By Andrea Plaid
I knew I was “pro-choice” since about the age of ten. I remember watching the nightly news at my aunt’s house (this was in the late 70s), and there was a segment on about the abortion debates. I don’t remember the images, just the words, “a woman has the right to bring a child into the world.” I thought no truer words were spoken and, thus–with some permutations, like understanding the nuances of “pro-choice/pro-reproductive rights” and “reproductive justice” and moving my thinking toward the latter–I’ve stayed in that stance ever since.
And–yowza!–I remember conversations my mom and I would have about it throughout my ‘tween and teen years. I told my mom–she was the only grown person I could talk to about this–that I wasn’t going to have kids, full stop, and would seek an abortion if necessary in order to remain childless. (I thought my love life at that time would consist of a series of lovers, none of whom I knew I wouldn’t want to be attached to via a child. A husband? Yeah, perhaps, but I thought the lovers thing sounded infinitely sexier in my head.) Mom wasn’t hearing any of this. And her trump card in this argument? “Only white women kill their children. We”–meaning Black women–”don’t do those things.” I didn’t know how to argue against respectability politics then. I just knew that it wasn’t going to by my life, dammit.
And I knew not every Black woman believed what my mom believed about abortion and its role in our lives.
So, imagine my joy when I saw Faye Wattleton.
When my brain cognated my stance, Wattleton just started her leadership at Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA). (She earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing from Ohio State University in 1964 and her master’s degree in maternal and infant care–with a certification as a nurse-midwife from Columbia University in 1967.) When she moved into that role in 1978, she was a trio of firsts: the first African American president, the first female president since founder Margaret Sanger ran it, and the youngest president. When she left the position in 1992–when I graduated with my undergrad degree and pretty deep into my feminism–Wattleton also served the longest term as president. According to her website:
At the time of her departure, a restructured Planned Parenthood had grown to become the nation’s seventh largest nonprofit organization, with an aggregate budget of $500 million, providing medical and educational services to four million Americans each year, through 170 affiliates operating in 49 states and the District of Columbia. Under its international arm, known as Family Planning International Assistance, PPFA provided technical assistance and commodities to organizations in dozens of developing countries.
In 1990, Wattleton, along with (among others) Shirley Chisolm, Byllye Avery, Donna Brazile, Dorothy Height, Maxine Waters, and Julianne Malveaux, formed the group African American Women for Reproductive Freedom to show their support for Roe v. Wade and doing so with what we now call a reproductive-justice framework, as seen in this statement:
We understand why African-American women risked their lives then and why they seek safe, legal abortion now. It’s been a matter of survival. Hunger and homelessness. Inadequate housing and income to properly provide for themselves and their children. Family instability. Rape. Incest. Abuse. Too young, too old, too sick, too tired. Emotional, physical, mental, economic, social–the reasons for not carrying a pregnancy to term are endless and varied, personal, urgent and private. And for all these pressing reasons, African-American women once again will be among the first forced to risk their lives if abortion is made illegal.
There have always been those who have stood in the way of our exercising our rights, who tried to restrict our choices. There probably always will be. But we who have been oppressed should not be swayed in our opposition to tyranny of any kind, especially attempts to take away our reproductive freedom. You may believe abortion is wrong. We respect your belief and we will do all in our power to protect that choice for you. You may decide that abortion is not an option you would choose. Reproductive freedom guarantees your right not to. All that we ask is that no one deny another human being the right to make her own choice. That no one condemn her to exercising her choices in ways that endanger her health, her life. And that no one prevent others from creating safe, affordable, legal conditions to accommodate women, whatever the choices they make. Reproductive freedom gives each of us the right to make our own choices and guarantees us a safe, legal, affordable support system. It’s the right to choose.
It is also during the early part of her tenure at PPFA, Wattleton says in her autobiography, Life On The Line, where she warned other feminist organizations, like NOW, that the religious right and the anti-choice groups were forming a formidable coalition to dismantle Roe v. Wade. She said that the organizations dimissed her prediction because they viewed these groups as populated with ignorant people who couldn’t possibly have the skills to do such a thing. Suffice to say, we’re now seeing the results of those feminist/reproductive freedom groups ignoring Wattleton’s political prescience in too many behind-the-eight-ball defensive positions articulated in public conversations about the issue.
When Wattleton decided to step down from PPFA, she confided in her daughter Felicia:
When Faye Wattleton, exhausted after 14 contentious years as president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, faced the painful prospect of quitting the job she loved, whom did she confide in first? Not her colleagues, not her friends, and not her mother, Ozie, a fire-and-brimstone Church of God minister who had always disapproved of her daughter’s fervent pro-choice crusade. (Later, told of the resignation, Ozie commented only: “My prayers have been answered.”) No, Ozie would not be a comfort now, even though she had been, in her devotion to what she believed, an imposing example. Instead the confidante Wattleton went to was the person she calls a powerful mentor: a woman named Felicia Gordon, who happens to be her daughter and was 16 years old at the time.
If Ozie’s influence was formative (what was Faye doing but the opposite of what her mother had done?), Felicia’s was transformative. And not just by making policy issues personal. [sic] Felicia knows her way around worlds her mother used to shy away from. “Felicia has taken me into the realm of our popular culture in a way I never could have done without her,” Wattleton says, “and it opens up for me the wave of the here and now. Which is important not only for my work”—Wattleton is president of the Center for Gender Equality, a think tank she helped to found in 1995—”but because I’ve spent my life slogging away, trying to save the world instead of living in it.”
Wattleton has received about a dozen honorary degrees as well as the Margaret Sanger Award and the Jefferson Public Service Award in 1992 and the Fries Prize in 2004. She co-founded and led the think tank Center for the Advancement of Women (now known as the Women’s Center for Advancement) and now serves as Managing Director at the global business restructuring firm Alvarez and Marsal.
So, suffice to say, I love Faye Wattleton for holding a position–and helping me hold a position–that affirms my own life, even when I didn’t quite know how that life would turn out all at the age of 10.