Wattleton, Faye 1943–
Faye Wattleton 1943–
Women’s rights advocate
For 14 years Faye Wattleton served as the president of one of the U.S.’s most visible public health organizations, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. As the leader of an organization that advocates women’s reproductive freedom, Wattleton found herself at the forefront of a national debate on legalized abortion, especially during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George Bush. She accepted the challenge without reservation and worked as an ambassador not just for reproductive rights but also for women’s rights in general.
Always impeccably dressed and radiating a cool confidence, Wattleton articulated the pro-choice platform’s tenets and goals without ever resorting to emotional outburst or dire threat. In the process, she became “the most visible and persuasive spokeswoman for abortion rights …Under Wattleton, Planned Parenthood took off the white gloves and became one of the nation’s most vocal and aggressive advocates of abortion rights,” according to the New York Times Magazine.
As a nurse-midwife, Wattleton had watched as her patients suffered and died from back-alley abortions. As the leader of Planned Parenthood, she worked hard to protect future generations of American women from similar self-inflicted atrocities. At the same time, she always made it clear that her organization was not pro-abortion, but was simply pro-choice. “This is not a debate about abortion,” she told Glamour magazine. “This is about a fundamental right to make choices about our sexuality—without the encroachment of a president, the Supreme Court, and certainly without the encroachment of politicians!”
Alyce Faye Wattleton was born in 1943 in St. Louis. She has described herself as an only child surrounded by adults who were deeply committed to the Christian faith. Her father was a factory worker, her mother a seamstress who also preached at the local fundamentalist Church of God. In Savvy Woman, Wattleton said: “I was raised by my parents to believe that it was my obligation to help those with less than I had. Although we were materially poor, the value of my family life was that there was a sense of achievement. We were taught to believe that it was possible to succeed, and that if you didn’t, you didn’t quit.”
In their spare time, the Wattletons did missionary work and hosted other missionaries in their home. Young Faye admired these people and decided that she wanted to be a missionary nurse some day. She skipped kindergarten and first grade,
Full name, Alyce Faye Wattleton; born July 8, 1943, in St. Louis, MO; daughter of George (a factory worker) and Ozie (a seamstress and minister) Wattleton; married Franklin Gordon (a social worker and musician; divorced); children: Felicia. Education: Ohio State University, B.S., 1964; Columbia University, M.S., 1967.
Miami Valley School of Nursing, Dayton, OH, instructor, 1964–66; Dayton Public Health Nursing Association, assistant director, 1967–70; Planned Parenthood Association of Miami Valley, Dayton, executive director, 1970–78; Planned Parenthood Federation of America Inc., president, 1978–92; Tribune Entertainment, Chicago, IL, television show hostess, 1992—. Member of advisory committee, The Nature Conservancy; member of board of trustees, California Wellness Foundation and Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
Selected awards: Spirit of Achievement Award, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, 1991;Women of Achievement Award, Women’s Projects & Productions, 1991; Margaret Sanger Award, 1992; Jefferson Public Service Award, 1992; Dean’s Distinguished Service Award, Columbia School of Public Health, 1992. Recipient of numerous honorary doctorate degrees, including Bard College, Wesleyan University, Oberlin College, Long Island University, and University of Pennsylvania.
Addresses: Office —Tribune Entertainment, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611.
emerging as an honors student. She graduated from high school at 16 and immediately enrolled in Ohio State University to study nursing. She earned a bachelor’s degree there in 1964.
Certain experiences Wattleton had during her education and her early years as a nurse caused her to reconsider aspects of her fundamentalist faith. “I simply chose a profession that made it difficult for me to see life in such exacting terms,” she confessed in Savvy Woman. “In a health-care situation, you see humanity at its most basic, and you realize there are no simple yes-or-no, right-or-wrong answers.” However, Wattleton never relinquished the basic tenet of her Christian upbringing—the urge to make the world a better place.
From 1964 until 1966 Wattleton taught at the Miami Valley Hospital School of Nursing in Dayton, Ohio. In 1966 she won a full scholarship to Columbia University, and she completed a master’s degree program in maternal and infant health care. It was during this training—in the days when abortions were illegal—that she saw the hardships borne by young women with unwanted pregnancies. One teenage patient in her care died of kidney failure following the injection of a combination of Lysol and bleach into her uterus. “A healthy, beautiful human being died because of the poison,” Wattleton recalled in Seven Days. “That was the closest I had come to the desperation that women feel.”
Having completed her master’s degree, Wattleton returned to Dayton in 1967. There she served as a public health nurse and worked to expand local prenatal health-care services. She joined the local Planned Parenthood chapter the following year, convinced that responsible family planning could eliminate much suffering among both the parents of unwanted children and the children themselves. After 18 months in Planned Parenthood, she was asked to head its local board of directors. According to a reporter for the New York Times Magazine, Wattleton “turned the Dayton chapter into one of the outstanding affiliates in the country, making it an efficient fund-raiser and extending its outreach to poor women.”
As she continued her work on behalf of Planned Parenthood during the early 1970s, Wattleton married and bore a child. In 1975 she was elected chairperson of a council representing the executive directors who ran Planned Parenthood affiliates around the country. This position raised her duties to a national level. Just three years later, at the tender age of 34, she was named president of Planned Parenthood. She was not only the first black person, but also the first woman to head the organization.
