This article is second in a series published in partnership with Choice USA in an effort to highlight the importance of inter-generational dialogue within the reproductive justice movement and to uncover ways to work together across generations in order to sustain and thrive. Read the first by Andrew Jenkins here.
Over the past year, I’ve been in many conversations about the future of the pro-choice movement—conversations that have raised questions about the absence of passionate, angry young feminists today who will take our place as heads of pro-choice organizations tomorrow. These conversations and my recent participation in the Stand Up for Women Rally against defunding Title X and Planned Parenthood reminded me of early experiences about finding my place in a budding feminist movement in the South.
From my time a college student in the South at the height of the civil rights movement to the early 1980s, when the National Black Women’s Health Project was started, there were few places for young, angry Black women. I witnessed many young Black women throughout our communities who were faced with unintended pregnancies and grappled with their one option, feeling that they had no choice. With no job, no money and paralyzing fear – many young women made the decision to have a back alley abortion. Admitting their “sin,” returning home to disgraced parents, becoming a wife at their own “shotgun” wedding, and putting their dreams on hold to take care of an unwelcomed baby and an unwanted husband were not options.
It was these events that led me to step from behind the shadows during a time when many felt women were at their best when they were mute. I declared myself a Black feminist and became embroiled in one of the biggest rights movements in our nation’s history. I wanted to change the landscape for women forever by helping my generation find their courage and voices to declare for ourselves and future generations of women that ‘Our bodies belong to us.’
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For the 1960s and 1970s feminist, our need and desire to have control of our bodies and make our own choices about our lives embedded an unmistakable passion within us to march for our rights, speak up for justice and demand the acknowledgement of our power as women. In 1973, our efforts were rewarded with a landmark decision in Roe vs. Wade – giving women the right to have an abortion. Finally, we could declare that our bodies were our own!
My generation of feminists took abortion from the back alleys and made it legal for women; today’s generation of feminists will make it affordable, accessible and viable for all women – not just the privileged or the comfortably employed middle-classed, or those with supportive families, friends, or partners who support their right to have an option or make a decision to have an abortion.
To us then and to some of us now, abortion was about choice—remembering how limited poor women’s options are, I still grapple with the word choice, and often doubt its meaning. To the young feminist today, what I understand and appreciate about the many young feminists in my life and in the movement is that they are about much more than being passionately PRO-CHOICE.
It’s Time to Pass the Torch
Thirty-three years after the biggest victory to date in the reproductive justice movement, I became the president and CEO of the Black Women’s Health Imperative (formerly National Black Women’s Health Project) – the only national organization dedicated solely to advancing the health and wellness of Black women. As a leader of a Black women’s health organization, who is part of that pre-Roe generation, I’m often asked the question, “Are young feminists today ready to lead this fight for reproductive justice?” and I hesitate, just for a moment. But my answer is always, “Yes, and I’m ready to pass the torch.”
I see the ‘passing of the torch’ as a common cause from a different perspective. I have heard the fears that some of the leaders of my generation have about the current generation. That they lack intensity; they refuse to listen and follow; they don’t have the urgency of NOW; and they have never lived without the power of their own agency or without control of their own body. When I see the young feminist of today, I see that their values are different, creativity is unlimited, and understanding of innovation amazing and astonishing. And, most of all, they have greater access and are most accepting of different races, ethnicities, socio-economic statuses and sexualities – this adds many more angels to the fight.
I’m happy that young feminists of today have had more opportunities to claim ownership of their bodies. I am happy that they don’t know the dark alleys, and I’m pleased that they are blogging, tweeting, and asking me to be their Facebook friend. And for many of them I meet, they want to share their stories with me and hear mine—they ask, what has kept me involved, passionate and angry for the past 30 years. I tell them my story and listen to theirs. But most of all I ask them to believe that they may achieve what I have not in many ways.
I urge my other pre-Roe or “menopausal militia” leaders to recognize the differences in this generation’s struggles, understandings, desires and dreams. I believe that too often we see a different experience or opinion as a sparring point, but now, more than ever, we must see this as a broadening of our cause. Young feminists are not laser-focused on abortion, and that’s okay. Let’s accept their boarder reproductive justice agenda.
To young feminists, we invite you to come ready to listen, share and counsel us on how you can take our strategies, add them to yours and create new and fresh ways to deliver our message to the masses and strengthen our armor in the fight for reproductive justice.
To my fellow pre-Roe feminists, let’s pass the torch without fear or apprehension!