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Interview: What Nancy Keenan’s resignation means to pro-choice activists

at 09:01 AM ET, 05/12/2012

When NARAL Pro-Choice America president Nancy Keenan announced her impending resignation on Thursday, it was perhaps most keenly felt by young, pro-choice advocates. They were, after all, the women Keenan was talking about when she hoped for a “new and younger leader” to take her place.
(Brendan Hoffman - GETTY IMAGES)

“I could barely sleep,” says Erin Matson, action vice president at the National Organization for Women. “I’m so thankful and grateful that this is the legacy she’s leaving. After so many go-arounds on these issues, it’s hugely important for her to say, ‘I’m going to step aside and fill this position with someone younger.’”

Matson became president of NOW’s Minnesota chapter at age 23, and was elected to her current, national position at 29, making her the youngest person to hold the post. She had no reservations about aggressively advocating for the work Millennial women do in the pro-choice movement. We spoke Friday about why Keenan’s announcement mattered, where the pro-choice movement heads next and what inter-generational gaps do -- and don’t -- exist. A transcript of our discussion, edited for length and clarity, follows:

Sarah Kliff: What did you make of Nancy Keenan’s decision to step down to make way for a younger generation of pro-choice leaders?

Erin Matson: Nancy Keenan had no reason that she had to initiate this watershed moment with her departure. It’s unusual, from my vantage point in D.C.’s organizational, feminist world to see older leaders say, “We need to make space for younger leaders.”

Nancy Keenan is a class act. She’s done something unusual, to put it lightly, in saying ‘I’m going to make space for younger women. And I’m going to do that with my own two feet.’

SK: And what do you think about her statement, that there needs to be more space for young leaders. Do you think that’s true?

EM: Having a young leader is more than symbolic. The face that people sees matters. It gets at the tactics and approaches that we’re going to be using. Young, women activists are very angry, and we’re feisty. We want to put on our loafers and go lobby. But we also want to put on our sneakers, go outside, and yell. I think we need a movement that incorporates all of that.

SK: One issue that Nancy and I spoke about is this idea of an “intensity gap” among young voters, where abortion rights opponents tend to see the issue as more important than supporters. That’s what NARAL finds in its own polling. What do you make of that?

EM: I’ve seen that poll and seen other polls. From everything I’ve seen, the most motivated group on abortion rights are conservative, older white men, which is scary. But I think this is an issue of education. I recently saw a poll, in April, where 80 percent of women didn’t know Mitt Romney’s position on contraception. But if they did know it, they disagreed with it by a two-to-one margin.

SK: What role do you think Roe v. Wade plays, or should play, in the pro-choice movement now? I know it often gets talked about as a dividing line in pro-choice politics, with a generation that came up before Roe and now a new generation that has followed.

EM: It matters, but I think in a different way than it did before. When you look at the people who were alive during Roe talk about it, it’s as if they were the ones struggling, and everything now is just maintenance. You hear a lot of talk of ‘never go back’ and about rolling back rights.

For younger women of reproductive ago, the way we’ve come to this isn’t about taking away rights. It’s about, why is my birth control so damn expensive? Why do I have to forgo a week’s worth of groceries to afford an abortion? That’s a huge issue. So I think the frame of a past referential, this idea of ‘let’s not go back,’ isn’t as relevant to a younger generation.

SK: Do you think everything that’s happened this year, the fights over Planned Parenthood’s funding and contraception, could become a similar moment for a younger generation?

EM: I firmly believe this is an Anita Hill moment for my generation.Tthe fact that I’m seeing so many women spontaneously rise up, without the support of a paid organizer reaching out to them, that’s really big. You see people going to the statehouse on their own, and the pressure is working. I’m thinking about how Gov. [Bob McDonnell in Virginia] took a partial step backwards on the vaginal probe law. That matters.

SK: Tell me a bit more about your own experience as a young leader in the pro-choice movement. I understand you’re the youngest person to ever hold your position at NOW?

EM: Yes. I was 29 when elected, which does make me the youngest. I was also the youngest state president, at 23, in Minnesota. I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve been at, with older women talking about reaching to younger women, but I’m the only one there. There are other young women out there. It’s a question of whether or not they’re included.

I’ve had to fight quite a few battles over the issues that I want to focus on, or the tactics, or what our priorities should be. It’s not personal. I’m not saying either group is better. But people tend to be engaged in issues that tend to touch their own lives. And that’s one of the reasons we need to see an infusion of younger people. It’s got to be about our issues, too.

 
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