helps to have at least some of those very women in visible roles. It helps everyone remember who the pro-choice movement is actually fighting for. So kudos to Keenan for taking brave steps to fix the situation.