It’s not just that it needs to be younger, the leadership in the reproductive rights movement needs to be more diverse

Today at Slate, Amanda Marcotte wrote about why it’s a good thing that Nancy Keenan has decided to step down as president of NARAL in order to open up leadership to younger people:

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.

I agree with Marcotte’s overall assessment in this piece and I certainly think that one of the problems with the movement is how often young people are not taken seriously.

What struck me in reading this, though, is who Marcotte points to as the younger generation: Sandra Fluke:

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.

While I understand that this is a short post with limited space and while I also respect Sandra Fluke more than I can put into words, I find the narrative around her problematic. Because, honestly, the reason she was 1) given space to present her testimony, 2) thrust into the national spotlight, 3) quickly protected by the left at large after being called a “slut” was not simply that she was a young woman who spoke out prominently. It was because she was a young, white woman.

And when looking at Marcotte’s piece about structural problems within the leadership of pro-choice organizations (and the movement at large), it is striking that the people mentioned in this piece (Keenan, Fluke, Jessica Valenti) and the author herself are all white.

The way racism functions in this society and with the long, long history of the sexualization of black women’s bodies, any young black woman who puts herself out there to defend bodily autonomy, choice, and consent is going to be called a “slut.” And yet those same forces that make her especially susceptible to these kind of sexualized charges keep us all from rallying around her, protecting her, thrusting her forward as the example of the bravery and courage and leadership of the youth in our movement.

So, while I agree with Marcotte and Keenan that the leadership of the major organizations in the reproductive rights movement needs to allow more space for younger people, it also needs to be much more diverse.


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