Splitting the Health-Reform Baby: What Women Lost by Winning

This is part two in my three-part series about what the Affordable Health Care Act means in tangible terms to each of us. The first post in the series was Barbara O’Brien’s optimistic “Health Care Reform Will Help Everybody.” Today, in a post that originally appeared in the Women’s Review of Books blog, I address women’s health specifically in both a personal and political context.

Remember, that the Department of Health and Human Services launched a new website, HealthCare.gov, on July 1 to help consumers wade through the new law’s provisions and how they will affect our access to health care. So do check that out, and as always, your comments and ideas are very welcome here.

Let me be clear: Had I been a member of Congress, I would have pressed the “yes” lever for the health-reform bill when it came down to the vote for final passage. It was incredibly important that we start somewhere to make health care accessible and affordable to all Americans. And we can celebrate, as Ms. magazine recounts in “What the Health Care Bill Means for Women,” that contraceptives will be covered, gender rating that discriminates against women has been eliminated, and preventive services such as pap smears will be covered without co-pay under the new plan.

But sometimes when you win you lose. Continue reading “Splitting the Health-Reform Baby: What Women Lost by Winning”

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

What’s the Best Language: Choice, Freedom, Human Rights, or???

Really, really, I wasn’t going to write about this. It was a conversation on Twitter with @lynncorrine, @kcecilia, and @jendeaderick that made me do it.

You see, after 35 years, I’m tired of arguing about what is the most persuasive language to bring the most people into what we have for some decades now been referring to as the pro-choice fold. And frankly, I have moved on–or outward, as I prefer to say–to the bigger canvas of women’s equality and power, not just between the navel and the knees but also in politics, at work, and at home.

However, thanks to the perpetual obsession about women and sex by those who want to outlaw abortion, I find myself drawn in once more to the fray over the rhetoric of–well, whatever you want to call it. Historian Nancy L. Cohen started the latest public discussion of the terminology in her Los Angeles Times op ed proposing that we switch from “choice” to “freedom.”

Seems to me a historian would have taken a longer view and realized that the language has morphed many times since the turn of the 20th century, from family limitation to birth control to family planning to reproductive health and rights to reproductive justice, with “pro-choice” becoming the short code word for a worldview predicated on the notion that women deserve to be able to make love without making babies: the right to choose whether, when, and with whom to have children.

Lynn Harris aka @lynncorrinne wrote this excellent, sassy piece in Salon expanding on the questions Cohen raised. Well, OK, she quoted me, so i will brazenly self-aggrandize by quoting her quoting me responding to Cohen’s theory that “freedom” would be the silver bullet to end so-called abortion wars:

Ooh, good one? Right? “Freedom”? That’s better than “choice,” right? (As we’ve learned, it’s also better than “French.”) Speaking of which, it kind of sticks it to ’em, stealing “freedom” back from those who invoke and champion it with their fingers crossed behind their backs. (And who attach it to the prefix “hates.”) Shades of Roosevelt, Bill of Rights; nice. Right?

Well, Gloria Feldt, for one, isn’t quite ready to start rewriting our signs. “I like ‘freedom’ fine,” says the activist, writer, former Planned Parenthood prez, and author of the forthcoming “No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power.” “But I’m a realist from experience, both with using the rhetoric and studying public opinion polls. Freedom is a strong American value but it doesn’t move the dial of public opinion because in the rhetorical wars, ‘life’ still trumps ‘freedom.'” (Goddammit!) “Anti-choicers easily turn ‘freedom’ into ‘license.’ Especially when it pertains to women and sex. There are limits to freedom, legally and ethically,” she continues. “Frankly, if choice weren’t a good word, the anti-choice people wouldn’t be co-opting it at every turn. I agree that it has become so diffuse as to lose its meaning. Still, in the end what is morality but choosing?”

Where does that leave us? “I think the only answer is to turn the tables and put the spotlight back on women,” Feldt says. “Our right to life, our human rights.” Well, OK. That doesn’t give us a new catchword, but — more importantly — it reaffirms the moral core of our fight. (Perhaps especially as the forced-pregnancy establishment has shifted strategies from pretending they don’t hate women to telling the truth.) Certain words are potent weapons, yes, but they’re not the war itself. And, as the polls suggest, we can win the war without them. Perhaps we should choose other battles after all.

