Health • Gloria Feldt

The new head of Planned Parenthood has small-town roots but big-city political smarts.

September 1996By Comments

ON THE SAME JUNE DAY that Bob Dole declared the Republican party should tolerate different views on abortion, Gloria Feldt was in Washington, D.C., to deliver her first address as the new president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Feldt spoke at the National Press Club, where the only sign of controversy was a man who rose to his feet, fingered a set of rosary beads, and began to mumble a counterlecture. Equipped with an accommodating charm—her personality is part den mother, part businesswoman, and part Mae West—she gave her challenger no notice and delivered a speech that included the outline of her life story. Feldt, who is 54, grew up in small-town Texas and had three children by age twenty. “It was like The Last Picture Show,” she told her audience. “I played the Cybill Shepherd part, with dark hair.”

While Planned Parenthood seeks to prevent unwanted pregnancies and thus reduce the need for abortion, it also provides abortions on demand. Because of this latter role, supporters of the pro-life movement in Congress are attempting to repeal Title X of the Public Health Service Act, which currently grants Planned Parenthood $41 million in federal funding each year. To combat the conservative onslaught, the organization has opted for a president who is intimately acquainted with the conservative side of America. Of course Feldt’s Texas roots are not the main reason she got the job, although they do play well in the national press, which loves the idea of a liberal East Coast institution in the hands of a former housewife from the Bible Belt. What made Feldt attractive to Planned Parenthood was her expertise in the art of political warfare, which she acquired during protracted conflicts with anti-abortion forces in Phoenix as the director of the organization’s affiliate there.

Like many American biographies, Feldt’s begins somewhere else. Both sets of her grandparents came to Texas from Eastern Europe, arriving with other Jewish immigrants around the time of World War I. They settled in Temple, where her parents met, married, and started a Western wear store. In 1955, when Feldt was thirteen, the family moved to Stamford, a town 41 miles north of Abilene. “It really was a lot like The Last Picture Show,” says Feldt. “It was a farming community at a time when farming communities were pretty much drying up.” She recalls Stamford as the kind of place where you felt safe on the streets at night, learned to drive at fourteen, and aspired to be engaged by the time you were out of high school. Even then, she was ahead of her peers; at fifteen, she married a college student who had grown up on a nearby farm. Their three children soon followed.

At some point, however, a streak of willfulness or independence surfaced in Feldt’s personality, and in the sixties she went back to school, first at a community college and then at the University of Texas–Permian Basin in Odessa. Inspired by the civil rights movement, Feldt also joined the League of Women Voters and the PTA, became active in interfaith organizations, and got a teaching job with Head Start, which was how she first became acquainted with Planned Parenthood: Her class met in the parish hall of a Catholic church led by a particularly independent-minded priest, who sat on the board of Planned Parenthood’s Odessa affiliate. Her job at Head Start convinced her that many families, especially those with many children, needed family planning services to take control of their lives.

Feldt became the head of Planned Parenthood’s Odessa affiliate in 1974. Nine years earlier, in Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court had struck down a ban on married couples’ using contraceptives; four years earlier, Title X began to provide federal funding for family planning programs; and the year before, Roe v. Wade had made abortion legal nationwide. “The board that had worked to get this affiliate started thought all the battles had been won,” says Feldt. “What they wanted me to do was just run these clinics and open more of them.” In fact, she expanded the Odessa affiliate from five health centers to eleven in four years. By then, however, Feldt and her first husband had gotten a divorce, and she wanted to move from Odessa. When she heard that the Phoenix affiliate was looking for a new director, she applied for the position and got the job. She was soon married again, to Alex Barbanell, an insurance broker who served on the search committee that hired her.

When Feldt arrived in Phoenix, the area’s population was growing rapidly, and the board of the affiliate wanted the organization to expand at a similar pace. In the eighteen years that she served as its director, Feldt increased the affiliate’s fundraising by 2,000 percent and the number of health centers from three to sixteen. In the same period, her sense of Planned Parenthood’s purpose also grew. “Central to our mission is providing services to people who need them,” she says, “but the other part is advocacy to ensure that everyone can get family planning and reproductive health-care services and education.”

One of the earliest hints that advocacy might become part of her job came in the form of a school bus full of angry members of Catholics United for Life, who briefly took over Planned Parenthood’s Phoenix headquarters. Over the next decade, Feldt would have many more encounters with the pro-life movement: The Arizona state legislature “ran amok,” as she puts it, with anti-abortion bills, and the state’s school system became a battleground over the content of sex education classes. Most famously, in 1984 pro-life state representative Jim Skelly persuaded the chairman of the board of Phoenix Memorial Hospital, where Feldt and her colleagues had their offices, not to renew their lease. Feldt lit into her opponents with furious energy. “Very often what you think is a terrible setback can be turned into a victory if you are smart enough to play it that way,” she says sweetly. Stirred up by being kicked out, the affiliate’s board finally approved Feldt’s plans for a major capital campaign. As a result, the affiliate moved into new headquarters, opened six more clinics, and attracted new donors. Feldt commissioned a public opinion survey to show there was support for Planned Parenthood’s positions, and she recruited a network of people to write to newspapers and state legislators and testify at public hearings. The counterattack was so successful that her office wrote a handbook for other affiliates on how to influence local politics.

Feldt’s fundraising skills and political savvy brought her to the attention of Planned Parenthood’s national office, and when longtime president Faye Wattleton resigned in 1993, several people urged her to apply for the job. She decided that the timing wasn’t right for personal reasons, however, and Wattleton was replaced by Pamela Maraldo, who had run the National League for Nursing. That led to a period of turmoil. Maraldo tried to change Planned Parenthood from a reproductive health-care organization into a provider of general family medicine, leading her to clash with the board of directors, and she resigned after only two years.

This time, Feldt didn’t hesitate to apply, and the board hired her in April 1996. She arrived in New York in the first week of June and threw down her suitcases in an apartment she had rented unseen (Feldt and Barbanell are keeping their residence in Phoenix, where her two daughters live; her son lives in Houston). Then she got on a plane for Washington. It was not a coincidence that her first appearance was at a forum for journalists—her primary objective is to provide public opposition to the conservative trend of national politics. “There was great concern that in the last few years Planned Parenthood has not been visibly leading the charge for reproductive rights and reproductive health care,” says Feldt. She doesn’t expect the fight to end anytime soon, given what is at stake. “This isn’t about abortion,” says Feldt. “It’s about women’s role in society. It’s about whether we’re going to be a nation that embraces knowledge and education about responsible sex, as opposed to trying to keep people ignorant about it. I think the abortion debate is not about abortion at all. I really think it’s much more about the future of women and children and families in this country.”

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