Faye Wattleton and Felicia Gordon
When Faye Wattleton, exhausted after 14 contentious years as president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, faced the painful prospect of quitting the job she loved, whom did she confide in first? Not her colleagues, not her friends, and not her mother, Ozie, a fire-and-brimstone Church of God minister who had always disapproved of her daughter's fervent pro-choice crusade. (Later, told of the resignation, Ozie commented only: "My prayers have been answered.") No, Ozie would not be a comfort now, even though she had been, in her devotion to what she believed, an imposing example. Instead the confidante Wattleton went to was the person she calls a powerful mentor: a woman named Felicia Gordon, who happens to be her daughter and was 16 years old at the time.
"I was raised in a very sheltered, narrow environment," Wattleton tells me. "No smoking, drinking, dancing, movies. My mother taught me a lot of things, but they had big presuppositions built in—like her expectation that I'd be a missionary nurse in a religious order. Then along comes Felicia, a child unburdened by the notions of insecurity and inadequacy that make you constantly question your values. That is, she saw things with the wisdom of inexperience. Because sometimes experience misinforms wisdom." Unpacking this unconventional adage, I immediately recall a story that Wattleton relates with self-critical honesty in her 1996 memoir, Life on the Line. Determined that Felicia, even at 13, should be allowed to see the world for what it is, Faye takes her on a side trip to a massage parlor during a Planned Parenthood mission in Bangkok. Felicia, obviously upset, insists they leave. "Even now I remain amazed," Wattleton writes, "that I had failed to recognize the emotional significance that seeing the exploitation of other young women, some of them close to her own age, might have upon my daughter.... [She] had brought their pain home to me in a whole different way."
If Ozie's influence was formative (what was Faye doing but the opposite of what her mother had done?), Felicia's was transformative. And not just by making policy issues personal. Now 26 and in her first year at NYU law school, Felicia knows her way around worlds her mother used to shy away from. "Felicia has taken me into the realm of our popular culture in a way I never could have done without her," Wattleton says, "and it opens up for me the wave of the here and now. Which is important not only for my work"—Wattleton is president of the Center for Gender Equality, a think tank she helped to found in 1995—"but because I've spent my life slogging away, trying to save the world instead of living in it."
Which is understandable; aside from the pressure of being America's point woman on reproductive rights, Faye was raising Felicia pretty much alone after she and her husband divorced when Felicia was 6. Single mother/only daughter relationships sometimes have a way of souring, but this one just got closer, and even now Faye and Felicia operate in many ways as a team. "One of the nice things is that we're both single women who date," Wattleton says. "So she can provide clarity, without the rose-colored glasses, about what I may or may not see in people I meet. We also go to parties and hip-hop concerts, take dance classes at Alvin Ailey, and of course shop together. Even when she was 2, when I'd hold up two garments and ask which she preferred, she'd invariably pick out the nicer. Now she tries to get me to wear miniskirts—halfway up my thigh—and I have to tell her, I can't do that, I'm in my fifties!"
Well, she could—Wattleton is a stunner. But perhaps she is not altogether divorced from an upbringing filled with restrictions. "The influence of one's parents is powerful and permanent," says Wattleton. "As for my relationship to my own mother, no, no, no," she adds with a laugh. "I've never been allowed to be a mentor to her. Mind you, I'm on the board of Empire Blue Cross and Blue Shield, and I can't persuade her to have a conversation with me about her specific medical benefits. But that's the way her generation parented: 'What can your kids teach you.' Well, I believe something different about kids. We don't own them, they have their own knowledge. From the start you have to make the choice to listen." For Faye Wattleton, the choice—that central word of her career—has been simple.
Jesse Green is the author of The Velveteen Father: An Unexpected Journey to Parenthood.
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