“Choosing other battles” is a good way to put it. Because the biggest challenge for what in the interest of brevity i will call the pro-choice movement isn’t with those who oppose women’s human right to decide about childbearing, it’s with ourselves.

More than new language, we need a new surge of moral certitude about the rightness of our cause. That, much more than changing the rhetoric based on the latest poll, would solidify the amazing gains we have made for women during the last century and enable us to continue forging ahead to a more just and infinitely healthier future for women, men, and children.

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

Does Access to Birth Control Give Women Freedom?

Uh, yeahhhh!

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

How Did Women Advance in the Oughties?

Katha Pollitt, The Nation columnist and author of a new book of poetry, The Mind Body Problem asked a great question today on a media listserv we’re both on. She wanted to know what we thought were the places where women and/or feminism made advances, went backward, or were treading water.

How do you think women advanced during the last decade? (We can deal with the backward steps in another post…at the beginning of a new year and new decade, let’s start with a nod to the advances.)

Here are my two top-of-mind, unfiltered answers that I sent to Katha, mostly to the positive.

1. The rise of social media has given women the opportunity for a much bigger voice individually and collectively. The asynchronous, information-rich technology and the ability to create “rooms of one’s own” appeal to women who have for so long been overtalked by louder male voices. As a result women are over 50% of bloggers and 57% of the people on Facebook and Twitter. Social media offer a way to connect, share, find support systems, and organize. Women tend to isolate and think they have to solve their problems–often problems caused by systemic barriers–alone. But with social media, they can find answers to their questions and if they choose they can organize to solve problems whether in the private sector or politically. Having been recognized by advertisers as the purchasers of  over 80% of all consumer goods, women could also use their online and social media presence to reshape the consumer economy.

The bad news is that this power remains largely in the potential category because women have not used it strategically to mass their voices.  Power unused is power useless. This is the name of a chapter in the book I’m writing now and I am sad to say I have all too many examples.

2. Reproductive health advanced despite George W. Bush. A few of my personal fave highlights:

a) Mifepristone, the early abortion pill, was approved by the FDA in 2000 just before Bush was sworn in. This was an important political victory as well as giving women an option for very early pregnancy termination without surgery. Ostensibly Mifepristone would make abortion access more widespread, and it probably has but it definitely has not been the panacea some people assumed it would be. For the most part, it is only administered by doctors who were already performing abortions because its medical protocol requires that surgical abortion be available as a backup in case of an incomplete abortion via Mifepristone. Of course, anti-choice harassment and intimidation of doctors has also played a part in limiting access.

b) Plan B emergency contraception was FDA approved for over-the-counter use for women 18 and over in 2006. Increasing public knowledge about EC and easier access to it have been instrumental in lowering the rate of unintended pregnancy and abortion. Restrictions on over-the-counter EC for teens 17 and under are unnecessary, according to medical experts including the FDA’s own scientific advisory committees.

c) there have been a number of additions to the variety of birth control methods available to women and tweaks to older methods aimed at making them more palatable or effective.

d) Following on initiatives started in 1998 to get insurance plans to cover contraception, during the early “oughties”, the number of states requiring such coverage rose to 27. With that, plus the requirement that Federal employees’ insurance plans cover contraception starting in 1998 and several successful lawsuits challenging exceptions to contraceptive coverage within large self-insured company plans, contraceptive coverage went from rare to routine.

OK, your turn. Let’s talk about what you think the advances have been.

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

What were your thoughts, feelings, worries when the Senate passed the health reform bill?

What were your thoughts, feelings, worries this morning when the Senate passed the health reform bill?

This is the question I asked on Facebook this morning and there were so many thoughtful and interesting responses

that I just had to share them here. Please add yours too!

I was thinking that we deserved better than a gift-wrapped Christmas present for the health care industry. This is
neither health, nor care, nor even reform.
Patricia M Sears

Patricia M Sears

It felt good to have 60 votes for progress towards health care reform… and we Must point out that the opposition
votes are against any health care reform as they did not even offer an alternate plan.

