Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Who Are You Calling Complacent? by the Forward

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Who Are You Calling Complacent?

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Congresswoman from Florida and Chair of the Democratic National Committee, knows a thing or two about power and politics. And in a recent interview, she acknowledges that her own actions as a leader are viewed differently (and more problematically) because of her gender. So it gave me a bit of whiplash to see, in the same interview, Wasserman Schultz take a pot shot at younger women — in a comment that is brief but so bold it became the title: “Debbie Wasserman Schultz Thinks Young Women Are Complacent.” Responding to a question about the generational divide among Hillary Clinton supporters, Wasserman Schultz said briefly, “Here’s what I see: a complacency among the generation of young women whose entire lives have been lived after Roe v. Wade was decided.” Geez, Congresswoman, why frame young women as apathetic? It hardly seems that way to me. And asserting so is both inaccurate and a bad strategy for rallying support among an important constituency: young, progressive women.

Let me address the inaccuracy of the statement. I can acknowledge that growing up in an era of safe legal abortion does make it harder to recognize the danger of eroding access. But it’s always true that generations growing up after major advances start to see their own reality as normal and fixed. How could it be otherwise? In fact, the feminists who fought for abortion access leading up to Roe v. Wade also grew complacent after that landmark decision was handed down. They thought the battle was over. No one expected to still be fighting the same fight forty years later. So why single out young women for their lack of perspective? And to further take this apart, who is Wasserman Schultz referring to when she says “young women?”

Wasserman Schultz’s “generation of women whose entire lives have been lived after Roe v. Wade was decided” covers a period comprising, at minimum, three distinct generations: my own Generation X, the young adults of Gen Y, and the youth of today, labeled by marketers as Millennials. Are all of us equally complacent? I was born in 1975 — two years after Roe v. Wade — but I spent my Saturday mornings in seventh grade picketing abortion protesters outside a local hospital; as a high school junior I rode a chartered bus to Washington with a group of friends to attend a reproductive rights march.

But it’s not just my generation that deserves a pass. I see younger feminists every day engaging in powerful collective action to protest injustice and demand change. Working with young women at Ma’yan, an organization that provides feminist, social justice and leadership training to high school-aged girls, I am fortunate to have a front-row seat to witness the development of passionate social justice activists and leaders.Just last week the most recent cohort of our Research Training Internship program presented their final project: a new website, , which responds to ongoing sexism in New York City by documenting and mapping the personal experiences of girls, women and gender nonconforming people. During a panel discussion our young interns spoke about their feminist development: how they’ve learned to confidently respond to teachers, parents and peers on subjects such as gender inclusivity; how they see feminism as a movement with a responsibility to address the concerns of people of all gender identities and from all race and class backgrounds. In closing remarks, parents seated in the audience thanked their daughters for teaching them something new. The evening opened a window into the richness and complexity of living feminism, illuminating how (as always) the movement is growing in new directions, and demonstrating that (again, as always) youth are a crucial part of driving those necessary changes.

Of course it’s not only happening in my program. Young women are organizing vital social movements and actions, from SlutWalks to Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. They’re wearing scarlet letter or launching #morethanadistaction to protest sexist high school dress codes, or carrying dildos to protest a concealed carry gun law on their university campus (N.B.: humor has become a potent tool for this generation of feminists). Maybe if you don’t see young women’s engagement, you’re just not looking in the right places. For one thing, they’re building a thriving community of support, learning, and strategy-building in brand new virtual spaces. Girls report that online feminism has become a real community of support and crucial training ground for them. As Jessica Valenti recently noted, online comments about intersectionality shared by young performers like Amanda Stenberg and Rowan Blanchard, are sharp, well-informed and accessible to a broad audience of online followers. Their videos plant seeds of substantive analysis that help young media consumers think more critically about the celebrity gossip and entertainment news that barrage them from every screen and street corner.

I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to look at the world today and see how many old battles we are still fighting. But here’s the thing: these young women Wasserman Schultz labels “complacent” are frustrated too. Wasserman Schultz seems to suggest that supporting Hillary Clinton as a progressive and viable Democratic candidate for President is the most important and powerful route to change. Is the presidency powerful? Of course. Do elections matter? Again, of course they do. Institutional and leadership change are crucial and necessary, but the political process is by no means the only route to social justice.

Millennials and the youth of Gen Z didn’t just grow up with the disillusionment of Watergate and Vietnam, they’ve grown watching Wasserman Schultz’s own institution, the U.S. Congress, become almost entirely inept and inactive, teetering on default, barely able to keep the doors open and the lights on in the halls of power. When the top 10% have received 100% of the income growth of the past 20 years, when white cops go free after shooting, choking, and mistreating unarmed black men, women, and even children, when mass shootings reach epidemic levels and legislators can’t find an inch of common ground to curb them, is it any wonder that young people might be wary of governmental institutions or skeptical of legislative solutions? If the Chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee is disillusioned with young women, imagine how they must feel about her. And if younger generations prefer to direct their talents and energies towards individual healing or creative expression or cultural survival, who could blame them? Instead of castigating young women for their complacency, Wasserman Schultz should take them seriously — both as voters and as future leaders — and consider why her presumed nominee may be failing to connect with them.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Who Are You Calling Complacent?

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