The Voice of Experience

updated 06/24/1996 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/24/1996 01:00AM

IN THE DESERT OUTSIDE SCOTTSDALE, Ariz., in the glass and wood-beam house she helped design, Gloria Feldt is celebrating her 54th birthday amid the happy chaos of family. Between them, she and her husband, Alex Barbanell, 65, have six grown children and eight grandchildren—and they're all here. Reaching across the kitchen table to straighten bowls of chips and potato salad, Feldt stops to coo at Millan Singh, her 1-year-old grandson. Then Alex drifts into the kitchen in search of a snack—and a hug from Feldt. "I'm very proud of her," he says.

"Oh, he's already missing her," says Tammy Bosse, Feldt's daughter.

From now on, it won't be so easy to gather the clan. On June 3, Feldt left Barbanell in Scottsdale with his insurance brokerage business and moved to New York City to become executive director of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America—stepping foursquare into the continuing national battle over the reproductive rights that Planned Parenthood has championed since it was founded by Margaret Sanger 80 years ago.

Feldt takes over at a time when Planned Parenthood is undergoing an identity crisis. Her predecessor, Pamela Maraldo, quit last July in a dispute with the board over her plans to provide general health care at Planned Parenthood clinics, which now perform close to one of every 10 abortions in the U.S. "If there's one thing I'd like to emphasize aggressively," says Feldt, "it is the breadth of Planned Parenthood's mission, which is so much more than any single issue. To me it's about unwanted children—it's about whether we're going to be able to live on this planet and survive."

Carrying that message isn't always easy in the superheated world of abortion politics. Feldt, whose life has been threatened by right-to-life extremists, never works late alone and keeps her home-security system on at all times. "I have no inclination to be a martyr," she says, "but we should never, ever let the terrorists determine how we live our lives."

Feldt has spent most of her adult life with Planned Parenthood, although she stumbled into the job. "I must get a résumé a week from bright, young people who say their life's goal is to work for Planned Parenthood," she says. "I had no such ambition." The daughter of a western-wear manufacturer and a bookkeeper, Feldt lived in Temple, Texas, until she was 13, when her family moved to Stamford, near Abilene. "I just wanted to be a blonde, all-American, normal girl," she says. "That meant all I was thinking about was who was I going to marry."

At age 15, she found the answer: Wallace Bosse, 19, a football player and farmer's son. She quit school to marry him, and they moved to Odessa, Texas, where he became a laborer. Before she was 20, Feldt had given birth to three children—Tammy, now 38, Linda, 36, and David, 33—just the sort of situation that Planned Parenthood warns against. Her family disapproved but had another crisis to deal with. Feldt's younger brother Selig had been diagnosed with bone cancer and died at age 6 shortly after she left home. "I couldn't worry about her because my little boy was dying," says Feldt's mother, Florence, 72, now living in Phoenix.

Still, Feldt never abandoned her parents' values. She completed high school via a correspondence course, then went to college part-time—all the while putting dinner on the table. "I really and truly don't know how I did it," she says. "It wasn't easy at all." In 1974, at age 32, she graduated from the University of Texas.

Just to get experience in job-hunting, Feldt sent a résumé to the local office of Planned Parenthood—and was hired as executive director. Five years later, after her marriage to Bosse ended, she was tapped to head the Phoenix affiliate. There she met Barbanell, who was on her board of directors, and they married in 1980. Under Feldt's stewardship, the Phoenix program grew sixfold to an annual budget of $8.5 million. In 1993 Feldt was on the search committee that picked Maraldo. After Maraldo's departure, she decided to go for the top job.

Now all she has to do is figure out how to cope with the disruption in her life. She and Barbanell are renting an apartment in New York City but are keeping their Scottsdale house. "She's always been able to decide what it is she wanted to do and then go after it," says Florence, as she watches her daughter maneuver through the children and grandchildren. "And she finds time for family and everything else. I think it's amazing."

MICHAEL NEILL
LYNDA WRIGHT in Scottsdale

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