We Must Remind Americans that we’re FOR reform (albeit it’s not a pretty sausage at the moment) and the

opposition (39/40) is Not! Be clear, be consistent in communicating this important point.
Jan Rodak

Jan Rodak

This is not progress towards reform. It’s the opposite.
Sammie Moshenberg

Sammie Moshenberg

betrayal and sadness — because I should have been celebrating an historic victory but, as history has shown us,
victories are often at the expense of women
Bob Simpson

Bob Simpson

We have a helluva lot of work to do fixing this monstrosity.
Jan Rodak

Jan Rodak

If there is any benchmark that shows what a disastrous bill this is, it’s the 50-year high in stock prices for the
illustrious insurance industry this past week. Seriously, ’nuff said.

Pat Elliott

Pat Elliott

Angry. Defeated. Worried for future generations. Skeptical of comments about how a little bit of progress was all that was possible and better than none.
That they have lost their minds.
Suzanne Petroni

Suzanne Petroni

Really wish I could say “Thrilled and excited!” but they lost me at Stupak and no public option.
Jan Rodak

Jan Rodak

.. and no price caps. Did they not take Econ 101?
Kelley Bell

Kelley Bell

Change happens, but is measured in centuries, not decades. -We’ve been working on this since Truman was in office. We are so close. We can’t stop now. We must get it passed, THEN work on the amendments needed to make it right. (I know
thats a hard pill to swallow, but its the way these things work.)
Jan Rodak

Jan Rodak

The reason those analogies don’t work is that the incremental moves toward SS and Medicare shifted power AWAY
FROM the private sector, not TOWARD it. If we couldn’t get solid reform with the huge majority and Dem WH we
have now, it’s naive to believe we ever will. Face it: The corporations, and the Blue Cross Dems, have won.
Alan Herzog

Alan Herzog

Mixed feelings. Recognizing the shortcomings yet thinking that in spite of the vicious opposition, the hateful scare
tactics, etc, there was a vote for change–be it real or imagined.
Gloria Feldt

Gloria Feldt

One thing I am worried about is that people will think it’s all done, whereas the reconciliation process between the
House and Senate versions starts immediately and behind closed doors. Very important to stay engaged and keep
the pressure on for improvements in the final bill.
Cassandra West

Cassandra West

While it’s true Obama didn’t “fight” for the public option, we the public didn’t fight hard enough for it, either.
Gloria Feldt

Gloria Feldt

Cassandra, I never thought the public option made sense in the first place. What we really need is single payer
universal coverage, and that’s where thought Obama should have started. Not that I ever believed we’d end up
there this time around, but we’d be a lot closer to the system we are inevitably going to have to create if we are
really serious… See More about controlling costs and making quality care accessible to all Americans. It’s that vision
that is missing and only the president can lay it out so that the public will fight for a bold goal. That’s the key job
of the executive.
Jan Rodak

Jan Rodak

Agreed, Gloria. More and more this president shows his deference to Congress. If he truly feels it’s the most
important branch of government, he ought to have stayed there.
Kelley Bell

Kelley Bell

So true. Our HC system is fraught with profiteers and red tape. Trying to eliminate that will be so hard, as people do
not let go of their money streams without a fight.

For example: When I went for my yearly physical, I decided to look at it from a business perspective. My Dr. sent

me for blood work, a mammogram and a pap smear. -All pretty standard stuff.

I wrote down a list of every person involved in the process: The secretary who made the appointment, the insurance

person I called for pre-approval, the blood tech, the mammogram operator, the secretary in that department, the
doctors who read the results, etc. … See More

Final count: 43 people.

43 people for my doctor to tell me Im perfectly healthy.

How are we going to fix that? and what happens to all those much needed jobs if we do?

Bob Lamm

Bob Lamm

Excellent statements, Gloria. I agree completely with your analysis. And with your view that we must all stay
engaged and work for the best possible changes in the congressional reconciliation process.
Candice Feldt

Candice Feldt

Gloria Feldt for President! 🙂
Jan Rodak

Jan Rodak

An unmentioned issue about public option/Medicare is that its internal controls involve heavy compliance burdens to make sure the government isn’t getting ripped off. I work on that side of it, representing nine critical-access hospitals. The Medicare compliance requirements are enough to keep an army employed. It’s a pain in the you-know-what, but… See More what choice does the government have? When some providers commit fraud against taxpayers, protection is needed.

