The Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation had better clean house, starting with the resignation of one Karen Handel, a vice president of public policy. The militantly antichoice Handel and her job should part ways after causing the worst public relations debacle of the 21st century: a move to break up with Planned Parenthood. The Komen foundation rescinded the decision after a maelstrom of public opinion, but it is still in real trouble. For starters, their races have lost a certain luster for many of us.
Meanwhile, prochoice supporters are grateful the storm died down on the side of reproductive rights. American women will not soon forget who has our backs. The Planned Parenthood Federation of America provides comprehensive healthcare to girls and women across the nation—not only safe, legal abortions—many of whom cannot afford health insurance.
The Komen breast cancer charity has cultivated a good girl image and aura, hasn't it? The trademark pink ribbon symbolizes how they expect women to behave—like ladies, with a hint of a Southern accent, hair tied in a bow. Yes, founder Nancy Brinker is a Texan. The charity is named for her sister, who died of breast cancer 30 years ago. Brinker runs the place like a female version of the NFL, with a huge emphasis on brand and dramatic outdoor events. Meet me out on the streets, their message goes, not to march or protest, but to run or walk miles.
The spirit of the Komen style is to smile and raise money in a voluntary way on a mass scale—like a bake scale writ large. Sorry, but women's activism lately is a bit goody-goody, remembering to say please and thank you, ma'am. Y'all come down to the race Saturday morning, hear? To its credit, the behemoth charity has raised national visibility and more than $1 billion with this cheerful model.
Now it turns out Komen was influenced by politics after all, from within, by an anti-choice zealot— send Handel packing by sundown.
Comparing the two organizations in the spotlight is like night and day. Planned Parenthood is the pioneer and oldest sister of women's organizations in American history. Its origins go back to 1914, when the avant-garde Margaret Sanger opened a women's health clinic in Brooklyn. Sanger created the health concept and hygiene "birth control" (her original phrase) and did so because she saw so many women—especially Eastern European immigrants—die young of childbirth complications.
Never afraid to look authority in the eye, Sanger was arrested several times. She lived in Greenwich Village, where fellow subversives of her time felt at home. During a visit to Boston in the 1920s, she was banned from public speaking, and so went onstage to a speaking engagement with a gag in her mouth, literally silenced. Next to her, the eminent Harvard historian, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., read her speech aloud. And in a shiver of history, yes, that's the grandfather of my very own editor, Robert Schlesinger.
Cool how that works.
Speaking of history, let me remind you what gay men did to mobilize when they had a health crisis on their hands. They got good and mad at the government and demonstrated vociferously for more federal funds for AIDS research.
AIDS activists also raised plenty of donor money, but they let the public and the National Institutes of Health know their demands and expectations. They were heard and acted upon.
While Komen figures out where to go from here, they might read up on Sanger's bold stands for women's health and birth control—she was not a proponent of abortion, which was illegal and perilous at the time. (A brilliant new biography of Sanger, covering her flaws and passions, has just been published; the author is historian Jean H. Baker, a professor at Goucher College.) Sanger stood up for rights that women had not been "given," realizing they had to be "taken." She was far from a good girl.
Komen arose from the death of a loved one and focuses completely on one fatal disease. Planned Parenthood stemmed from Sanger's larger vision of women's health for all of us.