Mary Peace Douglas: “A Tender Heart and a Real Fighter”

The struggle for reproductive rights in Arizona has a history that stretches back to Margaret Sanger’s involvement with Clinica Para Las Madres, Planned Parenthood’s 1930s precursor in Tucson. Sanger and the other founders of Tucson’s first family planning clinic were brave activists with fierce convictions, and over the decades, the movement saw an influx of fighters whose work was defined by their passion and dedication.

Mary Peace Douglas, who became an active participant in Southern Arizona’s civil life when she moved to the Sonoita Valley more than 65 years ago, was one of those fighters. In the years that she worked for Planned Parenthood’s Tucson affiliate, Mary Peace Douglas made a name for herself as an advocate for reproductive freedom who had a remarkable resolve and spirit that breathed life into the movement.

In addition to the family and friends who remember her fondly, Mary Peace Douglas leaves behind a legacy of having changed Arizona for the better.

Originally from the East Coast, Mary Peace was born to a mother who had also been active with Planned Parenthood during the organization’s early years — meaning that she was involved with Planned Parenthood “from age zero,” as her colleague and cousin Dorothy Sturges puts it. After receiving a high school and junior college education in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, Mary Peace moved out west to Southern Arizona, where she made her mark on the struggle for family planning in the region.

Earlier this year, on February 1, Mary Peace passed away at the age of 87. During her life she was a pioneering fighter for reproductive rights and helped build Planned Parenthood Arizona into what it is today. Beginning in the late 1960s, she served a long tenure on Planned Parenthood Center of Tucson’s board of directors, and later was hired to work in development, where she quickly proved she could be an effective fundraiser. Additionally, she spent time serving on the national board of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

For those who knew her, not only was her legacy unforgettable, but so was her personality. Both assertive and gracious, she established an easy rapport with others and took a personal interest in her colleagues and fellow board members. The bonds that formed among her co-workers were so strong that they began the tradition of meeting for breakfast every month. This ritual is still going strong 32 years later, a testament to friendships that have continued long after their work together ended. This tight-knit group, dubbed the Gang of Four in 1981 by Planned Parenthood of Southern Arizona’s director Ruth Green, was originally composed of Mary Peace along with Nancy Cook, Reyn Voevodsky, and Patsy Waterfall. As more board members and other staffers from that period began to join the group, they eventually outgrew the number but never shed the name. Since Mary Peace’s passing, 10 members now make up the Gang of Four.

I sat down with the Gang of Four on March 13, 2013, to hear their stories about Mary Peace. Of the 10 members, Nancy Cook, Janet Marcus, Jane Sedlmayer, Mike Smith, Dorothy Sturges, Patsy Waterfall, and Reyn Voevodsky were at breakfast that morning at a café in Tucson. (The other three members, Elly Anderson, Karen Green Hobson, and Judy Tamsen, were not present.) They gave me a warm welcome, and before I even got to my list of questions, they were eager to talk. They began sharing their memories about Mary Peace’s readiness to open the doors of her Tucson-area ranch home to the rest of the community — but at the same time insisting on sticking to her bedtime no matter who was still there by then.

“We could stay as late as we wanted,” Janet Marcus commented, “but she went to bed at 8:30 at the latest.” Those who stayed until 8:30 were likely to see Mary Peace leave and reappear in a gown, ready to wish them a good night. “She was a strong, independent woman, and she did what she wanted,” Marcus continued.

Patsy Waterfall summarized Mary Peace’s disposition as “ramrod straight and a very forceful personality.” It was that independence and resolve that spurred her to fight for other women’s right to self-determination.

As assertive as Mary Peace could be, she also knew how to put people at ease. Waterfall recalls, “When I first met [Mary Peace in 1965] … We used to meet at the old [Jewish Community Center] on Plumer [Avenue], and I was walking in and I was really nervous, but all of the sudden this big person came up behind me, totally dressed up in red, patent-leather shoes and a red dress and introduced herself and really made me feel comfortable and told me what to do. And I’d never, ever met her before.”

Jane Sedlmayer remembers Mary Peace as someone who always had a thoughtful demeanor. “If anyone in my family was ill, she would always remember to ask. It’s not like she was so focused only on work.”

