Alyce Faye Wattleton
8 July 1943
St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.
Author and regular news commentator
Faye Wattleton (born Alyce Faye Wattleton; 8 July 1943) is an American abortion rights activist who was the first African American and the youngest president ever elected of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and the first woman since Margaret Sanger to hold the position. She is best known for her contributions to family planning and reproductive health, as well as the pro-choice movement.
Wattleton was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1943, the only child of a construction worker father and a mother who was a seamstress and a Church of God minister. During her childhood, her mother's calling meant that the family traveled frequently, and Wattleton saw the emotional effect her mother's preaching had on congregation. For eight years Wattleton stayed with family members and friends while her parents traveled for work. Although her mother never approved of her work in reproductive rights, Wattleton considers the principle of nonjudgment espoused by the faith of her upbringing to have had a deep impact on her future work in family planning.
Faye Wattleton attended Ohio State University at the age of 16. She was awarded a bachelor's degree in nursing in 1964, and went on to teach at a nursing school in Dayton, Ohio for two years. While in nursing school, Wattleton worked at the Children's Hospital in Columbus. There she cared for children who were abused, neglected, and sick with diseases.
Choosing where to go to get her master's degree was hard for Wattleton. She was accepted to both the Catholic University and Columbia University. Wattleton would chose to attend Columbia University in New York. Due to her fascination with children born with drug addictions inherited from their using mothers, Wattleton did her master's thesis on phototoelectrophoresis. Phototoelectrophoresis is a medical term referring to the test used to screen pregnant mothers for drug use so that a baby can be treated for withdrawal immediately. Wattleton graduated with her Master's of Science degree in maternal and infant care, with certification as a nurse-midwife, from Columbia University in 1967. Wattleton went to Columbia on a full scholarship.
While working toward her master's degree, she interned at a hospital in Harlem. There, Wattleton saw female patients suffering from life-threatening side effects of unsafe abortions. During her time at the hospital in Harlem she learned about all aspects of unwanted pregnancy. Approximately 6,500 women were admitted for abortion complications regarding incomplete abortions during her time there. After graduating from Columbia, Wattleton was given two job offers. The first offer came to her from the Chairman of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Harlem Hospital.He asked Wattleton to consider starting her own midwifery service in the OB-GYN Department of the Albany Medical College. The offer also included a promotion to Department Chair after a year. The second offer that Wattleton received came from a public health professor that she had and admired during her undergraduate days in Dayton. The position was the Dayton Deputy in charge of the Visiting Nurses Association's Maternal and Child Health programs at the Dayton Health Department. Wattleton would go on to accept the offer in Dayton and move back home. She thought that she could have more influence in Dayton than in Albany. For two years she served as the nursing instructor at the Miami Valley Hospital School of Nursing in Dayton while serving as the deputy of maternal care for the Visiting Nurse's Association.
In Wattleton's role as midwife and deputy of visiting nurses in the Dayton Health Department, she saw a lot of troubled women. the youngest girl that Wattleton cared for in her clinic was 13 years old. During her time in this position Wattleton realized the societal consequences that pregnancy had on young mothers. The issue of teenage pregnancy troubled Wattleton. Therefore, she continued to work for women's reproductive rights so that women and young girls could get the care they needed.
Since the Dayton health clinic was a privately owned facility, it was mandated to report on how many mothers were receiving prenatal care. Wattleton started keeping track and soon realized that about 30 percent of mothers in Dayton did not get prenatal care. Astonished by this statistic Wattleton pushed for change. She concluded that women have to be reached before the time that they have their babies to insure good health. From previous experience, Wattleton knew that in New York neighborhood health clinics in the inner cities worked. Therefore, she tried to replicate their tactics in Dayton, Ohio. Her boss said that she could open up said health clinics if she could get doctors who were willing the work at them. Wattleton had dabbled a little bit in local Dayton government and knew many OB-GYN doctors. She was able to present her statistics on how the clinics could help with prenatal care and the overall consensus was that it couldn't hurt to try. Three months later, Wattleton started a clinic with one public health nurse. Three hospitals in the area participated. Wattleton and the nurse would treat the patients for minor issues, and if there were any major concerns, the patient would be transported to one of the affiliate hospitals of the practice. Wattleton was also not allowed to deliver babies in the clinic. After nine months in her care, the patient would be referred to one of the participating hospitals to prepare for childbirth.
