How a Teenage Mom Came To Lead Top Group for Reproductive Choice

By Lisa Keys

Published February 21, 2003, issue of February 21, 2003.
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Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, looks every bit the executive, wearing a black turtleneck and gray print blazer and with her brown hair styled into a smart, shiny bob. She sits comfortably in her corner office, one with sweeping views of a blizzard swirling down Manhattan’s Seventh Avenue, 14 stories below.

After serving the organization for almost 30 years, it’s nearly impossible to imagine her anywhere else. She has broadened the scope of Planned Parenthood, been named one of “America’s 200 Legends, Leaders, and Trailblazers” by Vanity Fair, been instrumental in the passage of state contraceptive equity laws and spearheaded a grass-roots network of nearly one million reproductive health activists.

All of which at first makes it hard to connect Feldt with the story she tells in her memoir cum manifesto, “Behind Every Choice is a Story” (University of North Texas), a book that explores the often difficult, always personal decisions women — and some men — make regarding their reproductive options. In the book she describes being raised in the lone Jewish family in a “red-dirt farming community” in Texas, how she became pregnant at 15 and married a 19-year-old, and by age 20 was a mother of three who lacked higher education and work experience.

Or maybe it’s not that hard to connect her two lives — which is a central point of her book and her life’s work.

“I couldn’t have done what I wanted to do in life without being able to limit my childbearing, get educated and develop myself into a human being,” Feldt, 60, said. Feldt credits her accomplishments to something now seen as prosaic: the Pill. “I would not be here today, speaking to you, had it not been for the birth control pill,” she said plainly, with her soft Texas lilt.

Feldt’s stratospheric rise to the helm of one of the country’s best-known nonprofit organizations is the kind of story about which “triumph-of-the-human-spirit” dramas are made. Yet, as Feldt seeks to demonstrate with her book, stories like hers are not so much unusual as they are overlooked in the debate over birth control and abortion.

“There’s a great need, today, for dialogue about reproductive self-determination,” she said. “Too often, the public discussion is ideologically and politically polarized. I wanted to bring it back to the human being, the issues we all face: love, sex, birth control, relationships. These things are universal and personal at the same time.”

“Behind Every Choice” is modeled after another Planned Parenthood tome: “Motherhood in Bondage,” the 1928 book written by the organization’s founder, Margaret Sanger. Compiled from heaps of letters from desperate women, Sanger’s groundbreaking book, said Feldt, “elevated the concept of birth control from a clandestine, illegal thing to a medical, moral thing.”

Feldt has described Sanger as her “muse.” Propped against a window behind her desk sits a poster-size facsimile of a flyer for Sanger’s first clinic in Brooklyn — which was shut after nine days in business. The text, written in English, Yiddish and Italian reads: “Mothers! Can you afford to have large families? Do you want any more children? If not, why do you have them? Do not kill, do not take life, but prevent.”

Feldt acknowledges that, for many of the younger generation, a world without birth control options is inconceivable. The 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade last month was a reminder to Feldt not only of what her movement has achieved but also of how vulnerable it remains. “The decision was a watershed,” Feldt said. “We thought, ‘We have won!’ We let the grass-roots efforts

languish — we didn’t realize that in a democracy, no freedom is ever won, ever. We have to protect and defend it.”

Feldt was born in the small town of Temple, Texas. Although her family “was far from observant,” they belonged to the closest synagogue — in Waco, some 35 miles away. “I think I absorbed, through my pores, the Jewish values of repairing the world, seeking justice,” Feldt said. “Even if they weren’t articulated, those values were there.”

When Feldt was 12, her father, the owner of a Western-wear company, transferred his business to Stamford, Texas, “home of the world’s largest amateur rodeo.” “I saw the opportunity to recreate myself as the all-American girl,” she recalled. “You have to give up much of one’s identity, take on the identity of one’s peers. I was successful.” So successful, in fact, that Feldt was elected sophomore class “favorite” and was voted onto the cheerleading squad — without trying out.

At 15, however, a pregnant Feldt married her 19-year-old boyfriend. “My family had valued education so much,” she said. “I had loved to learn as a child. After I gave birth to my third child, a light bulb went off. I literally opened my eyes and saw there was a bigger world.”

At 20, Feldt began studying at community college — embarking on “a long journey” that didn’t end until the first full-fledged university opened in West Texas in 1973. For her final class, Feldt did a paper on the Odessa, Texas, branch of Planned Parenthood; the next year, she was asked to become the organization’s executive director.

“The women who came to Planned Parenthood were very much like me,” she said. “They had three, five, 10 children and said, ‘How do I stop?’ Today, women know they have options. They give the term ‘family planning’ real meaning, thank goodness.”

Under Feldt’s leadership, six new Planned Parenthood clinics opened in West Texas over the next four years. Divorced in 1978, she then relocated to the Phoenix branch where she served as executive director for 18 years. “At that point, I had thought I had done everything I wanted to do,” she said. “I wanted to take time off, travel, write a book.”

Instead, she was recruited in 1996 to be the national president and, she said, “was lured from the frying pan into the fire.”

Today, she lives in Manhattan with her husband of 22 years, Alex Barbanell. (“If there are ever Jewish saints, he gets to be one,” she said.) Between them, they have six children, nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

That Feldt retains an emotional connection to her work is clear. She tears up as she recounts a letter from a 16-year-old that she received years ago, which, Feldt said, “I carry with me all the time.” “You have given me a chance to go for my dreams and succeed in life,” the 16-year-old wrote. “I was an unexpected child that perhaps shouldn’t have been born. But since I’m here, I’m going to strive to make things better.”

“To me, that says everything,” Feldt said. “My children have experienced the blessings of motherhood and fatherhood in freedom. That’s probably the most rewarding result of our work: to see my own children live the ideal.”

Although she says she has no regrets in her life, she added “I would certainly advise young people — strongly — not to become parents when they’re too young.”

At times, Feldt acknowledges, she looks back on her life’s journey with amazement. “As we used to say in high school, ‘Who’da thunk?’”

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