Young women march in Washington, D.C. Courtesy Cho

(WOMENSENEWS)–The turnout of hundreds of thousands of young people at April’s national pro-choice march in Washington, D.C., put to rest the fears of many older feminists, who had long worried that the younger generation was complacent in the face of restrictions on choice.

“I think that no one could say again that young women are apathetic to reproductive rights issues,” said Crystal Plati, executive directorof Choice USA, a Washington, D.C., organizationthat trains and supports young reproductive-rights leaders.

March organizers announced from the stage on April 25 that at least one-third of the protesters were under 25.

Some say that the participation of a younger generation was even greater. “At least two-thirds of the people that I saw were under 30,” said Mina Trudeau, director of programs for the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass.

But will the motivation of the younger crowd last long enough to elect a pro-choice president in November?

Americans aged 18 to 24 vote less than any other age group, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2000, only 32.3 percent of the voting population between 18 to 24–and 43.7 percent of those 25 to 34–turned out to vote. By contrast, 66.8 percent of voters aged 55 to 64 turned out.

Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate in Washington, D.C., speculated that the number of young voters might rise in the coming election.

“I think they will vote in somewhat greater numbers,” Gans said, “The reason I think the turnout will go up generally and also among youth is that the Bush policies are such a lightning rod and are not popular among young people.”

For many young voters, choice and feminism are pieces of a set of social-justice issues. Some of the young people who joined the march bore placards opposing the war in Iraq and the lending practices of the International Monetary Fund. “Reproductive rights are part of a larger structure of oppression,” said Alea Woodlee, executive director of the Pro-Choice Public Education Project based in New York City. Woodlee said she was pleased to see so many young men and women drawing connections among different causes, including the rights of immigrants, people of color and sex workers.

Those connections might align young voters at the polls, said Gans. “Many young people, in particular those who are more likely to vote, which are college-attending young people, are not happy with Bush’s foreign policy or domestic policy and are a little bit disillusioned by the misinformation and evasion of this administration.”

Get Out Her Vote

To get young voters to the polls, groups working with young pro-choice supporters have made an effort to make sure that the political commitment to choice does not begin and end on the National Mall.

“We are training young leaders across the country in how to do voter registration, voter education and how to get out the vote,” said Choice USA’s Plati. “We’re making sure that they have the skills they need to get their peers to the polls.” She estimated that 50 chapters are now working to motivate and register young voters, and that they recruited people to start new chapters at the march.

In addition to voter-registration efforts that took place during the march, The Feminist Majority Foundation, based in Arlington, Va., and Beverly Hills, Calif., recruited 300 young women to take the Get Out Her Vote campaign back to their college campuses.

Many participants joined the march from swing states.

Florida’s Planned Parenthoods, for instance, brought a contingent of at least 600, according to Wendy Grassi, public affairs director with Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, Inc.

Crystal Clinkenbeard, director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains–which encompasses Colorado and small corner of southern Missouri–estimated that its chapters sent approximately 1,000. Among those were 100 from Springfield, Mo., the home of Attorney General John Ashcroft, who has expressed personal opposition to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion.

“Young women nationwide, regardless of whether it’s a battleground state, can have a pivotal influence on this year’s election,” said Marie Wilson, president and founder of The White House Project. “However, voting is only the first of many steps we need young women to take. We need them to run for office so that they can lead, side by side with men, in making the decisions that affect our lives and our country.”

The White House Project, based in New York City, helps women to advance to leadership roles and supports women trying to get elected. The project’s ultimate goal is to get a woman elected president of the U.S.

Passing the Torch

Reaching out to the next generation by marching for and with daughters and granddaughters was a key theme of the April march.

Kate Michelman, the recently retired and longstanding executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice America, brought her granddaughter on stage. Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization of Women, took the stage side by side with her daughter.

Many older women off the podium also came with their offspring. “My grandchildren are so excited,” said Norma Johnson of Poughkeepsie, N.Y. She marched with her daughter-in-law, 9-year-old grandson and 8-year-old granddaughter. Both children joined the chanting and her granddaughter held a sign that read, “Reproductive Social Justice for all Women.”

“She’s very much a feminist already,” Johnson said.

On a bus traveling to Washington, D.C., from New Jersey, several “little old ladies with bad knees,” as one woman dubbed their group, voiced fears that those born after Roe v. Wade could not appreciate what it was like to live without choice.

“I grew up when abortion was not legal,” said Jane Hastings, 68. “I think because of the complacency of young women today, we’re losing most of the battle.”

Without similar grim memories, could young women be motivated to fight to defend a choice they have always had? As the bus pulled into the Greenbelt, Md., metro station, the answer became clear. Young women poured from row upon row of buses and crammed the metro trains to the march site.

On the trip home, the formerly pessimistic women applauded the numbers of young people that had turned out for the march. Settling back into her seat, one woman sighed and said, “I feel better.”

Asjylyn Loder is a writer in New York.

For more information:

Choice USA:

The Pro-Choice Public Education Project:

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