Private insurers don’t see nearly the volume of fraudulent claims, and their internal controls involve arbitrarily denying claims as a means of controlling costs. So, Kelley, if we shifted to a government-controlled system, there would be plenty of jobs left .. It may seem wasteful, but it’s a necessary evil to monitor providers and make sure billing is on the level.

Even still, after all the compliance headaches, it would *still* be more cost-effective, and efficient, to administer health delivery services at the government level.

5 hours ago ·

Marla Krull

Marla Krull

“I second that”, Candy!!!!!
4 hours ago ·

Larry Feldt

Larry Feldt

Interesting series of comments. Kelly, passing a flawed bill hoping to change it later is like marrying a flawed person
hoping to change them later – it usually turns into disaster. Alan, you perceive this bill as being change “real or
imangined”. If this bill is real it is change for the worse (I think we all agree on this). If imagined change is… See
More acceptable to us, then it is we who are flawed. Cassandra, if “we the public” did not fight hard enough for a
public option, it simply means that “we the public do not want a public option”. Candy, I would certainly vote for
Gloria for President and think she should run. I do not always agree with her politically (although I many times do)
but respect her intellegence, experience,judgement, and ability enough to think she would make a great President.
I also think Alex would be a great “First Gentleman”.

Happy holidays to you all.

Marla Krull

Marla Krull

And Candy could be “first sister” and we could be “first cousins”:):):) Can you just imagine a White House full of Feldts!!!!!!!!!!LOL

Gloria Feldt

Gloria Feldt

And have you noticed it’s only the Feldts who have the presidential idea? Just want to sleep in the Lincoln bedroom?

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

Reclaiming the Means of Reproduction

Lilith Magazine asked me to review Michelle Goldberg’s The Means of Reproduction. The book waspublished earlier this year and at first I thought this review would be a bit dated. As it turns out, given the health reform debate in which women’s reproductive health is once again the battering ram for Republicans who want to kill reform and controversial fodder for the pundits, the subject matter couldn’t be more timely. In particular, Goldberg’s discussion of the damage done globally to women’s health by the Helms amendment shouts the warning about what might well happen in the U.S. if the Stupak-Pitts amendment prevails.

Michelle Goldberg’s captivating book, The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World (Penguin Press, 2009) is perfectly timed to remind those who came of age post-Roe v Wade and might think they can relax under an Obama administration, just how much work is left to do. An investigative journalist and author previously of Kingdom Coming: the Rise of Christian Nationalism, Goldberg has imbued this long-running story with fresh power by telling it in her young feminist voice.

The Means of Reproduction is a sweeping history of U.S. foreign policy on international family planning that spans four continents and the covers issues such as birth control, abortion, HIV/AIDS, their intersections with environmental concerns and economic development, and the gender politics of all, while staying in intimate touch with how America’s policies affect real women globally.

The story begins during the 1960’s cold war when Republicans like John D. Rockefeller and, yes, George H.W. “Rubbers” Bush led the charge to secure U.S. funding for international family planning, convinced that population pressures threatened national security. Then as now, family planning proponents met predictable adversaries. Goldberg writes, “There is one thing that unites cultural conservatives throughout the world, a critique that joins Protestant fundamentalism, Islamists, Hindu Nationalists, ultra-Orthodox Jews, and ultramontane Catholics. All view women’s equality and self-possession as unnatural, a violation of the established order. Yet in one society after another, we can see the absence of women’s rights creating existential dangers.”

Goldberg glosses over the central role played by Family Planning International Assistance (as Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s international division was then known) in scaling family planning services overseas, and their lonely, ultimately unsuccessful, battle against the Global Gag Rule which off and on since Ronald Reagan’s presidency, has proscribed U.S. funding of birth control services to organizations that provide or even discuss abortion. (President Obama removed the Gag Rule by executive order but underlying legislation remains.)

But more important, The Means of Reproduction argues persuasively in today’s vernacular how the absence of women’s human right to reproductive self-determination contributes to overpopulation, environmental disaster, unhealthy families, HIV/AIDS, and sex-ratio imbalances that threaten global stability.