In 1967, Faye Wattleton became the assistant director of Public Health Nursing Services in Dayton, Ohio. In Dayton, she "began her career as an effective coalition builder for reproductive rights." The same year, she also joined the board of the local Planned Parenthood and shortly after in 1970, Wattleton became the president of the Planned Parenthood of Dayton. Her success in uniting white, middle and upper-class and women in poverty was proof that Wattleton had a skill for united individuals. During the late 1960s and early 1970s the United States was experiencing a heightened political climate resulting in racial and anti-war protests. The killing of Malcolm X, MLK and RFK added fuel to the fire. Also on the political agenda was the legal status of abortion. Wattleton accomplished a major victory for Dayton when she began an initiative providing teenagers with contraceptives without their parent's consent. In 1978, Faye Wattleton was appointed President of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. This made her the first African American woman President of the Planned Parenthood ever appointed by the board.
During her presidency at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, from 1978 to 1992, Wattleton transformed the organization into the politically engaged entity that it is today, while at the same time dramatically increasing the range of its health-care services. She did not know the power that she had at Planned Parenthood until she realized that the organization was started by one woman's undying wish to free women from the limitations that childbearing holds on mothers. When she first started Planned Parenthood as the director,her first task was to create the budget. Never having done anything on this scope before, she led with confidence and worked to produce a budget. This led to many other successes. Wattleton also led Planned Parenthood's growth as a health-care provider. By the time she left the organization, it had more than 170 affiliates in 49 states and Washington, D.C., and operated more than 800 health centers. Faye Wattleton had two major goals upon becoming president: (1) reproductive health, and, (2) gender equality. Wattleton wished to expand the focus of Planned Parenthood to emphasize abortion rights. Anticipating that the 1980s would bring many political challenges, Wattleton restructured the organization so that it could respond to the new environment created by the election of Ronald Reagan and the rise of the Religious Right. It is said that Wattleton spearheaded advocacy for the pro-choice movement. She shaped the national and worldwide debate on reproductive rights. Even though the 1980s were a time of reproductive change, many people did not support Wattleton's stance. Planned Parenthood clinics across the country experienced shootings, bombings, fires, and employees were killed or injured. As Wattleton's time at Planned Parenthood progressed, there was a major decision by the Supreme Court, Webster v Reproductive Health in which the court held that states do not have to fund legal abortions. At the same time, Wattleton was disappointed that about half of Planned Parenthood affiliates did not offer abortions. This all led to her resignation as President in February 1991.
The ending of her time at Planned Parenthood did not end her career. Faye Wattleton enjoyed a tremendous reputation in the political realm, which made it difficult for her to find a job. Many companies found her stance on abortion to be too controversial. Wattleton tried getting jobs in new business fields. From 1992 to 1995, she hosted a Chicago-based talk show on television. After the show ended, Wattleton continued to think about how she could reach future generations to teach them about women's reproductive health and equality. She began to give lectures across the country as a way to keep her message alive. In 1995 Faye Wattleton created a non-profit think tank called Center for the Advancement of Women. The purpose of this Center was to "promote strategies for dismantling the obstacles that impede full equality for women". The goal for the Center of Gender Equality was to start a national conversation about the economic, political and educational aspects of women's everyday lives and highlight ways of improvement for those issues. In 2017, Wattleton Co-Founded EeroQ Quantum Computing with Nick Farina and Michigan State Professor Johannes Pollanen.
Faye Wattleton worked for reproductive rights at a time in America where the political tension surrounding the issue was mounting. From the time she went to school in Dayton to her resignation as Planned Parenthood Federation of America's President, Wattleton for the rights of women. In January 1973, the Court issued Roe v. Wade ruling that women had the right under the constitution to terminate their pregnancies. This was momentous and allowed for the creation of clinics where abortions could take place to rise in communities around the country. On the same day that the Court ruled Roe v. Wade, the Court also decided Doe v. Bolton, which found that a doctor can consider the physical, emotional, psychological and familial aspects of a person before deciding if they need an abortion. Three years later, the Supreme Court rejected a lower court ruling that a woman needed their husband's consent for an abortion in Planned Parenthood v. Danforth. In 1980, Harris v. McRae upheld the Hyde Amendment, ruling patients receiving Medicaid could only get an abortion if the pregnancy endangered their life or the life of their child. There weren't many cases fought on the U.S. Supreme Court level in the 1980s until the Webster v. Reproductive Health Services in 1989. In this decision, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Missouri ban on abortions after 24 gestational weeks. In 1990, the Court ruled that minors must notify both parents before seeking an abortion unless they sought a "judicial bypass". And Planned Parenthood v. Casey 1992, the Supreme Court ruled that states can make laws concerning certain requirements to get an abortion including waiting periods and counseling, as long as it does not enact an undue burden on the mother to receive an abortion. Wattleton never waived in her advocacy for women's reproductive health during this time.
