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Young feminists make mark in "war on women"

(The Nation) Komen. Sandra Fluke. Transvaginal. The reason these words are instantly recognizable -- the reason the "war on women" is now part of the national conversation -- is largely thanks to younger women and online organizing. Behind every recent battle against the onslaught of sexism has been the energy and activism of young people -- on blogs, Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook. And in a long-overdue but welcome change of message, the mainstream feminist movement that once claimed young women didn't care about feminism is finally catching on. Some are even walking the walk.

Last week, NARAL Pro-Choice America President Nancy Keenan announced that she would be stepping down from her role to make way for younger activists. She told Sarah Kliff at the Washington Post, "There's an opportunity for a new and younger leader."

"People give a lot of lip service to how we're going to engage the next generation, but we can't just assume it will happen on its own."

This comes just two years after Keenan gave an interview in a Newsweek piece that chided young women to "Remember Roe," claiming that "the next generation...doesn't think abortion rights need defending." To young feminists, it was a particularly infuriating article -- one that made invisible all of the hard (and mostly under- or unpaid) work they put into activism around reproductive justice. It was also incredibly misleading: as I reported here, it turns out that about 60 percent of NARAL Pro-Choice America employees at the time were people younger than 35 years old.

Keenan's pro-active commitment to seeing young women at the helm is a mark of real leadership, one that others could learn from. In a Politico piece about Keenan's departure and young feminists, for example, former NOW president and current Feminist Majority Vice-President Kim Gandy seems skeptical that younger women have the chops to take on leadership roles at feminist organizations: "In addition to the ability to inspire and motivate and lead, you also need a certain amount of experience." (Full disclosure: My sister and Feministing co-founder, Vanessa Valenti, is quoted extensively in this article.)

But the truth is that younger women, especially younger women of color, have always been leaders of the pro-choice movement. Aimee Thorne-Thomsen, executive director of the Pro-Choice Public Education Project for six years, was 31 when she started. Miriam Yeung was brought on as executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum when she was 33. And Silvia Henriquez began as executive director at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health when she was just 28 years old. Women who have been traditionally marginalized in mainstream feminist spaces -- whether because of age, race or both -- have long ventured from places like NOW and NARAL to work for other organizations or found their own. Perhaps now they don't have to.

Keenan's decision comes at exactly the right time, when young feminists and their work are in the spotlight. Now, young feminism has always been here -- this is just the first time in a long time that the mainstream media and culture is taking notice in a meaningful way. We've been working tirelessly -- and often without pay -- online and off, laying the groundwork for the battles we're seeing play out right now. The outrage directed at Komen when the breast cancer organization tried to cut off grants to Planned Parenthood wasn't just a simple fed-upness by American women. The fast and furious online action that eventually led to Komen's turnaround was possible only because a younger generation of feminists made it so.

While the media was saying feminism was dead and our foremothers were complaining that young women were politically apathetic, we were preparing for these very fights. Bloggers and online activists have built communities that know how to network quickly, organize thousands with a stroke of the keyboard and create messages that resonate with an emerging feminist-minded youth.

Our fights are largely self-directed and loosely organized; they're micromovements, built over the course of days or a week organically and without institutional direction. The Feminist Majority Foundation and Planned Parenthood aren't driving these conversations and actions -- American women are.

But bringing down Rush Limbaugh and getting a transvaginal ultrasound mandate removed from state legislation is not the same as game-changing policy -- we need institutional power and backing to do that. Maybe now is the moment we can actually have it.

Jessica Valenti is the author of three books, including "The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women," which was recently made into a documentary. She is editor of the award-winning anthology "Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape" and the founder of The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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