Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Young Activists and the Apathy Myth

I'm now going to be guestblogging occasionally at Jewesses with Attitude, the blog of the Jewish Women's Archive. Here's the first of what will hopefully be many posts for them!

Ever since Bart Stupak finagled his anti-choice amendment onto the House’s Health Care Reform bill three weeks ago, my life seems to be all Stupak, all the time. I have attended rallies, visited Capitol Hill to talk to my Senators, helped plan a Lobby Day on December 2 with a broad group of progressive organizations known as the Stop Stupak coalition, supported students as they plan their own on-campus actions, and organized online to get the word out as much as possible.

Having done all that, and having been committed to pro-choice activism for many years, I cannot help but take personal offense when I read articles like “In Support of Abortion, It’s Personal vs. Political.” The New York Times is known for both its insightful reporting and ridiculous trend pieces, and this article, from last Sunday, appears to be the latter. Once again, the Times trotted out the typical talking points when it comes to younger women and feminism — that we take our rights for granted, that we only see things in terms of personal choice, and that the movement is GOING TO DIE because we do not appear to care. The author attempts to put a new spin on that old trope by saying that young people (or “millenials,” as no one, except the writers of trend pieces, calls us) view abortion rights in a new way, framing that movement as part of a larger struggle for human rights. This is after they claim that we view abortion as purely a personal issue.

My problem with this article (and the many that have come before it) is two-fold. First and most obviously, I am insulted by the premise as a twenty-something activist. Too often, younger women are written off as not caring about their rights, a condescending and foolish assumption. I travel a lot, and everywhere I have been, from Tuscaloosa, AL to Beloit, WI, I have found feminists. They are pushing their school administrators to take sexual assault seriously and raising money for women’s education in Afghanistan and volunteering at their local comprehensive women’s health clinics as escorts. They are blogging, tweeting, and organizing on Facebook, using these online tools to build a stronger community and reach more people than ever before. When young women are dismissed as apathetic, it hurts the larger movement.

Secondly, the premise of the Times piece is built on a type of “good ol days” nostalgia, remembering an era in which all young women rallied for their rights. Just as there are apathetic people now, there were apathetic people then. To imply that all women were activists and understood reproductive rights in a women’s empowerment framework is both historically inaccurate and does not appropriately honor those who did work like crazy for change—protests do not plan themselves and laws do not magically appear. There were many dedicated individuals in the baby boomer generation who threw their whole lives into this cause, and to make it seem as if everyone was into abortion rights and feminism downplays their struggles.

I am always wary of any kind of generational framing of activism. I don’t buy into the “waves” concept in women’s history. The struggles of today are connected to the struggles of the past. If younger women do not understand the achievements and failures of those who came before them, we will not succeed. If older women do not work with younger activists, listen to them, and encourage them to take on positions of power within the larger feminist movement, we will not succeed. I will be on Capitol Hill tomorrow, lobbying for the Stupak amendment and advocate for healthcare reform, and I look forward to seeing both young and old faces.


Danine said...

Go Emily!

Bonnie said...

sounds like a really cool new blog emily!!

i agree with you about that times article - this paragraph in particular was absolutely rife with generalizations about us so-called "millenials":

"The 30- to 40-somethings — “middle-school moms and dads,” Ms. Keenan calls them — are more concerned with educating their children about sex, and generally too busy to be bothered with political causes. The 25-and-under crowd, animated by activism, sees a deeper threat in climate change or banning gay marriage or the Darfur genocide than in any rollback of reproductive rights.

1) "too busy to be bothered with political causes" - wow. that is extremely insulting to the hundreds of thousands of 30-40 somethings who have dedicated their lives to political causes. i guess she is choosing to ignore them? downplay their work because we are living in a post-Roe world? unclear.

2)we are more threatened by climate change, gay marraige bans, and genocide in Darfur. i'm not sure where she gets the idea that "millenials" care more about those three issues than about reproductive rights, but aside from that i also don't think caring about multiple issues is a zero-sum game. we can care about, know about, and fight about any number of issues without

anyways, i hadn't seen that article but i'm glad you posted about it - i agree with you that framing feminism by generations is somewhat offputting. thanks for the heads up!

Heryrhey said...

Care about exchange link on blogroll?

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