Mary Peace’s interpersonal skills were necessary during a turbulent time for Planned Parenthood. Not long before the Supreme Court made its decision on Roe v. Wade in 1973, the Planned Parenthood affiliates in Tucson and Phoenix were challenging the state’s abortion restrictions with lawsuits that were wending their way through the Arizona courts. A ruling in late 1972 had the state poised to legalize abortion, which would have given Arizonans access to the procedure along with their neighbors in California, where abortion was already legal.

The challenge to Arizona’s abortion laws was a response to the real-life problems that those on the front lines of the fight for reproductive justice witnessed daily. The Gang of Four described the pre-Roe era as a time when many women in Arizona had to cross the U.S.-Mexico border or travel to California for an abortion. Those who crossed the border often underwent unsafe abortions and immediately scheduled appointments with their local physicians upon returning, needing antibiotics or other care.

“I remember the doctors here would fix you up when you came back,” recalls Janet Marcus. “They wouldn’t touch you before, but you would go [to Mexico] and they’d do a crummy job, and [the American doctors would] fix you up.”

As Mike Smith put it, Mary Peace “didn’t like compromising on matters of real principle” like abortion. At the same time, though, she “didn’t insist that everyone agree with her.”

When Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, it rendered the court battles in Arizona moot, but abortion remained a contentious topic for Planned Parenthood, both locally and nationally, as the organization decided where to position itself in terms of abortion. After Roe, access to abortion in Southern Arizona was still difficult, with only a few private practitioners providing the service. In Tucson, Planned Parenthood was faced with the question of whether or not to provide abortions and increase local access to the procedure.

The ensuing debate was not an easy one, and it put Mary Peace in rousing discussions at board meetings, both on the topics of abortion and the issue of how to secure Planned Parenthood’s clinics against attacks by anti-abortion activists, who had gone on the offensive even when Planned Parenthood didn’t offer abortion services. The Gang of Four described a skylight at one clinic that was fortified with bars and remembered having to take precautions like entering through the back door of the clinic and maintaining communications with the Tucson police. Picketing by anti-abortion groups was frequent, and evidence of an attempted break-in was discovered at one clinic.

After years of debate, in 1983, the board of directors finally approved a resolution to include abortion care among the organization’s services, which was initiated by Planned Parenthood of Southern Arizona’s director Ruth Green. Although preceded by considerable debate, by the time the decision was made, “it was just clear,” Mike Smith commented. Smith described the decision-making process as very careful, but “once we got down to the deciding moment [I can’t recall] that there was much opposition.”

For Mary Peace, it was the decision that made sense. Nancy Cook explained that “She was certainly supporting abortion rights — always.”

Besides her dedication to Planned Parenthood through momentous debates and decisions, Mary Peace also had significant influence as a successful fundraiser. The Gang of Four recalled Mary Peace’s meticulous record-keeping before her development contacts were ever entered into a computerized database. Mary Peace compiled an extensive collection of names that she kept on index cards, and she used that collection to maintain contact with the many donors who supported Planned Parenthood.

At the Gang of Four breakfast, Reyn Voevodsky called Mary Peace “a tender heart and a real fighter.” It was that spirit that was a common thread in the portrait the Gang of Four described to me. Mary Peace kept her resolve until her final days of battling cancer, when she insisted that at her age she should forgo treatment so that she could pass away comfortably and peacefully at her home. She leaves behind a surviving brother, son, daughters, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren — and the legacy of having changed Arizona for the better.

Anna also contributed to this article, both as a co-writer and through research in the Planned Parenthood of Southern Arizona archives.

One thought on “Mary Peace Douglas: “A Tender Heart and a Real Fighter”

  1. Wonderful tribute to a beautiful human being. I worked with Mary Peace in the mid-1980s at Planned Parenthood of Southern Arizona. Every year on her birthday I would send her a note and she would always reply. The last card I received from her came in July 2012. She said she was going through her old photos and thought I might like to have it. It was a photo of me feeding her old dog at Mary Peace’s retirement party. I miss her.

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