Nancy Keenan has been the President of the country's oldest abortion rights organization since 2004 and yesterday, she announced that at the end of the year, she'll be stepping down. At 60, she's concerned that the sun is setting on her generation of women's rights leaders, that it's time to hand the reins over to the younger generation. But will young women step up?
Keenan says that she's grown concerned over the years that her continued prominence in the pro-abortion rights movement may be contributing to what she calls an "intensity gap" between the generations. Which is an awfully nice way of saying she's worried that we've gotten lazy and have learned to take for granted the rights that our mothers and grandmothers fought for.
But Keenan is far from the only Second Wave woman to worry aloud about the future of women's rights in the US or the younger generation's ability to keep the candle burning, so to speak.
I've gotten dozens of emails from abortion providers, activists, and other women around my mother's age, women who remember Roe v. Wade or even Griswold v. Connecticut, women who haven't grown up with almost guaranteed access to safe, affordable contraception and abortion. And no matter their background, if they're not praying for my eternal soul or telling me to clean up my language, young lady, Second Wave women like Keenan are invariably worried that women in "my generation" — women from about 20 to their mid-30's — won't work as hard as women in the 60's and 70's did to make sure that women's rights advanced. One abortion provider well over retirement age told me that sometimes she worries that the only people paying attention to women's rights are old, and that reading progressive lady websites help reassure here that there are young feminists.
I met Nancy Keenan a month ago at a NARAL event here in New York, and she, like the women who email, asked me whether I though young women realized what was happening around them, if anyone will be left to fight for women's rights as her generation continues to gray. At the time, the question seemed slightly out-of-nowhere; to me, it's obvious that women in their 20's and 30's are motivated and aware and competent and unwilling to accept attacks on their bodily autonomy by the government. Maybe I've surrounded myself with an bubble of kickass outliers, but I don't really associate with many women my age who don't care deeply about politics and the way it affects them.
But that isn't to say that Keenan's perception is wrong, just that maybe there's not an intensity gap at all between generations of politically active women. Maybe young women pursue activism through different channels than their mothers and grandmothers did, but that doesn't mean that they don't care. Maybe what we're dealing with here is a communication gap, a cooperation gap.
And while Keenan's motivations seem noble, there doesn't need to be a passing of the torch — women of all ages can work together. And we're going to have to.