During my 30 years in the leadership of Planned Parenthood, I met many of the characters Goldberg depicts, with all their strengths and faults.  And having joined the movement soon after the infamous Helms amendment banned U. S. foreign assistance for abortion or abortion-related services, I hope her recounting of the political damage and human carnage Sen. Helms’ law has wreaked will ignite a ringing call to rescind it.

Reproductive rights aren’t everything women need, but without them, women can’t determine anything else in their lives. After eight years of the George W. Bush Administration’s all-out war on women’s rights, Goldberg awakens a new generation to the imperative of undoing the damage and moving forward vigorously once again.

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

In Case You Didn’t Believe They Were Out to Eliminate Birth Control Too

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

Convictions to Action: Margaret Sanger’s Legacy and Leadership Lessons

Folks have asked me to post this speech that I gave at the Brooklyn Museum Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art on September 13. Today, September 14, would be the 130th birthday of the founder of the American Birth Control Movement, Margaret Sanger. So here you go!

I just got back from my high school reunion in West Texas. It was a long journey from teen mom with little sense of power over or intention for my life to a movement leader and an activist for women’s human right to reproductive self-determination.

So when I tell you I’m amazed to be here with you, so near 46 Amboy Street in Brownsville, where Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic 93 years ago next month—believe it! This is hallowed ground.

Would the girl born Margaret Higgins in Corning NY in 1879, the sixth child of eleven living siblings, have imagined she’d be immortalized by Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party as a flaming red vulva here in the Brooklyn Museum?


The first leadership lesson I learned from the founder of the birth control movement is:   All worthwhile accomplishments start with a vision. Not a small, incremental vision, but a bold, audacious, flaming red, bigger than yourself vision.

I’ve often turned to Margaret Sanger for inspiration, courage, and practical examples of movement building in the face of both external opposition and institutional resistance.

Today I’ll focus on 9 leadership lessons I learned from her by telling you the story of her life and work, and opening a discussion of the challenges still before us.

While Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn are lauded for saying women’s rights are the great moral imperative of the 21st century, and I’m glad they are saying it,  the fact is Margaret said the essentially same thing 100 years ago.

She was visionary and practical, courageous and cranky, idealistic and pragmatic, a redheaded, green-eyed feminist socialist who died a registered Republican, mother, grandmother, sexual adventurer, a woman of many contradictions—but then aren’t we all?

The personal and political are intertwined in her life as in mine, and probably yours.

Margaret’s earliest childhood memories were of crying beside her mother’s bed after a nearly fatal childbirth. Anne Higgins, a devout, traditional Catholic, did die at age 50, worn out from frequent pregnancies and births.

Margaret’s father was a freethinker, a stonemason, a charmer who loved to drink and spin a tale but was less than a dependable provider. Margaret knew poverty; she identified with the struggles of women. Her experiences formed her sensibilities about the moral rightness of birth control. And she had that freethinker streak that allowed her to break boundaries.

She enrolled in nursing school. But a few months shy of finishing, she resigned to marry a handsome architect, William Sanger.

Three children followed, along with stresses well known to women today– how to pursue both profession and parenthood. When fire destroyed their suburban home, the family moved into New York City. Bill’s widowed mother moved in with them and Margaret began to take special duty nursing assignments.

Imagine: 1912. 8 years before women got the right to vote. A time of political and intellectual ferment. Of rapid immigration, economic turmoil, crowded tenements.

Have you toured my favorite museum, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum?

According to the 1900 census, the 18 wives living in the museum’s Orchard Street tenement had given birth to 111 children, of whom 67 were alive. A 40% infant and child mortality rate sounds shocking now. Back then it was the norm. Maternal mortality was 99% higher than it is today; 40% of those deaths were caused by infection, half of those from unsafe back alley or self-induced abortion.

Birth control, such as existed, was illegal too, largely because of Anthony Comstock —the one-man sex police. Comstock formed the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.

He was appointed a special investigator for the U.S. Postal Service where he could personally enforce the 1873 law named for him, making it illegal to send information or devices for birth control or abortion through the mail. Many state laws followed suit.

Comstock bragged that he had seized 60,000 “obscene rubber articles” and tons of “lewd and lascivious material”. Like today’s abstinence only zealots, he didn’t distinguish healthy, responsible sexual expression from promiscuity, pornography, prostitution.

