A Conversation With Faye Wattleton: Part 4, Looking Back

Faye Wattleton was president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America from 1978 to 1992. She was generous enough to speak to me on January 7, 2013, and throughout the month of February we’ve shared her experiences and perspectives in observance of Black History Month. In this final installment, we look at her thoughts about her time at PPFA and her life after leaving Planned Parenthood.

In 1970, just a few years after receiving her master’s degree, Faye Wattleton left the Dayton Health Department and the Visiting Nurses Association to serve as executive director for Planned Parenthood of Miami Valley in Ohio. While she was there, the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down, and when a local reporter asked for a comment, Ms. Wattleton realized that her affiliate had no prepared statement. As she wrote in her autobiography, “The national offices had communicated no strategy for addressing the implications of such a landmark decision.”


“The exercise of safe reproductive health services and choices for women around the world is vital to the planet.”


At the time, no one had known what to expect from the Supreme Court, and the ruling came as a shock to Wattleton and her colleagues. But the Roe v. Wade decision would eventually thrust Planned Parenthood into the highly politicized abortion debate, despite the fact that their mission was — and is — broader than that, focusing most of their energies on contraception, preventive care, and education.

When Ms. Wattleton became Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s president in 1978, the organization had become, according to a 1979 Time Magazine article, “as all-American as the Girl Scouts and debutante parties.” But Ms. Wattleton restructured the national office staff in preparation for increasing political challenges, while continuing to expand medical and education services. During her first year, more than 60 percent of the national managerial staff left the organization.

Reflecting on the restructuring, Ms. Wattleton says that had she known then what she knows now, she would have begun her tenure at PPFA differently. “I had been the executive director of a Planned Parenthood [affiliate] for seven years before I became president [of the national organization]. I felt like I really knew the organization, but what I learned [is that] anyone who has the privilege to ascend to national or international responsibilities can’t quite appreciate what it’s like, until you’re actually in the seat. Perhaps I really overestimated my perspective on some of the nuances of the importance of touching base with a number of the elements within the organization; like any other organization, Planned Parenthood has its factions.”

Ms. Wattleton said that perhaps her youth led her to overestimate her knowledge of how the organization worked, while her vision for Planned Parenthood’s new direction obscured the fact that a large organization might not be immediately accepting of bold new ideas. “I perhaps didn’t appreciate the impact [of] being the first woman after Margaret Sanger to lead the organization,” she said. “That, in itself, should have been a source of rather careful reflection on how quickly people can adapt to a different style of leadership.”

I commented that, at 34, she had been so young. She responded, “Well, I didn’t think I was so young. I mean, I graduated from college at 20. At that point I was more than a decade into my career. So, I’ve done everything early.”

The changes she instituted, however, made PPFA once again a visible activist organization in the fight for reproductive rights, and Ms. Wattleton became known for her advocacy before congressional committees, at women’s rights rallies, and on television, She established a public affairs division amid opposition both inside and outside of Planned Parenthood. Until then, Planned Parenthood had considered the Guttmacher Institute to be the movement’s voice in Washington — initially, some within both Guttmacher and PPFA saw Planned Parenthood’s new public affairs division as competing with Guttmacher. Later still, in 1989, Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the organization’s political arm, was born.

Ms. Wattleton saw Planned Parenthood grow to more than 170 affiliates in 49 states and Washington, D.C., which collectively operated more than 800 clinics. Overseas, she oversaw the growth of Family Planning International Assistance, which supplies local organizations and medical providers with funding and technical support for family planning services throughout the developing world.

I asked Ms. Wattleton what she saw as her greatest achievement at PPFA. Her first answer was that she had been able to gain her opponents’ respect, however much they opposed the cause for which she was working. As an example, in 1987 anti-abortion spokesperson Kay James was quoted by the Washington Post: “People say to me — and they mean it as a compliment — ‘You’re the pro-life movement’s Faye Wattleton.’ In an unusual sort of way, I have … admiration for her.”

Of course, after 14 years, more than one accomplishment stands out. Ms. Wattleton continued, “You know, there are many points of success I could cite. In the historical context I think that the defeat of Robert Bork is arguably among the top two or three.”

Ronald Reagan nominated Robert Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987. Bork founded the “original intent” school of Constitutional interpretation, which takes the 1787 document and its amendments literally. Nina Totenberg’s obituary of Bork cites some of his most controversial writings: “He wrote an article opposing the 1964 civil rights law that required hotels, restaurants and other businesses to serve people of all races. He opposed a 1965 Supreme Court decision that struck down a state law banning contraceptives for married couples. ‘There is no right to privacy in the Constitution,’ Bork said.”

After a concerted effort by groups like Planned Parenthood, the Senate defeated Bork’s nomination by a vote of 58-42. Speaking of Planned Parenthood’s role in this success, Ms. Wattleton stated, “In [Bork’s] distress over the demise of his confirmation a year later, in a speech that is a matter of public record, he cited Planned Parenthood and People for the American Way as the cause of his defeat. So in that sense, I believe I led a movement that was successful in helping to alter the prospects for a jurist who believed that Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided and that there was no basis for the protection of individual privacy in the Constitution. But a few years ago, he even said that the charges that we lobbed against him were accurate. He would have gone to the [Supreme] Court and decided as we thought he would on the side of voting to reverse the court’s decision [on Roe v. Wade].”

Ms. Wattleton is pleased that her family planning work had an impact beyond our own shores and in fact reached women around the world through PPFA’s international arm, known as Family Planning International Assistance. Said Ms. Wattleton, ”I am especially proud of the management legacy of being the CEO of a large nonprofit organization that served women around the world. It is a source of great satisfaction, that we provided resources for indigenous organizations in 68 developing countries. We did not just have a narrow-minded, myopic commitment to American women. The exercise of safe reproductive health services and choices for women around the world is vital to the planet.”

