African American activist Faye Wattleton (born 1943) has dedicated her life to preserving and protecting the rights of women, first as an advocate for reproductive self-determination and later as a catalyst for gender equality.
Other than securing the right to vote, one of, if not the most important right women have won in the twentieth century, is the right to obtain a safe and legal abortion. During her fourteen-year tenure as president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA), Wattleton brought the nation's oldest and largest voluntary reproductive health organization to the forefront of the battle to preserve women's right to reproductive self-determination.
As the first African American and the first woman to lead Planned Parenthood since its founder Margaret Sanger, Wattleton expanded the organization's focus on contraception and reproductive education to include a strong advocacy position for abortion rights. This stance placed both Wattleton and Planned Parenthood at the center of heated political crossfire, and at times, violence perpetrated by extremists opposed to the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade upholding legal access to abortion. Her no-nonsense eloquence and grace under fire catapulted Wattleton into the national spotlight-amid controversy and pressure-as she dealt with the Moral Majority, the Right to Life movement, and challenges posed by other court decisions on the legality and availability of abortion.
From 1978 to 1992, Wattleton played a major role in defining the national debate over reproductive rights and in shaping family planning policies of governments worldwide. These issues led to broader concerns about women's continuing struggle for equality in addition to the fragility of rights, such as abortion, which, once won, still can be eroded or overturned. In 1995, she established the Center for Gender Equality to promote a national dialogue on the economic, political, and educational aspects of women's lives in addition to health and reproductive rights. Her efforts have been recognized with the Jefferson Award for the Greatest Public Service performed by a Private Citizen (1992), and induction into the National Women's Hall of Fame (1993).
Roots of Conviction
Wattleton grew up as the only child in a family of doers and independent thinkers. Her mother and grandfather were strong-willed evangelical preachers, and her father was a hard-working laborer. Both parents were born and raised in the deep South, and moved to St. Louis, Missouri in search of new opportunities. It was there they met, married, and began family life in the 1940s.
Smart and precocious as a child, Wattleton entered school at the age of four, and immediately advanced to the second grade. She remembers an early childhood filled with family and friends, along with the strong tenets of commitment, love, and hope for each other and God. That foundation gave her the security and strength to cope with an unsettled adolescence. Her mother's reputation as a preacher grew, bringing opportunities that required travel away from home.
For eight years on and off, Wattleton lived with church friends or relatives while her parents traveled for the ministry. In Wattleton's autobiography, Life On The Line, she said, "Those impermanent 'homes' were governed by strict rules enforced mostly without the love and tolerance of my family. I was left to my own devices, to adapt to every circumstance. It was a lonely, guarded existence."
Awakening of a Mission
College was a time of making dreams come true. Since the age of four, she had talked about becoming a nurse, and when her mother became pastor of a large congregation in Cleveland, Ohio, Wattleton saw in Ohio State University's nursing school the opportunity to pursue that lifelong ambition and be close to her family. The experiential part of her education at Children's Hospital in Columbus had a profound influence on the course her career would take. Caring for children who were victims of disease, abuse, and neglect provided her first understanding of women's needs as they relate to reproductive rights.
She went on to study maternal and infant health care at Columbia University. Again, her clinical rotation made a lasting impression and deepened her commitment to helping women. That year approximately 6, 500 women were admitted to Harlem Hospital suffering from complications of incomplete abortion. She shared one particularly vivid case of a pretty teenager in terminal condition with the Ohio State University College of Nursing Magazine. She recalled, "Unable to afford the services of an abortionist, the girl and her mother had concocted a solution of Lysol and bleach and injected it into her uterus. The potent mix of chemicals had been absorbed by her blood stream, badly damaging her kidneys. Her other vital organs were shutting down and there was nothing that could be done." In the 1960s before abortion was legalized, women, particularly poor women, resorted to extraordinary measures to control their own reproductive systems.
