A Conversation With Faye Wattleton: Part 3, Family Planning and Race

Faye Wattleton (left) with Maxine Waters and Jesse Jackson, 1992

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’ll be sharing her experiences and perspectives in observance of Black History Month. This third installment covers questions of racism, especially as aimed at Planned Parenthood and its founder, Margaret Sanger.

Faye Wattleton is clear that women’s autonomy is at the core of the reproductive rights debate. Her philosophy regarding the struggle for reproductive rights, as she said during our interview, “gradually evolved to the conclusion that this is still really about the fundamental right and values that women are held to. That our reproduction is still a proxy for the larger question of our full status as human beings and as citizens.” The question is whether the government will seize the power to make decisions about women’s bodies.


“Racism has a very deep vein in this country and our culture.”


Ms. Wattleton, as the first African American president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, was often asked how she could work for an organization founded by Margaret Sanger, a woman who allegedly saw birth control as a tool to eradicate the Negro race, to use the language of Sanger’s time. For example, when Ms. Wattleton debated Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, on the Phil Donahue Show in 1991, he accused her of being a traitor to her race by working for Planned Parenthood: “Margaret Sanger … wanted to eliminate the black community,” Terry said to Ms. Wattleton. “You have been bought.”

Ms. Wattleton responded, “I do not need you to tell me what my choices are about my life and my body because I am a black person. I can make that choice for myself, just as every black woman can make that choice for herself.” Reflecting further on Margaret Sanger during our conversation, Ms. Wattleton added, “I could never understand why Margaret Sanger was hauled out. Maybe she was racist. George Washington had slaves. What am I supposed to do? Give up my American citizenship for that?” Continue reading

Becoming a Woman

Vagina. It is a fairly innocuous word, don’t you think? But in today’s America, it has become more than a correct clinical term for female genitalia; it has become a naughty word. Suddenly, in a presidential election year notable for its lack of substance and abundance of acrimony, the vagina has taken center stage. The rules, however, for its inclusion seem to be muddy. Countless state legislatures have passed increasingly draconian laws that relate directly to the vagina. Ironically, the majority of people who have been most vocal in anti-vagina activities do not have one. In Michigan, at least, it has even become a word whose use can get you banned from speaking on the legislative floor. Love, lust, empowerment: These are all words that describe feelings different people have about vaginas. But what about envy?


The closer I am to getting a vagina, the more I understand that I don’t actually need one to be the woman I am.


A few days ago, I received a private Facebook message from a dear friend. It began, “I got to see my vagina today. For the very first time, my vagina. I know you know how significant that is and I only wish the same for you and soon. It will change your life.”

My friend, Natasha, sent this from her hospital room in Montreal, where she is recuperating from the most significant surgery anyone like us can ever undergo: gender affirmation surgery. We are transgender, which, for those few of you who might not know, is the phenomenon where the gender identity that is programmed into the brain of a fetus does not coincide with the physical sex into which that fetus develops. To make a million long stories short, it is unarguably one of the most painful conditions imaginable, largely because the person suffering from it has to fight tooth and nail to make people understand that it’s real. Continue reading