The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU is a great resource on Sanger

Margaret soon demonstrated her second leadership lesson: A leader is someone who gets things done—she turns vision into action.

The Nike Swoosh had nothing on Margaret Sanger. She said,

“I have noticed that for those people who compromise by the excuse that ‘the time is not yet ripe,’ the time never does arrive for decisive, courageous action.

Comstock was about to meet his match.

The defining moment came when Margaret was called to an overcrowded tenement to nurse a 28-year-old mother of three, Sadie Sachs.  Sadie had been told another pregnancy would kill her. But when she asked her doctor how to prevent pregnancies, he callously replied, “Tell Jake to sleep on the roof.”

Bitterly poor, weak from her last pregnancy, Sadie self-aborted. She got a raging infection (pre-antibiotics). She begged Margaret to tell her how to prevent pregnancies. Margaret shared what knowledge she had, but it wasn’t much.

A few months later, Margaret was called back to the same house. Again, Sadie had self-aborted. This time she died, leaving a bereft husband and three small children.

Margaret walked for hours afterward, immersed in grief that she hadn’t had an answer for Sadie.  Back home, she looked out over the city and saw a panorama of misery:

“children dying in infancy, neglected and hungry pushed into the labor market to help earn a living…mothers half-sick most of their lives.”

She resolved,

“Women would have knowledge of contraception…I would tell the world what was going on in the lives of these poor women. No matter what it should cost, I would be heard.”

Leadership lesson #3: There’s power in your story.

Margaret told Sadie’s story over and over. Dramatically. Using all media at her disposal, connecting the personal story with the call for political change.

She wrote a sex education column, “What Every Girl Should Know,” for a Socialist newspaper, “The Call”.

Comstock censored it. The following week, the paper ran an empty space with the headline, “What Every Girl Should Know: Nothing by order of the U.S. Post Office.”

She ratcheted it up by publishing a periodical, “The Woman Rebel,” to challenge Comstock directly. About this time, a friend coined the term “birth control.” Margaret ran with it.  It was, as the media mavens say, sticky.

She was arrested in August, 1914. Rather than stand trial—she hadn’t aroused public opinion sufficiently yet, she fled to Europe. She researched homemade birth control methods prevalent in France. In England, she began what would be a long term affair and deep intellectual bond with sexologist Havelock Ellis.

She visited a clinic in the Netherlands, where family planning advice, diaphragms, and contraceptive jelly had been dispensed for 30 years. This gave her the model she would emulate when she returned home in the fall of 1915, and the vision of a network of clinics all over the country.

The fourth leadership lesson I learned from Margaret Sanger is the importance of timing.

Did you ever see anyone so happily posed for her arraignment?

She sensed the tide turning in her direction. Bill Sanger had been arrested for distributing birth control pamphlets, with much media fanfare, and her rival leader in the birth control movement, Mary Ware Dennett, had started the National Birth Control League. Readers of “The Woman Rebel” flooded the charismatic Margaret with letters of support.

On January 17, 1916, the eve of her trial, she gave what she called her “maiden speech.” She would repeat it 119 times across the country. Excerpts:

They tell me that “The Woman Rebel” was badly written, that it was crude, that it was emotional and hysterical, that it was defiant and too radical. To all these indictments, I plead guilty.

Women from time immemorial have tried to avoid unwanted motherhood.

On the one hand, I found wise men, sages, scientists, discussing birth control among themselves. But their ideas were sterile. They did not influence the tremendous facts of life among the working classes or the disinherited…I might have taken up a policy of safety and sanity—but would I have got a hearing?

I felt myself in the position of one who has discovered that a house is on fire and it was up to me to shout out the warning.

Leadership Lessons # 5, 6, and 7:

Use what you’ve got.  What you need is usually there if you can see it. Controversy is your friend; it gets people’s attention.

Outmaneuvered, the prosecution dropped the charges in February.

On Oct. 16, 1916, Sanger opened America’s first birth control clinic. Her sister, Ethel Byrne, was the nurse; they couldn’t get a doctor to help them. Handbills in English, Yiddish and Italian advertised the clinic.

Police closed down it 10 days and 464 patients later.

But Sanger had founded something much larger than a clinic: she had ignited a great movement for women’s reproductive freedom.