Wattleton quickly put her own particular stamp on Planned Parenthood. The organization was best known at the time for its 850 clinics in 46 states, serving some 3 million people per year with everything from infertility counseling and birth control to prenatal care. Wattleton felt that Planned Parenthood should also take on a strong advocacy role for women’s rights and reproductive freedom. Almost immediately she established herself as that advocate, making herself available to print and electronic media whenever possible.
In many respects, Wattleton was the ideal choice for a Planned Parenthood spokesperson. She effectively bridged the gap between the organization’s mostly-white, middle-and upper-class membership and the mostly poor women being served in the clinics. Her race helped her to challenge complaints that Planned Parenthood was helping to promote genocide by providing birth control to black women. Early in her tenure, Wattleton told Ebony: “The future and strength of the [black] race is for women to be able to have kids when they want them and to love and provide them with the tools they’ll need to get through a hostile world. The image of the black woman bearing child upon child against her will is the real threat to the race.”
As two Republican presidents and their followers sought ways to curb some women’s access to legal abortions, Wattleton and Planned Parenthood fought the trend every step of the way. The organization did lose some corporate sponsors as it increased its political visibility, but that economic loss was more than offset by increased private donations. Under Wattleton, Planned Parenthood’s budget tripled, from $104.3 million in 1977 to $303 million in 1988. Movie stars and Hollywood executives made public demonstrations of support, and the organization participated in numerous rallies in the nation’s capital and elsewhere. On every such occasion, Wattleton stood in the forefront, elegant, poised, and passionately devoted to her cause.
As the abortion debate became more heated, the president of Planned Parenthood began to receive hate mail, including death threats. She responded by hiring bodyguards and keeping up her full schedule of appearances. Wattleton’s classic good looks and her ability to state her views calmly brought her invitations to the popular television talk-shows, where she often debated leaders from the Right-To-Life, anti-abortionist movement. Still she watched in thinly-veiled fury as the U.S. Supreme Court, Congress, and state legislatures sought ways to decrease the number of abortions performed in the United States.
“Wattleton could be forgiven for succumbing to an occasional bout of the doldrums,” Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in Vogue in 1992. “But she has refused to concede many points…. Showing a keen understanding of the underdog’s advantage, Wattleton has used each loss to rally pro-choice sympathizers, organizing speaking tours and demonstrations and launching aggressive advertising campaigns. As a result… she’s managed to almost double the size of Planned Parenthood’s contributor list. Wattleton may have lost many of the battles, but she makes it very clear that she plans to win the war.”
Even her opponents were forced to concede that Wattleton was an effective campaigner. Time magazine contributor Richard Stengel called Wattleton “a stunning refutation of the cliche of the dowdy feminist,” adding: “In an era when nonprofit organizations seek out celebrity spokespeople to get their message across, she is the public relations ideal, a spokeswoman who has become a celebrity.” Named one of the ten most beautiful women over 40 by Harper’s Bazaar magazine in 1991, she personified a woman bearing full responsibility for her life.
Wattleton spent 14 years at the head of Planned Parenthood, lobbying Congress against cuts in Medicaid spending on abortion, persuading state legislators not to create new laws against abortion in their states, creating nationwide coalitions for reproductive freedom, and speaking out against any politician’s attempt to control what women choose to do with their own bodies.
Reflecting on her contribution to the pro-choice movement, Wattleton told Savvy Woman: “I’ve been able to position our argument in a way that is compelling to people, rather than attacking or offending those of the right-wing religious or political persuasion. My approach has been very valuable in positioning the organization and these issues in a straightforward, clear, no-nonsense manner. We’re not saying abortion is right or wrong or preaching a moral cause, because that is a very personal decision. What we are saying is that government has no right telling women what to do with their lives.”
As early as 1989 Wattleton began to hint that she might step down from Planned Parenthood’s presidency. “We’re going to have some very significant battles ahead, whether I’m going to lead them or someone else,” she told Savvy Woman. “Whoever is providing leadership needs to be as fresh and thoughtful and reflective as possible to make the very best fight.” In January of 1992, shortly after a pro-choice president entered the White House, Wattleton announced her retirement. Her decision was unexpected, but it was accepted without argument by Planned Parenthood’s board of directors.
Since then Wattleton has been the host of a syndicated talk show originating in Chicago. Divorced since the mid-1970s, she shares her private life with a college-age daughter, Felicia. Wattleton, who told Jet she decided to devote her career to “improving the health, rights and well-being of women,” will always be associated with the pro-choice movement and its goals.
“Reproductive freedom is critical to a whole range of issues,” she told Ms. magazine. “If we can’t take charge of this most personal aspect of our lives, we can’t take care of anything. It should not be seen as a privilege or as a benefit, but a fundamental human right…. All women, rich and poor, brown, yellow, and white, must be free to take charge of their lives and make their own personal decisions. We have to fight for fundamental human rights so that no woman can be denied this dignity, regardless of her station in life.”
How To Talk with Your Child about Sexuality, 1986.
Business Week, March 26, 1990, p. 69.
Glamour, February 1990, pp. 194–95.
Harper’s Bazaar, August 1989, pp. 110–13; September 1991, p. 72.
Jet, January 27, 1992, p. 36.
Ms., October 1989, pp. 50–3.
New York Times Magazine, August 6, 1989, pp. 16–19, 61–3.
Savvy Woman, April 1989, p. 80.
Seven Days, July 12, 1989, p. 15.
Time, December 11, 1989, pp. 82–3.
Vogue, January 1992, pp. 140–43.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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."
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.