A Commitment to Activism: In-depth interview with a Planned Parenthood Revolutionary
Who would have guessed that inside a classic and lavish home on a quiet Nutley hillside street would live a tiny woman with a huge spirit? Ruth Bedford is a local hero of sorts; born in 1918, Ruth will be 95 years old in April, and she shows no signs of letting up on her quest to better her community! She is a true community activist, and I had the honor of sitting down with her and MSU Associate Professor Jessica Restaino for a look into her activism work.
Nathan Rodriguez: When did you begin working for Planned Parenthood?
Ruth Bedford: Well, I came on the board of Planned Parenthood back in the 70’s. My husband Stanley was on it first. He was in the group Young Republicans with a mutual friend Mary Singletary. She was the Executive Director for Planned Parenthood and wanted a friend on the board, so he got involved.Stanleyhad never been married, but I heard him say he would get married if he found the right one, and he married me!
So I learned about it through Stanley. When he was on the board, back in those days, women had luncheons. That was my first introduction to planned parenthood. That was during the late 1960’s. Now, he went off the board in 1971, because he became a judge and judges weren’t allowed to do fundraisers. I went on the board a few years later.
Actually, I recently went back and had a look at all the trustees, from our regular lists, and I discovered that I was actually the secretary back in 1981 and 1982! Later on, I became the Vice President!
NR: Wow, what year was that?
RB: That was, I think, from 1990 to 1993. That was just a three year thing; I didn’t go on to President, because I didn’t want to do all the things the President had to do. So those were the main offices I held.
Honestly though, I would say I watched it grow. We were a ‘mom and pop’ organization when I started, and it was almost all women on the board. We had a couple of men, and gradually there became more of them. When a man became the chairman of the board, that’s when things got a little more business-like. From way back, as far as I can remember, Planned Parenthood’s finances were always government funded. Now, it’s Title X we get a large amount of money from, but we haven’t received any increases and we’re afraid we’ll get cut. It’s dangerous times for Planned Parenthood.
Jessica Restaino: And Ruth has been on the board this whole time, for over 40 years.
NR: Let’s take it back a bit and talk about how it was to have a man on the board.
RB: Well like I said, things became more business-like; more so with the man, I believe he was the second chairman of the board. You start to watch things change. He wanted to run it like a business, and I remember my sister, who was on the board at the time, the both of us were saying, “But we’re not a business. We’re a charitable organization!” And we felt sometimes that what he wanted to do wasn’t quite appropriate for a charitable organization, but he was very good nonetheless.
I didn’t mention that when I was first on the board, we were meeting in Montclairbefore the town took over the Claremont building. When they took it over, we went up to Verona, and then we decided that we wanted to be back in Montclair, so we bought the building that we’re in now. This is what I found: it must have been 1993 when we moved into our new building. Now this man that really wanted to be business-like was the head of a capital campaign, and we raised the money to buy that building! I think we started out with a mortgage, but we eventually paid it off.
NR: In other words, that business attitude seems to have paid off, huh? Now then, what would you say were your initial impressions while holding the positions you held in Planned Parenthood?
RB: It’s hard to say what my initial impressions were, because I learned about everything gradually while Stan was on the board. Up until then, I’m not sure I even knew what Planned Parenthood was! [a brief pause of laughter]
NR: I can imagine! Now, how about the services provided by Planned Parenthood? What are some of the most important aspects of your job?
RB: It’s so important to be good in all we do, because it’s so needed. I mean, Planned Parenthood offers services like complete physicals, and there are people who come to us because they can’t afford to do it elsewhere.
As of right now, we do not do abortions. We are a chapter under the federation, also called an affiliate. Our chapter has not done abortions, but we will starting this month. Now, a lot of our donors were against abortions at first, but I think in this day and age, people are accepting it more, so I’m hoping it doesn’t bother any of them anymore.
And as far as the abortion issue goes, what we do is, if a girl comes into that situation, we give her all her options. We have social workers that talk to them and give them all the options, and if she really wants the abortion, we then give her the names of a couple of places, and we help them afterward as well.
JR: But now, they will be doing them on site. One of the really important things I wanted to point out is first of all, we serve men and women. And also, many of the people come to Planned Parenthood because it’s their only source of medical care, as Ruth said. It’s so often painted in the media as just some place women go to get an abortion, but if you actually look at the pie chart of Planned Parenthood’s services, abortions are actually one of the smallest pieces of our work, with the biggest being primary medical care, and of course, birth control.
RB: Now, we also have an education department, but unfortunately, that has been cut down with the loss of funds. But we have a teenage group, about ten kids at a time, that are trained in what we do and the services we offer, and they go to different schools and put on skits. What this has helped us to find, is that young people will talk to other young people about these issues, like contraception and sex. This is part of our education department, which I think is so important. I think everybody understands that that’s really what we need.
JR: It’s called the Teen Links program, and it’s actually a paid position. We’re hoping it’s going to be on the upswing, because it looks like there’s been money that is being given to Planned Parenthood by that huge grant from Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook.
NR: Well, let’s hope that goes through. I wanted to ask you about some of the major changes you’ve seen over the years. I’ve heard a lot about how underground and secretive it used to be, whereas now it’s a little more open. Is that the main change, or have there been others?
RB: I think the people’s attitudes about Planned Parenthood has changed tremendously. And the various services we offer have increased over the years. We get our instructions and protocol from the federation, and they provide quite a bit of service for us, but they’re the ones that promote abortion over the years, and we have pulled back because we haven’t been in it until now. But the changes in the education department are particularly outstanding, like going to schools and being accepted. So overall, I think the acceptance of contraceptives is the major change I’ve seen happen. Things change over the years; some people have accepted it and some people haven’t.
NR: Of course. How have some of your outlooks changed through your work? For example, you’ve talked about seeing people come into Planned Parenthood who literally have nowhere else to go, and I’m sure all kinds of personalities come through your doors. How has that changed you?
RB: Well I’d say it’s made me more broadminded. I mean, I think I always have been broadminded, but to see the changes that have developed in our own organization, you do change your attitude about things. I can’t even tell you how much I’ve changed. It’s all gradual as you grow older. Your ideas change…well some of them do and some of them don’t!
NR: Agreed. Now whenever I interview people who do work like this, one of the questions I always try to ask is how MSU students can get involved if this is something that they’re interested in.
RB: Well I think almost every organization including ours wants volunteers.
JR: Right, and I think there’s definitely interest on our part to get students involved. There’s always room for connection if there are students interested in getting experience in working with a nonprofit organization, and particularly in women’s health and advocacy. Our Public Relations representative is Jane Celusak; she would be the contact for students to reach out to, or they could always email me if people are interested.
RB: And as far as volunteer positions go, we are always looking for people to collect money. I mean, with our fundraising, we try to hit everyone. The small donations are very important. There used to be a woman who gave only five dollars a month, but her five meant more than someone else’s hundred. They add up. •