Ultimately, she was arrested 9 times for her civil disobedience. Each time, she used what she had—not money, certainly not the law, and few influential supporters. But she had the power of an idea that touched a deep human need.

This is my favorite example of her brilliant use of controversy to rally people to her cause:

In 1929, she was banned in Boston. She got esteemed Harvard professor Arthur Schlesinger Sr. to read her speech for her while she stood gagged beside him. This made major papers across the country. Imagine if she’d had Twitter and YouTube!

“Dear Mrs. Sanger” letters flowed:

DMS: married at 20 to a laboring man, in 11 years I have five living children, one stillborn, and 5 miscarriages…I am desperate…DMS: I’m writing to you as the last hope of help. I’m the mother of 8 children and have nothing. I never expect to have but just children…

She compiled these stories into a book, Motherhood in Bondage, which inspired my own first book, Behind Every Choice Is a Story.  Even in the 21st century, there is no end to the heartrending human stories.

Successful legal challenges began to convince doctors they could provide birth control to their patients.

Margaret cris-crossed the country helping start clinics; increasingly, prominent women joined these efforts. Here she is with volunteers and patients at the Tucson Mother’s Health Clinic in 1936. She lived in Tucson, both for her son’s asthma and her second husband, Noah Slee’s retirement, starting about that time.

Slee, millionaire founder of Three-in-One Oil company, was so besotted with his wife that he smuggled diaphragms illegally for her clinic, staked the Holland–Rantos pharmaceutical company to increase the supply of diaphragms and condoms, and contributed loads of money and time to her efforts while providing her with separate living quarters to live as she pleased—her condition for marrying him.

There were over 80 local clinics by 1942 when the Planned Parenthood Federation of America was formed. Margaret hated the name, thought it was weak, a euphemism for what she was about–birth control.

She was wrong that time—Planned Parenthood turned out to be one of the strongest brand names ever. But the conflict over style and strategy continues to this day.

Though she remained its honorary chair, as the organization became more mainstream, she looked for new and bigger goals elsewhere.  She found those by forming the International Planned Parenthood Federation in 1952 and raising the money to develop the birth control pill. She was convinced that an effective, woman-centered pill would be the transformational, woman-controlled, method to free women from Motherhood in Bondage at last.

The birth control pill saved my life when it was approved by the FDA in 1960—well actually 1962 by the time it reached West Texas. It allowed me to have a life, for which I will be eternally grateful.

Birth control was finally legalized nationwide by the U.S. Supreme Court in Griswold v Connecticut in 1965, and then abortion was legalized in 1973 with Roe v Wade; both based on a right to privacy. The government started financing family planning for low-income women as part of the Great Society programs. Today, more than 95 percent of Americans have used birth control. When the Mayflower Moving Company surveyed customers about what they’d take first when they moved, birth control ranked in the top four. Now that’s a culture shift!

Don’t get me wrong. Margaret was far from perfect.

She was egotistical. She rarely credited others’ contributions to the movement. Though unwavering about her mission, she changed her argument based on what was selling at the time. Her strategy was to go where the power to help advance birth control was.

That’s how she came to align with the eugenicists during the 1930’s when that sentiment was at its height. She saw through it sooner than most and broke away publicly; still, this remained a stain on her personal narrative and the one most difficult to remove.

Those opposed to women’s equality in any form will always use it against her and the movement she founded, even though she more than redeemed herself and was among the first U.S leaders to denounce Hitler.

Sanger’s argument also morphed variously into women’s health, poverty alleviation, population control, and “every child a wanted child.” These are all valid benefits of birth control. Still, the feminist crusade for women’s biological and sexual liberation was where Sanger started and was the core principle to which she returned over and over.

My dear friend Alice Bogert who hosted Sanger when she spoke in Chicago during the 1930’s told me, “I think she quite liked the gentlemen.”

That was an understatement. And they liked her. She slept with the most interesting men of her time, including H.G. Wells who would later call her the heroine of the 20th century.

She loved parties, especially international theme parties with costumes, and threw them often. Her friend Grace Sternberg in Tucson told me she was a notoriously bad driver—people knew to get out of her way. She fancied herself an artist. I had one of her watercolors in my Phoenix office, and believe me, it’s a good thing she had another calling.

