Fly-fishing and quiet—that’s what Nancy Keenan is looking forward to when she leaves the nation’s capital for Montana. The president of NARAL Pro-Choice America is stepping down after eight years to allow a younger voice to lead the organization in an effort to reach the millennial generation.
Although rest is on the agenda come January, it seems unlikely that the 60-year-old Keenan will settle easily into retirement. Friends in her home state are asking whether she’s coming back to run for governor, a suggestion she laughs off. Instead, Keenan says that a university campus is more likely the next stop. But for now, she has a presidential election to focus on.
“I said I would not miss this election cycle for love or money,” Keenan says. “Politics is my passion, and it’s what NARAL Pro-Choice does so well.”
Keenan says she was raised on politics, civic participation, and the value of giving back.
“There were three institutions that influenced our lives as young kids: the Democratic Party, the labor unions, and the Catholic Church,” she says. Her father, a copper smelter, would take her to labor picnics, where discussions centered on workers’ rights. On Sundays, her mother hauled the kids to Mass.
Her father was a member of the Montana Senate, and politicians, such as U.S. Sen. Mike Mansfield, D-Mont., were often found around the family’s kitchen table. It was this political influence that led Keenan to seek elected office after her father’s death. She recalls the reaction of her father’s peers to the news of her decision to enter politics. “They would say, ‘But you’re a woman,’ and I’d say, ‘What does that have to do with anything?’
After her election to Montana’s Legislature, she attended a conference of state lawmakers and sat next to a woman who said, “Hi, I’m Barbara Roberts, I’m a legislator from Oregon, and I’m going to be the first woman governor of Oregon.” Keenan was a bit doubtful of Roberts’s bold claim at the time, but she learned a valuable lesson from the woman who eventually did become Oregon’s governor that she passes on to other women all the time.
“Don’t wait to be asked,” Keenan says. “If you want to be the president of NARAL, don’t wait for somebody to ask you—go after it. If you want to be the editor of a magazine or a newspaper, don’t wait to be asked.”
After three terms in the state House, Keenan was elected state superintendent of public instruction. In 2000, she ran for Congress but had to find her own way to Washington after losing to Republican Denny Rehberg, a former lieutenant governor, who still holds the state’s at-large seat in the House.
“It’s pretty tough to get a job in Montana when you’ve run the entire school system there,” she says. “They don’t want you to go back and teach.”
The District of Columbia seemed the perfect place to combine her love of politics with her need for “a bigger experience.” She spent a few years as a consultant and then became education-policy director at People for the American Way. She worked there for a year before joining NARAL in 2004.
“[NARAL] brought together the politics that I love, without having to run for office, and it brought together an issue that I had such a fundamental passion for,” she says. “It was a good fit.”
As NARAL’s president, Keenan has dealt with White House occupants from both parties. It’s “night and day,” she says of dealing with both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
“The other night when my announcement was made public, the president called,” she says. “There’s a big difference between having someone who shares your values—privacy and freedom—and someone who does not.”
Keenan will step down, exactly 40 years after Roe v. Wade, with the hope that a new voice can attract younger voters. She says she hopes the anniversary of the landmark case will allow for reflection while looking forward. The focus won’t be on telling stories of the era before the Supreme Court case legalized abortion, but on the stories of today that will connect to the millennial generation.
“They lean pro-choice, but there is an intensity gap between the pro-choice side of the equation and the anti-choice,” she says. “We’ve got to close that intensity gap. They’re pro-choice, but they haven’t connected the political to the personal.”
Keenan recalls the victories and the firestorms at the abortions-rights organization. An etched sword stands against the wall next to her desk. The silver sword looks as if it was conjured from the pages of a Tolkien novel, but it was found in Keenan’s garage. It serves as a reminder of something a friend told her after a particularly rough time: “The strongest steel is made in the hottest fire.”
“You’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to find some things that didn’t work out exactly how you wanted, but you learn,” Keenan says. “We’re all going to have bad days, but that’s how you learn.”
This article appears in the May 22, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.