In the same article, Wattleton said, "Choosing a career in nursing was perhaps my most important professional decision. Had I not had direct experiences with patients and gained an understanding of what goes on in women's lives, I would not have had the determination and commitment to non-compromise on the gains that women have made with respect to reproductive choice."
Following graduate school, she returned to Ohio and worked in public health nursing in Dayton for three years before becoming executive director of that city's Planned Parenthood. Eight years later, she found herself leading the national organization during one of the most tumultuous periods in its history. The debate over reproductive rights became a political power struggle, with many diversions intended to confuse the central issue of whether women should decide what happens inside their bodies, or whether the government should decide. The issues were emotionally charged, and the more Planned Parenthood defended women's rights, the more it became a lightning rod for violence. Personal threats became commonplace not only for Wattleton, but for physicians and the staffs of pro-choice clinics and Planned Parenthood facilities around the country. There were shootings, deaths of doctors and health care workers, bomb threats, and fires. Never one to bow to adversity or equivocate in her beliefs, Wattleton stood her ground in defending reproductive choice.
The hard-won gains of Roe v. Wade were challenged legislatively as well; and in 1989, the Supreme Court handed down the Webster decision allowing states greater power to restrict abortions. Wattleton's mantra became even stronger as she urged women and the Planned Parenthood Federation to realize that women's rights cannot be taken for granted. She believed greater political activism was incumbent upon the Federation in order to uphold its mission, particularly to disadvantaged women. According to USA Today, she also was not pleased that fewer than half of Planned Parenthood affiliates offered abortions. People reported internal dissension over its public role in the reproductive rights battles finally led Wattleton to resign from Planned Parenthood in 1992.
Life Goes On
Wattleton took time to reflect about her life-who she was, what she accomplished, and where she wanted to go-which resulted in an autobiography, Life On The Line. When asked why publishing her story was so important, she said, "I lived a high profile public life…. People know where I stand on the issues … but they don't know where my belief system comes from or why I chose to crusade for women's lives." Secure, but not complacent, in her contribution to improving the quality of women's lives, she began exploring ways to parlay her expertise into another venue. Considered telegenic, as well as glamorous, articulate, and charismatic, she tried to break into the daytime talk show circuit on television. It didn't sell. She approached corporations and foundations to serve on their boards, and was told she was too controversial. Then she started receiving speaking engagements, particularly from colleges, and realized she was still looking for an appropriate venue from which to reach tomorrow's leaders.
The idea of starting a women's policy think tank took hold, and in 1996 the Center for Gender Equality opened its doors. In an interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Wattleton said, "I'm deeply disturbed by the backlash against women, " referring to the dismantling of affirmative action and welfare, as well as the continuing attacks on reproductive rights. As always, she stresses the link between women's inequality and poverty. In founding the Center, her vision is to provide a national platform and institutional setting for scholars, researchers and strategists to pursue a better, more comprehensive understanding of issues that affect women's lives and prevent them from attaining equal status in society.
The Center's fact sheet speaks directly to Wattleton's belief stating that "sustaining change is often a more subtle and complex challenge than the task of creating change." To this, according to the Ohio State University College of Nursing Magazine, she brings the values that have propelled her through life-"respect for others, individual responsibility, unflagging determination, and faith in God." Her memoirs provide a glimpse back, as well as the path ahead, "I have never been able to accept the notion that there are some things I cannot do, some things I cannot change. I have always told myself that it is all just a matter of figuring out how."
Further Reading on Faye Wattleton
Wattleton, Faye, Life On The Line, Ballantine Books, 1996.
Ms., September 1996, p. 44-53.
Ohio State University College of Nursing Magazine, Volume 7, number 1, 1997.
People, November 25, 1996, p. 31-34.
Plain Dealer, November 4, 1997.
Time, October 7, 1996, p. 99.
Town & Country, October 1996.
USA Today, October 8, 1996.
Center for Gender Equality, fact sheet, 1997.