Faye Wattleton was the the first black President, the second woman to run Planned Parenthood, and the youngest elected President in the organization’s history. Damn. She came onboard during a tumultuous time; just a year before her election, a Planned Parenthood clinic had been burnt to the ground and bomb threats were common. She dealt with devastating legislative restrictions and built up the organization’s base despite multiple assassinations, the 1985 “Year of Pain and Fear” (so named by anti-choice activists), anthrax scares, and arson. By 1992, when she stepped down, Planned Parenthood was the 7th largest nonprofit in the country. Again, damn.
But I wanted to back up a little bit, because Wattleton ran PP during a really pivotal time in reproductive rights history. Women of color have always been involved in fighting for reproductive rights while simultaneously questioning the single-issue focus of the mainstream pro-choice movement. The right to terminate a pregnancy should also mean the right to carry one to term; supporting women who don’t want children should also mean supporting those who do.
Women of color ushered in today’s broader understanding of reproductive rights. In 1976, the Hyde Amendment passed, prohibiting the use of federal Medicaid funds for abortions, meaning that poor women would find getting abortions incredibly difficult, if not impossible. Within months, Rosie Jiménez, a 27-year-old Latina college student and single mother, was the first woman known to have died as a consequence of the Hyde Amendment. She went to a Texas clinic for an abortion, but was turned down because Medicaid would no longer reimburse the procedure. Unable to singlehandedly raise the funds for a legal abortion, she traveled to Mexico for a cheaper, illegal procedure. When she died of septic shock, she had her Medicaid card in her wallet.
Reproductive rights organizations led by black and/or Latina women grew significantly in the seventies and eighties. The Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse (CARASA) worked to expose and stop forced sterilization and make sure women could afford abortions. Brenda Joyner, abortion provider and activist, explained the post-Hyde era like this; “The government will not pay for a $200 or $300 abortion procedure for a poor woman on Medicaid. But it will pay for a $2,000 or $3,000 sterilization procedure for the same poor woman.” Legislators wanted to control who could parent, rather than allow women to decide when and why they would choose to have children.
The National Black Women’s Health project was founded in 1983. In 1985, NOW created its Women of Color Program (lead by the indefatigable Loretta J. Ross) and then sponsored the First National Conference on Women of Color and Reproductive Rights. Women like Ross, Joyner, Wattleton, and Helen Rodríguez Trías (who founded CARASA) worked tirelessly to advocate for the reproductive rights of marginalized women and build up the movement’s base.
Their work was strengthened with the framework of reproductive justice: an idea introduced by prominent activists, including Ross, who represented “communities with few real choices,” rejected the language of “choice,” and sought to integrate concepts of reproductive rights with social justice and human rights. The term first appeared in a full-page announcement in the Washington Post, demanding that Clinton honor the promises he’d made to protect women’s rights.