In 1970 Faye Wattleton's Parents moved to Texas where her mother preached at a small congregation outside of Houston. Wattleton was experience immense change in her occupational path as director of Planned Parenthood, Miami Valley when her father got lung cancer. By the time that she found out, he only had six months to live. He passed away that same year.
Also during this time, Wattleton's mother was struggling with the activism of her daughter. Her mother often told her that she was killing children and going against "God's word". Wattleton struggled to balance her faith and her activism. Her church stood at odds with pro-choice ideals. This would be a barrier in the relationship Wattleton held with her mother.
Faye Wattleton met her husband, Franklin Gordon in 1972. He was a jazz musician whom she had met at a conference sponsored by the Junior League. After the conference they parted separate ways, but Franklin still wrote Faye poems and sent them in the mail. Knowing that she was turning 29 years old and wanting to have children, Wattleton decided to marry Gordon at the end of August in 1972. By January 1975, she found out that she was pregnant. She stayed busy during her pregnancy by running for President of the National Executive Directors Council (NEDC) of Planned Parenthood's midwestern regional affiliates. When it came time for her to give birth she put everything to the side for a few days. On 20 October 1975 Wattleton gave birth to her daughter, Felicia Megan Gordon.
In 1990 Wattleton was watching Murray Schwartz on Nightline and realized that maybe her calling was television. She had ideas that she wanted to share with the world, and Planned Parenthood was draining all of her energy. So, Wattleton met with Murray a few weeks later to talk about her hosting a talk-show. The point of the talk show would be for her to reach an audience that she could discuss more aspects of men's and women's lives than just reproductive rights. The show was pitched to ABC, Buena Vista (Disney), and Tribune Entertainment. All offers were dropped before a plan of production started. Wattleton stayed in contact with Schwartz and Tribune Entertainment. By the end of the summer, Wattleton and Schwartz were able to make an agreement with Tribune Entertainment for her to have a show where she prompted intellectual debates on controversial topics. Controversy over the show stirred as television production companies tried to manage backlash from Wattleton's past in reproductive rights advocacy. There were times the broadcasting station would have to change where the show was being filmed due to disagreements on political opinions. The topics of the shows produced ranged from women in the 1990s to women of the church. When word got out that Wattleton was producing this show in Chicago, her audiences got bigger. However, the show never became a hit because of a religious uproar about Wattleton's background and the project was cancelled in 1992.
In 1986, the American Humanist Association named her Humanist of the Year. She also was the author of an article, "How to Talk to Your Children About Reproductive Rights" for Planned Parenthood, on the topic of reproductive rights in 1986. In 1990, Wattleton, along with 15 other African American men and women, formed African American Women for Reproductive Freedom.
She was a 1993 inductee into the National Women's Hall of Fame. In 1996, she published her autobiography, Life on the Line. Wattleton wanted to show people why she became an advocate for reproductive health and the stories behind her reasoning. This book highlights those anecdotal moments that were monumental to her career.
She contributed the piece "Unfinished Agenda: Reproductive Rights" to the 2003 anthology Sisterhood Is Forever: The Women's Anthology for a New Millennium, edited by Robin Morgan.
Other awards that she received include: American Public Health Association's Award of Excellence; the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Humanitarian Award; Independent Sector's John Gardner Award; and the Women's Honors in Public Service from the American Nurses Association.
Wattleton served on the Boards for Estée Lauder Companies, Quidel Corporation, Bio-Technology General, Yellowbox.com, Empire Blue Cross & Blue Shield, The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, Institute for International Education and Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Wattleton has also received 15 honorary doctoral degrees.
Faye Wattleton - 1986