Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL

Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, addresses at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Monday, Aug. 25, 2008. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, will step down from her position in January 2013. She could have departed the way presidents and executive directors usually do, amid a cloud of platitudes about the strength of the organization she’s leaving and the health of the movement it represents. But while the release announcing her departure covers those bases, she also gave an interview to the Washington Post’s Sarah Kliff that’s a little more interesting.

As the reason for her departure, Keenan cites the need for a younger leader to take over the oldest abortion rights group in the country. Roe v. Wade turns 40 next year, she noted, telling Kliff: “It’s time for a new leader to come in and, basically, be the person for the next 40 years of protecting reproductive choice.” She added, “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.”

I hope there isn’t only one leader that will be “the person” for the next forty years, but still, I’m impressed. Of course, I have no idea why Keenan’s really leaving, and her tenure was not without missteps, including slights against the younger feminists she’s now holding up as her organization’s best hope. But even so, she’s acknowledging here that the organization has an issue with engaging younger activists, instead of attempting to paper that over.

“Engaging younger activists”—let’s unpack that. First, consider the fact that polls show that while millennials are far more progressive than preceding generations on some social issues, including same-sex marriage, that’s not true for abortion rights. (NARAL says that in its own polling, it has found that millennials are more supportive of abortion rights than their parents but lack “intensity” on the issue.) When I interviewed Nancy Keenan last spring, she was clearly deeply interested in the political commitments of millennials, observing that by 2020, millennial voters will be 40 percent of the voting public. “We’ve done a lot of listening,” she told me. “The stories of my generation don’t resonate. Young people believe it is going to be safe and legal, and not go away.” She also said, “There are going to be some people in our movement that don’t like what we hear. They [millennials] don’t frame it in rights language. They don’t frame it in feminist language. We have to be open to how they understand this issue in a way that is different from my generation. All of that is new, and the movement has to be open to learning. That is the goal.”

So, Keenan has been thinking about how to reach people under 30 for awhile. But I’m equally interested in NARAL’s ability (and that of all of the prominent pro-choice groups’) to engage seriously with activists who are passionately engaged in the fight for abortion rights—and there are many—but who worry that the professional feminist movement is too ensnared in fighting defensive battles to drive big-picture social change on the issue. Obviously, it’s not the pro-choice organizations’ fault that the Republican Party is hostage to the batty anti-choice fringe in this country, and that outrageous attacks on reproductive rights spring up nearly every day. Hello, blaming the victim.

But the communications and organizing strategy doesn’t have to follow from the regrettable legislative reality, at least not every time. Keenan said to me: “Every one of these battles that we fight—we don’t pick ’em. They pick them. If we had the numbers of votes, we wouldn’t be fighting these fights.” Maybe that’s a problem. When’s the last time you signed a petition or called a legislator on a bill that sought to expand abortion access, not defend it? As I’ve written, healthcare reform was a game-changer on access to birth control and maternity care, and NARAL spokesperson Ted Miller pointed out that 60 percent of the Prevention First agenda, a bill NARAL had championed, was enacted through Obamacare. But expanding abortion access is still unfathomable. When I asked Keenan about the fight to reinstate public funding for abortion, she responded, “Ideally, we would love the day when we could have the conversation and actually pass public funding for abortion, because it is so unjust to low-income women. But the reality of that right now—we have a long way to go, to have a serious discussion in this country around taxes, around race, around economics. Plus, you still need the votes!”

Whoever replaces Keenan, no matter how young and savvy, will have to deal with the intractable reality of “the votes.” But will she also seek to develop for the movement a vision of the world we want, not just the one Republicans force us to live in?

To read more about generational struggles in feminism, check out Jessica Valenti’s “Who Stole Feminism?” and Katha Pollitt’s “Feminist Mothers, Flapper Daughters?