In less than a century, the movement Margaret Sanger launched won so many victories that most people couldn’t believe they could ever be reversed.  That was certainly the mood when I became executive director of the fledgling West Texas Planned Parenthood in 1974.

Instead, the backlash against such sweeping change in the gender power balance was fierce, and the War on Choice rages on.

Leadership lesson #8: A movement has to move. Power and energy come from moving into new spaces, not from standing still.

That’s why as Planned Parenthood’s president, I focused on building the grassroots, advocating a proactive agenda, and raising the profile of the organization as both a service provider and a political force.

Our great challenge now is to shift the moral and legal framework from privacy to women’s human rights to make their own childbearing decisions, to connect reproductive justice with economic justice, and to say as clearly as those early feminists did that it’s time for women to have an equal place at life’s table.

And in the immediate future, to make sure health reform includes comprehensive reproductive health care for women.

For, as Margaret said so many times in so many ways,

“No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her own body. No woman can call herself free who cannot choose for herself whether and when she will become a mother.”

This was her core conviction. But no one knew better that convictions alone aren’t enough.

This is the leadership lesson I hold most dear, and it’s a good summation of Margaret’s life: “Life has taught me,” she said, “We must put our convictions into action.”

One last story, from Ellen Chesler’s excellent biography of Margaret:

Not long before she died in a Tucson nursing home in 1966, a few days shy of her 88th birthday–The New York Times obituary said she was 82, which would have pleased her–her granddaughter and namesake Margaret Sanger Lampe asked how she’d like to be remembered. She said she hoped she’d be remembered for helping women.

And help women, she most surely did.

Listen to a 1953 recording of Margaret Sanger on “This I Believe” with host Edward R. Murrow here.

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

Bye Bye Abstinence Only

Yesterday, Bristol Palin was all over the media talking about her own teen pregnancy and that prevention is best. Though she focused on abstinence, she acknowledged teens need to know about birth control.

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Today, the president’s budget (.pdf) says in clear terms that the U.S. government won’t be wasting our tax money on abstinence only ineffective sex non-education any more if he has anything to do with it. Who would have thought that conservative abstinence-only proponent Gov. Sarah Palin’s splash onto the political landscape would have helped created the impetus for this sweeping policy change? This is what makes politics so eternally fun! Here’s the relevant language from the budget-now we have to keep the pressure on Congress to follow suit:

The 2010 Budget proposes a new Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative to support community-based and faith-based efforts to reduce teen pregnancy using evidence-based and promising models. In addition, a new Strengthening Communities Fund will help build the capacity of non-profit organizations and State, Local and Tribal entities to better serve low-income and disadvantaged populations. This Budget also proposes funding for (1) a new child welfare initiative, and (2) a human services case management system for Federally-declared disasters. This Budget eliminates funding for Community-Based Abstinence Education, the mandatory Title V Abstinence Education program, the Compassion Capital Fund, and Rural Community Facilities.

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

Bristol, Honey, This Is Just the Beginning

Sex and relationship conflict always give the morning news a little sizzle to go with the caffeine jolt.

Jill Miller Zimon over at writeslikeshetalks already said most of what I was thinking this morning as I watched media reports of the breakup of Bristol Palin and her boyfriend-fiancé-baby daddy, Levi Johnston:

Frankly, I think the only one who should be asked questions and be allowed to say, “no comment” is Bristol herself. She is 18, she is a single mother and it’s her life. Questions to Palin should go only to her existence as Bristol’s mother and either she is going to comment on that or not. I’m not even happy that she’s being asked about the subject at all – leave them all alone as far as I’m concerned. True, she kicked the door wide open during the campaign, but the Bristol-Greta interview demonstrated that Bristol is at least making some decisions, it seems.


I’d love to have an epistemological conversation with Sarah Palin about the word, “choice,” even knowing her whole thing about God opening doors, or not.

On the plus side, both Bristol and Sarah have now acknowledged that perhaps abstinence isn’t the 100% foolproof birth control method it’s cracked up to be. Because like all methods, it only works when it’s actually used.

However, I doubt that media attention will disappear from Bristol and baby Tripp for quite some time, at least as long as Sarah Palin is in the political limelight where she seems determined to stay to the chagrin of many in the party that used and abused her during McCain-Palin’s failed presidential campaign.

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.