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A life in the struggle

Faye Wattleton, former president of Planned Parenthood, says her strategies have evolved in the fight for women's rights.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 12, 2001

[Times photo: Bill Serne]
Faye Wattleton, president of the Center for Gender Equality, recently spoke to businesswomen in St. Petersburg about women's rights.
Faye Wattleton no longer travels with a bodyguard.

On this morning the woman vilified on Web sites as a baby killer and attacked by anti-abortion rights advocates on Nightline elegantly folds her 6-foot frame into a chair on the Renaissance Vinoy Resort veranda in St. Petersburg.

She was seldom so relaxed during 14 years as president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. As the unflinching point person for choice, she often became a personal target of opponents in the abortion debate.

"My life has changed. I have the benefits of perspective," says Wattleton, 57. "I feel wiser.

"It was great to carry signs in the '60s and holler. That's all a part of progress. But when the picture changes, the battle changes."

Wattleton was here to speak to more than 500 people at the annual Women's Symposium at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg campus. The Thursday event was co-sponsored by the Women's Council of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce. She almost didn't make it: The winter storm that slammed the East Coast delayed her flight from New York and shortened her visit to hours.

Wattleton personally guided a change in Planned Parenthood from contraceptive service to health care organization and advocacy group. As the abortion debate heated in the '80s and abortion clinics became the targets of opponents, Wattleton faced death threats and criticism for her unyielding stance.

In the battle for women's reproductive, economic and political freedom, she learned change is incremental. She also observes today that some of the troops are retreating.

"There is no question that we've lost ground on reproductive rights," Wattleton says. "There is evidence of growing acceptance of restrictions on women's choices and women's rights."

A January report from the Gallup Organization, timed to coincide with the 28th anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade decision giving women the right to abortion, found the percentage of people who consider themselves against abortion rights rose from 33 percent to 43 percent over the past five years.

Also in January, on the morning of his first day in office, President Bush reinstituted what critics call the "global gag rule," cutting U.S. funding to overseas organizations that provide information on abortion. Outside the White House, hundreds of anti-abortion rights demonstrators called for repeal of Roe vs. Wade.

"I don't believe we fully appreciate how much this affects the condition of our lives. One-half-million women have abortions every year in the United States," Wattleton says.

"Women have to understand we have to take responsibility for ourselves. Women are not sharing in power. This has to be sustained work."

If a woman is to have choices, all women must band together to support that right, even if they do not exercise it for themselves, she says.

"There are no assumptions those freedoms will remain," Wattleton says. "My daughter's generation is not as cognizant as it should be."

The number of young people who say they support abortion rights has declined every year except one since 1990, according to a UCLA study of incoming freshmen.

Bush has also not ruled out the possibility of a Justice Department attempt to overturn Roe.

"The new technologies create a window to the womb, which makes people much more cognizant of the humanity of the unborn child," Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, told the New York Times. "Americans with sonograms of fetuses on their refrigerators are unlikely to think quite the same way about abortion."

A life on the line

Five years after the Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973, Wattleton became the first African-American president of Planned Parenthood. She also was the first woman to serve as the organization's leader since its founding by Margaret Sanger in 1916.

She resigned in 1992 and three years later co-founded the Center for Gender Equality in New York, a research and advocacy think tank for women to "dismantle the obstacles that impede full equality."

In recent focus groups at the center, in preparation for public opinion surveys due for release this summer, women said they feel "unsafe," says Wattleton.

"They don't feel they have the power to secure their safety economically or physically.

"They were saying we have too much equality."

As women moved into the work force, they kept the responsibility for the home and the children. "The men don't feel that responsibility, and they are relieved from the responsibility of being the absolute provider," says Wattleton of the feedback from the focus groups.

"If I could start a national movement, it would be, 'How do I get him to take out the garbage?' " she says.

"It is a lesson to us on how hard it is to make lasting and substantial progress, and how easy it is to lose ground."

Wattleton's conviction was born in the 1960s. After earning a nursing degree from Ohio State University, she enrolled in Columbia University to study for a master's degree in maternal and infant care. While interning at the Harlem hospital, she saw many girls and women who attempted abortions, then illegal, with dire results.

Wattleton blended the history of the abortion rights movement with her own life history in her 1996 autobiography Life on the Line.

In it, she includes a letter to her daughter, Felicia, who now is 25 years old. Wattleton lauds her freedoms but frets over her future.

"I wonder whether you fully appreciate how important it is to accept the responsibility of protecting your freedom. I pray that you will never forget that you are the beneficiary of the struggles and sacrifices of others," she writes.

"Who will have the power to make the decisions about the most intimate aspects of your body and your life force? Who will make the decisions about your daughter's body and the choices in her life?

"Will she, or will the government?"

- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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