Last week, Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, announced that she is stepping down after more than a decade of excellent service leading the nation’s largest provider of reproductive health care.
As the first president hired from outside the ranks of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Richards has helped the organization meet the challenges of the 21st century. Her resignation comes at a moment in which reproductive freedom is threatened in ways both old and new, and her replacement must be prepared to stare down gathering white supremacist and anti-choice forces with clear eyes.
For that reason, PPFA’s next president should be a woman of color.
Perhaps none of the challenges facing Planned Parenthood is as urgent as the racial and class divisions that shape how American women seek reproductive health care. Race and class are inextricable in America, and both interfere with access to and use of reproductive health services. Middle-class and wealthy women of all races use private doctors, not public clinics ― except under special circumstances, such as when they’re young or temporarily poor. Planned Parenthood’s financial structure depends on the low-income black and brown women who rely on its services in communities with the greatest needs ― places like Texas, which has the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world.
Under a white president, Planned Parenthood could still focus on the needs of low-income women. But to put a woman of color in the top job ― one with a fundamental understanding of how class works in a racialized health care system ― would send a strong signal to current and potential clients of color that the organization can be trusted and that it believes in empowering women who share their experiences.
PPFA has a long history of hiring women of color. Outside of hospitals, it is perhaps the country’s largest employer of women of color in the reproductive health field. Yet, for most of its history, women of color have struggled to be heard within the organization and to be given power and responsibilities commensurate with their expertise. Too many of these talented women leave in frustration. Many become cynical about whether the organization will change enough to welcome the diverse leadership it needs and deserves.
In this dangerous political moment, Planned Parenthood also requires an expert on white supremacy, someone who can use an intersectional analysis to respond to this neo-fascist, anti-democratic movement. In a few decades, white people will no longer be the ethnic majority in the U.S., and a “one-man, one-vote” democratic system will not reliably protect white privilege when the majority of voters are not white. Alarmed and angry white men already use the culture wars ― such as attacks on immigrants and LGBTQ people and misogynistic policies against abortion ― to mask their fears. They actively deconstruct the institutions that make democracy function, like voting rights, the judiciary and the media.
This overt and covert white supremacist movement ― which we see in the “alt-right,” the far right, the religious right and complicit Republicans ― aims to compel white women to produce more children, through endless restrictions on abortion, birth control and sex education. For all their mealy-mouthed pro-life rhetoric and their concerted efforts to make it harder for black and brown women to obtain contraception, no close observer of these groups and their preferred policies believes their goal is more black and brown babies in America. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) blurted out their inconvenient truth last March: “We can’t restore our civilization with someone else’s babies.” The film ”Demographic Winter,” popular among white supremacists of all stripes, predicts that Western civilization will end unless women’s fertility is controlled.
Planned Parenthood needs a president who understands these threats, who brings a deep and sturdy understanding of white supremacy to the task, as well as a gender analysis of reproductive freedom. An incoming president of any race who lacks experience analyzing the white supremacist movement is not qualified to counter its attacks, even if she knitted a pink pussy hat to avoid ever wearing red handmaid’s robes.
Finally, PPFA needs a president who can lead the organization in reconciling its past with its present. Until recently, the organization has flinched when anti-abortionists and skeptical people of color mention Margaret Sanger, who founded the group that would become Planned Parenthood. The anti-choice movement have succeeded in weaponizing Sanger’s name because she has been accused of the racism of eugenics. Anti-abortion proponents claim that birth control is a conspiracy to get rid of black people ― a charge that black feminists are continuously refuting.
Sanger was a complicated figure. She was passionate about legalizing contraception and adamantly opposed to abortion. But in her zealotry, she made strategic mistakes. The most damaging was seeking any audience, however odious, for her efforts. Thus, she was lured into speaking to a women’s auxiliary of the Ku Klux Klan and working with racist eugenicists. She was decidedly prejudiced against people with disabilities.
She was also a public health nurse who saw hundreds of poor women die because they lacked access to reliable contraception and safe birth control. That’s why she campaigned in the first place, more out of compassion than politics. In 1939, she started the Negro Project to serve black women in the rural South who were turned away from white clinics. That program received the support of many leaders in the African-American community, including Mary McLeod Bethune, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King.
I’ve researched Sanger for years in the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College. I don’t believe she was fundamentally a racist when judged against the norms of her day. She was no more prejudiced than all white people were and are. In fact, one of the most oft-quoted statements attributed to her was actually said by W.E.B. Dubois. And her passion, however misguided at times, forever changed women’s lives.
But PPFA has never found a realistic and compassionate way to talk about Sanger’s complicated activism. The organization has variously denied her racism, distanced itself from Sanger or kept a fearful silence about the entire controversy, not wanting to provide bullets for opponents’ guns. That silence has provided a golden opportunity for Planned Parenthood’s enemies, groups like Life Dynamics and the Center for Medical Progress. Black surrogates, hired by the white anti-abortion movement, hurl charges of reproductive racism at PPFA.
Black feminists are then compelled to defend the organization, even as we launch campaigns demanding that the world “Trust Black Women” to make our own reproductive decisions. The irony that this message is meant for our allies as well as our opponents is not lost on us: Our allies often fail to validate black women’s leadership, while our opponents paint us as brainwashed traitors to our race.
I don’t claim that white women are unacceptable leaders for essentialist reasons or that only a woman of color should be considered for this role. The decision should not be entirely race-based, and being white does not disqualify a person from leading in the reproductive rights movement. White women can do, and have done, essential work in advancing the cause.
Obviously, Planned Parenthood’s next leader needs the more traditional, practical bona fides required for running an organization of its size and influence: top-notch fundraising, management, media, public policy and strategic skills. These necessities should not be overlooked in selecting Richards’ replacement.
But in my four decades in the reproductive justice movement, I’ve learned that it’s a leader’s politics that matter most. While skills can be taught, this moment calls for someone who feels the urgent threat of racism, sexism and income inequality in her very bones, as well as the threat to truth, evidence and democracy itself. These, too, are necessities, without which the movement to protect and expand women’s human rights will not survive.
Loretta Ross is a reproductive justice leader. She was the co-director of the 2004 March for Women’s Lives and her most recent book is Reproductive Justice: An Introduction.