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.” Continue reading

A Conversation with Faye Wattleton: Part 1, Historical Perspectives

Faye Wattleton reflects on her career in the family-planning movement. Image: Planned Parenthood of Southern Arizona, 1981

Faye Wattleton was president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America from 1978 to 1992. At 34 years old, she was not only the youngest and the first African American to head PPFA, but was also the first woman since Margaret Sanger to hold that position. She had already been executive director of the affiliate in Dayton, Ohio, for seven years, and is still PPFA’s longest-serving president.

Ms. Wattleton received her nursing degree from Ohio State University in 1964, and a master’s degree in maternal and infant care, with certification as a nurse midwife, from Columbia University in 1967. Working in obstetrics, she saw a wider world than she had known and was exposed to the choices women in other circumstances needed to make. She saw the results of illegal abortions when women were desperate to end unwanted pregnancies, and saw the judgmental attitudes of many of the doctors and nurses who treated them. These experiences, along with her religious upbringing by a strong mother who was a preacher in the Church of God, led her to a career in the movement for reproductive rights.


“What is different today is that the element of violence is much less of a factor in the struggle” for abortion rights.


Ms. Wattleton was generous enough to speak to me on January 7, 2013, and throughout the month of February we’ll be sharing her experiences and perspectives in observance of Black History Month. In this first installment, she speaks about the battle for women’s reproductive rights as it has evolved over time.

In the years since Roe, states have been passing more and more restrictive laws, such as Arizona’s strict 20-week cutoff for abortions, and mischaracterizing some birth control methods as abortifacients. I asked if it had been difficult to watch the worsening attacks against reproductive rights since she left Planned Parenthood — and was surprised when Ms. Wattleton said she does not think the struggle for reproductive rights has gotten more difficult. In some ways, she said, things have gotten better. Continue reading