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in which p. rants about ageism, part 144-B

Posted by pocochina on April 20, 2010

Oh goody!  Another round of feminist generational sniping!

I am not sure I can fathom the depths of ageism that went into the reaction to this Newsweek article. Now, being a mainstream media publication, Newsweek makes a few fairly standard, though potentially misleading, moves in its discussion of feminism and the pro-choice movement:  it goes ahead and calls the offices of the largest women’s organizations, which can’t turn down the chance to get the party line out there, and then commences in context-free handwringing about young people failing to consider Roe and abortion rights in the same light as folks did thirty years ago.  As one astute activist, erintothemax on twitter, noted, Newsweek did an article on young voters attitudes towards abortion without quoting a single young voter, let alone talking to a young female pro-choice activist, of which there are, um, several.

cont’d below!

There’s not a whole lot of heroes in this piece, unfortunately.  NARAL, which is far from the only big-name national abortion rights organization, should probably have some better answers on young pro-choicers by now, particularly considering that this same article comes out every two or three months, to exactly the same response.  I think part of it is that given the opportunity, American liberals, and particularly American feminist liberals, will do everything we can do not to look strident or frightening because we’re so used to begging for scraps of political power.  So naturally they turn to self-flagellation for failure to appeal to young voters, because it doesn’t challenge the set script for feminists in the media too much.  Sad, but predictable, because it’s played out continuously.

More importantly, of course, we’re getting cherry-picked sound bites from someone who’s already made up her mind about the subject – I was about to suggest that NARAL should start referring journalists to youth-focused reproductive justice organizations and discussing the great work being done there, when it hit me that it’s possible if not likely that is what actually happened during the interview, but “young women still generally in favor of their own personhood” doesn’t make much of a grabby byline, and so wouldn’t have necessarily made it into the paper.  Is NARAL my favorite pro-choice org?  Nah.  But as long as the very baseline of reproductive choice laws at the federal and state level are threatened, it’s useful to have an old-school political/nuts-and-bolts legal organization doing the work that they do.  Not to say that there shouldn’t be other, more forward-thinking organizations!  Just that it’s not really shocking that someone’s doing triage defensive work, since it’s still needed.

But, since the article has come out before and the Awesome Young Thing blogs have their greatest hits reaction to it all ready and raring to go, there’s been quite a bit of ass-showing in reaction to the article.  Rather than challenging mainstream media perceptions and portrayals of feminism, as was most likley to be the root problem with this particular article, third-wave bloggers went on the offensive towards older feminists and more mainstream organizations, naturally treating them (just like the misleading Newsweek article, natch) as one and the same problematic entity.

This post, from the previously-promising new reproductive justice blog of the Abortion Gang, turns the author’s rage away from the offending article and towards the older women at the helm of these organizations.  Charmingly, she finishes up with the shockingly ageist and ableist rejoinder “I don’t know how many times I have to yell to be heard by older feminists. Turn up your hearing aids! Are you listening?”  Because, naturally, all older feminists were represented accurately in that article, and not just the famously bumbling Nancy Keenan, and also, old people are DEAF, which is not only HILARIOUS, but proof of the moral and political superiority of younger folks.  Similarly misguidedly (though less nastily, I’m happy to say, if also unsurprisingly), Feministing’s reminder about the importance of young women to the pro-choice movement centered on the cruel injustice of a world in which younger people gain experience by way of internships and volunteer work and then people with more experience, who happen to be older, take leadership at organizations.  Both articles flagrantly miss the most important point which can be gleaned from the article – CRAPPY GODDAMN REPORTING, which is a part of the knee-jerk non-liberalism of the media in general and anti-feminist backlash reporting to be specific, which ends up compounding the issue the reporter was pretending to highlight – and instead focus on that ever-popular group which just has it so fucking good in the world, older women.  Both posts include a blatant call for the middle-aged women running organizations to step aside, solely because they are older, and therefore completely incapable of relating to or respecting younger women.

There’s a lot that bothers me about this analysis.  Partially it’s just the blatant ageism involved – remember, when you’re talking about such a small number of Truly Important Positions, you’re not just saying “hire us because we’re young,” you’re saying “those folks shouldn’t be hired/continuing their employment because they’re old,” which is flat-out ageism, no way around it.  It makes pervasive use of a larger and anti-feminist cultural narrative which says that women’s value lies in our youth.  In the wider culture, it’s about presumed attractiveness and fertility, whereas when it’s made within feminism it’s about….appealing to folks in the mainstream.  So here we have feminists basically pissed at women for being uncool enough to appeal to a world where women’s relatability relies on our attractiveness.

I’m really disturbed at the demand that in order for women heading the largest and most mainstream organizations to show their dedication to young women, they should actually cede leadership to younger women – because what, someone with decades of political experience and personal connections in the political field should be the one making faxes?  Do we suggest that middle-aged (which is what these women truly are, and isn’t it interesting that “middle aged” in women is uncritically accepted as “older” or sometimes the insultingly sexualizing “menopausal” for women?  By feminists?  And by “interesting” I mean “appalling”?) male partners in law firms or CEOs, or even heads of NGOs, step down because their younger, oess-sexperienced counterparts are self-evidently more qualified because of their youth?  Obviously not, that’d be ageism, which is wrong, ant tactically senseless if you want to get your goals actually accomplished.  Why should women-focused NGOs be any different than other NGOs?

This seems to be a women-policing-women issue in a very pointed and painful way.  Most painful because here, in these few organizations, women have build something of a potential meritocracy, one which doesn’t penalize women for being parents or subject women to workplace sexual harassment or a glass ceiling.  I’m not saying these orgs are paradigms of perfect workplace equality.  I am interested in exploring why feminist organizations are expected to play to a different, potentially-less-effective set of rules than other political interest groups.  The level of entitlement it takes to demand leadership of an organization based solely on an unchosen quality like youth is unbelievable.

Older women are reviled in society particularly because they are more likely to be able to capitalize on social power – they’re free from pregnancy and done with their child-rearing years, they’ve made up for the ir time raising kids outside of the labor force and even turned it into valuable experience.  That’s why we assume they’re out of touch,  The markers of youth and femininity are supposed to be so very integral to the identities of young women, it’s virtually axiomatic to someone outside of  feminism that young and old women would be at odds.  As a feminist, what I see are middle-aged professional women doing what similarly-situated professional women do, which is using their greater experience and contacts to do the best job they can for their organizations, and as pro-choice women, working in solidarity with those of us who are going to bear the consequences of modern anti-choice legislation, instead of scampering off to higher-paid positions at liberal consulting firms.  I hope I’m still fighting the good fight in a few decades, you know?

Look, I’m not saying Nancy Keenan is doing a bang-up job at NARAL (I’m no longer a member thanks to their 2008 shenanigans), or that young feminists should be ignored – particularly as I am one and all.  But what I am saying is that I don’t like seeing hostile attitudes ranging from unwarranted suspicion to outright contempt for middle-aged women in my feminist movement.


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