Dropping Labels and Gaining Power

Here’s something weird: a recent poll revealed that while the number of Americans identifying as pro-choice dropped eight percentage points from 2011 to 2012, the fundamental views on abortion remained consistent. In fact, 77% of Americans think abortion should be legal under certain or all circumstances, but only 41% identified as pro-choice.

What’s up with that? Let us temporarily set aside the challenge that views on abortion often unfairly dominate the discussion on the far larger realm of reproductive rights, health and justice. What’s going on when one third of people don’t agree…with themselves?!?

A big clue lies in a recent focus group commissioned by Planned Parenthood. As one participant said:  “I’m neither pro-choice nor pro-life. I’m pro-whatever-the-situation-is.”

Forged by identity politics from the days of wearing the pro-choice label, this reaction frustrates the hell out of me. Obviously being “pro-whatever-the-situation-is” is the same thing as being pro-choice, I want to rail. But I’d be wrong. It’s clear that there is a growing rejection of the traditional labels associated with the abortion conversation. Millennials especially hate them, which confounds Baby Boomers and Gen Xers like me.

And it’s not only in this conversation that labels are getting left behind. Think of all the empowered women you know who would never call themselves feminists. People who embrace spirituality, but eschew religion. Those who use queer, because gay just doesn’t get the whole picture.

So what’s a group of women donors and funders to do if they want to engage people in conversation on reproductive rights, health and justice? What words work when the issues are dicey and the stakes are so high?

Using focus group research of 60 women from five different US cities, two African and one European capital, Fenton partnered with the Women’s Funding Network to write a new script. The framework we developed moves away from the limiting message of “choice” and instead focuses on empowerment and purpose: Put the Power in her Hands.

Power means that reproductive health, rights and justice are the means, not the end. Self-determination, access to education and employment, and full participation in society mean that women have choices – not just “choice.”

Try it this way, we suggest:

1. Start with Shared Values: During focus groups, a majority of participants struggled with where to begin the conversation and wanted help doing so from a positive place. Shared value statements that are free of jargon— “Every woman experiences critical points in her life that can change the trajectory of her future”—set the stage for a more open, accessible conversation.

2. Provide Context and Barriers: It’s crucial to address the fact that women don’t make big life decisions in a vacuum—rather, they are influenced by their partners, communities, family, laws, cultural beliefs, etc. Yet the struggles are real: lack of access to healthcare, violence threatening her reproductive health, no sex education, etc. By providing this context with clear examples, organizations can paint a broader picture of the players, issues and conversation surrounding reproductive health—something focus groups deemed deeply compelling.

3. Frame the Solution: Focus group participants preferred short, relatable, solution-based language that positions women as active and empowered. Put the Power in Her Hands gives organizations the flexibility to talk about many different kind of power—knowledge and information; access to services that keep women strong; options and freedom that allow women to act on their own conviction; and the power to make an impact in the community.

 4. Describe Your Impact: Many participants in the focus groups were eager to hear about the impact of giving—both on the individual lives of women and on society at large.  Fundraisers should explain how donations to reproductive health are investments that empower women and girls at school, at home, and in their communities.

 5. Call to Action: Donors said they feel confident that change can happen in their lifetimes and want the organizations they support to actively work toward achieving that change. Be clear, reiterate urgency and ask for support.

The days of identity politics may indeed be over. Fellow progressives — we need new frames and less polarizing language that capture people where they are and not how we might describe ourselves. Given the tremendous need for constructive policy debates on gun violence, immigration, climate change, and income inequality (to name a few), we better drop the labels and tap into real power – the power of ideas.