The post-election buzz is all about how 2012 was a pivotal year, the demographic shift toward non-white voters and millennials finally kicked in, women finally exercised their electoral power, and yada yada. This is true, and we deserve to celebrate for a few minutes.
But elections come and go, pendulums swing, and no shift happens by itself—people have to make it happen.
That’s why social movements are forever, if they remain relevant and keep them. I was honored to be interviewed by NYU’s Margaret Sanger Papers Project regarding my views of the woman who started the American Birth Control Movement and the organization that would become Planned Parenthood, her work, and what I learned from her leadership. Here you go—let me know what you think.
Gloria Feldt: I relate to the hardships of young parents. I have been driven by a passion that my daughters and all future generations of women should have the information, aspiration, and access to birth control and abortion services that give them the ability to determine the course of their own lives. Like Margaret Sanger, I believe biology should not be destiny and no woman can call herself free till she can own and control her own body. The birth control pill represented that liberation for me. It enabled me to start college and build a career. And to become financially independent–economic justice is the second factor, after reproductive rights, women must have to be full and equal citizens, but you can’t have that unless you can make your own sexual and childbearing decisions.
MSPP: You served as CEO of Planned Parenthood for many years, why were you drawn to that organization?
GF: I had been involved with the Civil Rights movement in the 1960′s and 70′s, which in turn led me to teach at Head Start and volunteer for other programs to help people out of poverty. And I came to see family planning as a fundamental human and civil right.
I was initially drawn to Planned Parenthood’s local affiliates because they provide direct health and education services as well as advocacy. There is no more important social justice movement or mission.
I started as executive director of what is now Planned Parenthood of West Texas in 1974 and then served as CEO of Planned Parenthood in Arizona for 18 years, from 1978 to 1996 when I became national president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. So I came to the national position with 22 years of experience on the front lines serving the needs of women and families. That plus my personal story gave me a unique perspective on the job and the role of the national organization in leading the nationwide movement, including the central role of advocacy to securing the availability of those services. I grew Planned Parenthood’s political arm into the largest and most powerful in the movement. Still, the motivation for me was always to meet the needs of the next woman who comes into the clinic seeking help.
MSPP: Margaret Sanger, of course, founded Planned Parenthood in the early 1900′s. How do you think Margaret Sanger’s actions are relevant today?
GF: Movement leaders today can learn from her courage. Her willingness to embrace controversy, and when necessary to create it, in order to foster public debate and attention to the cause of birth control. Her extraordinary use of media to get her message out. Her persistence. And her laser focus on her mission. I think she would not have accepted some of the compromises that were made at the beginning of the health reform debate, for example, compromises that made the movement look weak and resulted in the dramatic increase of antichoice legislation at the state and federal level since then. Much of what I know about leadership, and what informed my leadership decisions especially during the toughest of times, I learned from reading about Margaret Sanger.
MSPP: There are a lot of people who oppose Margaret Sanger and what she stood for. What do you say to those people?
GF: I don’t waste my breath. They usually are deliberately misrepresenting the facts. They are mostly people who want women barefoot and pregnant again.
MSPP: During your many years as a prominent feminist activist, what is one specific memory that is most special to you?
GF: Looking out on the mall in Washington DC and seeing over a million people marching for women’s lives in 2004 was an unforgettable high. But I think the best was each of the steps we took leading to insurance coverage of contraception. The result of that initiative, which I turned into a nationwide effort to change Planned Parenthood’s mindset from reactive to proactive when I became national president, was long after I left PPFA, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius was able to justify covering contraception in Obamacare regulations by saying “it’s the standard.” Once again, the birth control pill played a significant role in my life’s drama!
MSPP: You have gained a certain amount of renown from your very successful but very public career. What are the difficulties that come with that type of ‘fame’? Are there any challenging experiences that are memorable?
GF: I will always have the scarlet “P” on my forehead. It’s both a blessing and a curse. People know me because of my long association with the movement, and react favorably for the most part. But at times the controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood keeps me from getting speaking engagements, awards, and media interviews, especially those on my current passion of women’s leadership.
For example, a Girl Scout Council just pulled out of sponsoring a conference where I’m speaking on women’s leadership because they would not associate with a former president of Planned Parenthood. Fortunately, the conference sponsors mounted a campaign to counter the Girl Scouts and are reconsidering whether to let their daughters be in scouting. And I’ll now be keynoting the conference, by the way!
Of course there were the death threats, stalking, and picketing of my home. But again, I take my cue from Sanger who said it was a privilege to do this worthy work for women. And every day, someone said (and they still say) to me “You saved my life.” I know what they mean and that reward far exceeds any of the difficulties.
MSPP: Your most recent book, No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power, is a New York Times Bestseller and is now in its second round of printing. What is the one idea that you hope the women who read your book take away from it?
GF: You have the power in your hands. This is the moment to embrace your power, walk with intention, and lead your own dreams forward. And here are the Power Tools to help you.
MSPP: Do you have any other piece of advice to offer women that doesn’t appear in any of your books?
GF: I have a lot more to say about courageous leadership and deeper looks into women’s complex relationship with power–stay tuned.
MSPP: In your opinion: in what year will the USA see its first woman president?
GF: 2016. And I am currently working on a leadership initiative that will bring women to parity across all sectors of society by 2025.
MSPP: Any other comments on Margaret Sanger?
GF: She was interesting because she was a bundle of contradictions like most of us. Not perfect by a long shot, but always perfectly aligned with her mission. And because of her laser focus on her mission , she changed the world. Thank you, Margaret.
MSPP: When you’re not busy writing, teaching or speaking, what do you like to do in your free time?
GF: Exercise, walk in Central Park, or just about anywhere in NY or AZ (the two places I live, as did Sanger, interestingly), cook for people, do things with my grandchildren. Quite ordinary.
This article was originally seen on the Margaret Sanger Papers Project Research Annex website. Written by Sydney Lakin, An Interview with Gloria Feldt: Talking Sanger, Fame, and the First Woman President was published on October 17, 2012.