Born into an Irish Catholic family on February 14, 1952, Nancy Keenan was raised in Anaconda, Montana. In 1974 she graduated from Montana State University with a bachelor’s degree in elementary and special education. She then worked for a year at the Yellowstone Boys’ Ranch in Billings, Montana, a religiously oriented school for abandoned and troubled boys. In 1975 she returned to Anaconda to teach elementary-school children with disabilities, a position she would hold until 1988. During her tenure at that job, Keenan (in 1979) earned an M.A. in education administration from the University of Montana. She also launched an active career in politics during this period, serving as a Democratic state representative in Montana from 1983-89. After that, Keenan spent 11 years (1989-2000) as Montana’s state superintendent of public instruction. For part of that time, she was national president of the Council of Chief State School Officers.
In 2000, Keenan ran as the Democratic candidate for Montana’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Some of her top campaign donors included left-wing activist groups and labor unions such as the AFL-CIO, the AmeriPAC Association of Trial Lawyers of America, Emily’s List, MoveOn.org, the National Education Association, People for the American Way, Planned Parenthood, the Teamsters, and the United Auto Workers. Keenan lost the election, however, and subsequently moved to Washington, DC, where she worked as a private educational consultant from 2001-03.
In 2003-04, Keenan was the full-time education policy director of People for the American Way. As a lobbyist for that organization, she aggressively attacked tuition vouchers that threatened to divert money away from the public education system and the teachers’ unions. “Why should we be responsible for [vouchers] as taxpayers,” she asked, “and is that in the best interest of our community? And, fundamentally, is it fair? I think, to all of those, the answer is ‘no.’” Characterizing vouchers as “a war on public schools and school children,” Keenan in 2004 suggested that voucher proposals were often rooted in racism:
“When the Religious Right entered the political arena was right after Brown v. Board of Education 50 years ago. That was the first time we started hearing about vouchers so that white children didn’t have to go to school with brown children. They wanted to use tax dollars so white children could go to white Christian academies.”
In late 2004, Keenan became president of NARAL Pro-Choice America (formerly known as the National Abortion Rights Action League). Upon taking that position, Keenan announced that she was ready to wage an ideological battle against then-U.S. President George W. Bush, who she believed was planning to appoint Supreme Court Justices who would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. “The stakes have never been higher,” said Keenan. “Every branch of the federal government is dominated by powerful opponents of choice. Years of progress on women’s health, reproductive freedom and personal privacy are in peril.”
In one of her first moves as NARAL president, Keenan, a Democrat, made it clear that pro-life candidates such as Tim Roemer of Indiana, who was running against Howard Dean in a bid to become leader of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), were not welcome in her party. In January 2005, The Hill reported that Keenan not only “snubbed” Roemer but also mobilized all of NARAL’s state and local affiliates “to contact the 447 DNC delegates and persuade them to oppose” his candidacy.
In 2006, Washingtonian Magazine named Keenan as one of the 100 most powerful women in Washington, DC.
During the 2009 public debate over the possibility of nationalizing health care in the United States, Keenan was strongly critical of the proposed Stupak-Pitts Amendment, which would have prohibited the use of federal funds to pay for abortion coverage except in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the life of the mother. Keenan favors access to taxpayer-funded abortion-on-demand, with no exceptions.
In May 2012, Keenan announced that she would be stepping down from her post with NARAL at the end of the year.
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