When Ms. Wattleton left PPFA, she said it was from “battle fatigue.” Throughout the 1980s, abortion opponents engaged in protests at clinics, which could involve acts of violence as well as harassment of providers and patients. Ms. Wattleton’s tenure at PPFA encompassed the entire Reagan administration and most of the George H.W. Bush administration, a period that saw the rise of the religious right’s political influence. Both Reagan and Bush abandoned prior moderate positions and espoused strong policies opposing reproductive rights.

“Even though Ronald Reagan was the first governor to sign [into law] state Medicaid funding for low-income women’s abortions when he was governor of California,” Ms. Wattleton said, the Reagan administration was hostile to the Title X program, which was established by President Nixon to increase family-planning access to low-income patients. And, “even though George Herbert Walker Bush was a co-sponsor of Title X when he was a congressman from Texas,” he continued Reagan’s policies against family planning. While Bush had been a champion for family planning as far back as the 1960s and ’70s, in 1988 he ran on an anti-abortion position; as president he vetoed legislation that would dismantle the gag rule.

Ms. Wattleton also refers to internal struggles within PPFA, where many medical staff members were opposed to Planned Parenthood’s strong profile defending reproductive rights for minors and low-income women, or were willing to accept intrusive policies in order to keep government funding to provide services. These policies included proposed squeal rules, which would have required notification of parents when minors sought prescription contraception, as well as international gag rules, which deny federal funding to any family-planning program that offers abortion counseling or referrals. Twelve-hour days and grueling travel schedules also took their toll, costing Ms. Wattleton her marriage and time with her daughter.

“After 14 years, I thought it was time to step down,” says Ms. Wattleton of her departure. “Also, I think it’s really healthy for organizations [to have] new leadership, new perspective, different ideas about how the organization might revitalize itself.”

She continued, “I, at this point, have the longest legacy as president of Planned Parenthood. It was very difficult and challenging work. One cannot, I think, endure the challenges and the sacrifices and the hard work of running a large organization while helping to lead a movement for social change for women’s lives without experiencing a significant amount of battle fatigue. That’s exactly what happened.”

Ms. Wattleton left PPFA with two projects in the works — an autobiography and a television program. The TV show never got off the ground; she would not bow to the overt commercialism asked of her. The 1996 publication of her autobiography, Life on the Line, returned her to the spotlight with its telling of her life’s story and the battle for reproductive rights.

“I’ve straddled two worlds,” she said of her post-PPFA career. “Because of my executive background and the experience of running an organization I’ve been asked to serve on the boards of foundations, nonprofit organizations, and public companies. I was the co-founder and president of a small research organization, the Center for the Advancement of Women, for about 14 years. It was more challenging than running Planned Parenthood because of the difficulty of attracting funding to build a research think tank focused on women. There is very little interest in investing in research and data for use in public debate and public conversation.”

Most recently, in 2010, Ms. Wattleton became a managing director at the international consulting firm of Alvarez and Marsal. “So, I am now consolidating all of that experience for clients, as a partner in a consulting firm. We’ll see how that goes.”

As I think about Faye Wattleton and this interview with her, I am astonished at her journey from her fundamentalist childhood to nurse-midwife, to president of an international organization, to spokesperson for a generation of women. She has remained clear on the heart of all the issues of a complicated movement: women’s right to sovereignty over their own bodies, and to be full citizens and full human beings. We still do not have full equality, and what we have is under threat.


Click here to see all four installments of our wonderful interview with Faye Wattleton, which we ran on Mondays in February 2013 in observance of Black History Month.

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5 thoughts on “A Conversation With Faye Wattleton: Part 4, Looking Back

  1. Rachel, thank you so much for such a thorough series on this inspiring leader! I learned so much from Ms. Wattleton’s perspectives, especially the ones that surprised me, like her rejection (in Part 1) of the blanket statement that the fight for reproductive rights is worse now than it’s ever been.

    And this installment surprised me in likening ’70s-era Planned Parenthood to “debutante parties,” apparently a symbol of all that is innocuous and celebrated in American culture. But, indeed, a profile of Ms. Wattleton that I found in the New York Times (February 3, 1978) states: “Faye Wattleton, the new president designate of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said here yesterday that she was ‘putting the world on notice’ that the traditionally low-keyed organization was going to become more aggressive in the battle for abortion rights.”

    “Low-keyed”! Can you imagine anyone using that adjective to describe Planned Parenthood these days?

    I am grateful that Ms. Wattleton was able to transform Planned Parenthood into the amazing advocate for women’s health that I have known my whole life.

    • Thanks, Anna. I know that I learned an enormous amount from this interview, and the surprises it held. It was a privilege to speak to Ms. Wattleton and write up that conversation.

  2. This is a great piece–and the series as a whole has been great as well. It’s interesting to read that many of the things that seem so necessary and so vital about today’s Planned Parenthood were contentious during Wattleton’s tenure. It would be an understatement to say she’s a remarkable person for moving forward through those controversies and shaping Planned Parenthood into what it is today. Planned Parenthood was an important organization that was made even better through Wattleton’s leadership.

  3. I know, Matt, it’s amazing to think of PP as “all-American as the Girl Scouts…” And yet as I think of my college years in the 1960′s, I don’t remember them being much of a presence. I first became aware of them during Ms. Wattleton’s tenure.

    Thanks for your comment.

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