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Vicki Cowart '75

President & CEO, Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains

Vicki Cowart oversees the third-largest Planned Parenthood affiliate in the United States. It serves more than 108,000 clients in 31 health centers in six states, with an operating budget of just over $20 million. Before joining Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains (PPRM) in 2003, Cowart was Colorado's state geologist for 10 years, the first woman to be appointed to that position. She was elected president of the Association of American State Geologists, again the first woman to hold the post. In addition to her physics degree from WPI, she holds a master's in geophysics from the Colorado School of Mines.

When did you become interested in women's rights?

When I was at WPI, I began to awaken to gender politics in the world. I was in one of the first classes to have a substantial number of women (about 20). The Colorado School of Mines was much like WPI; though it has always been open to women, I often was the only woman in a class. From there I chose to go into the oil business, another male-dominated arena. When I interviewed for my first job, I was asked what I planned to do about having babies. It startled me. Why would I pursue a profession so seriously, then be confronted with a question like that? I realized that advocates like Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, had given women control over our reproductive destinies. They had opened a significant door that allowed women to enter the workforce in large numbers. Because of Sanger and others like her, I was able to pursue my career.

How has your WPI education made a difference?

I was young and naive when I arrived at WPI and the professors taught me how (not what) to think, how to tackle problems creatively and how to ask questions. I learned how to work hard, and I learned discipline. The critical thinking skills that professors such as Van Bluemel, Jerald Weiss, and Ralph Heller taught me were as valuable as any of the equations from their physics classes. I am known in geologic policy circles for insisting that disciplines like physics and geophysics be taught at least as often as liberal arts for business people, lawyers, and generalists. I wish more people in our government had the critical thinking skills that are learned in good science and engineering programs.

What prompted your career shift?

Being the state geologist of Colorado was like winning the lottery. But I was always aware that I had my career because of those doors that others had opened and because I had control of my reproductive health. I grew up in an enlightened age when comprehensive sex education was provided in the schools and I benefited from it. I always wanted to put back into the system that helped me, and from graduate school on I volunteered in organizations that supported women's rights and reproductive freedoms. When the PPRM job came open, I thought, "It's time to put my money where my mouth is."

What is the biggest misconception about Planned Parenthood?

People focus on the fact that we are abortion providers and rights advocates, but we spend most of our money and energy on giving people resources so they won't be faced with the decision.

In the move from volunteer to director, what have you learned?

As a volunteer I didn't realize the Golden Age is truly over. There have been significant rollbacks, a whittling away of Roe v. Wade; even birth control access is stymied. The biggest surprise was learning about the extensive rollback of comprehensive sex education. It has effectively been shut down. The system has been flooded with ample money for abstinence-only education, but nothing else. This is very frustrating, because studies show that while an abstinence message causes some delay in sexual activity, young people eventually become sexually active without knowing how to protect themselves from disease or pregnancy.

If all they're armed with is abstinence-only education, they don't have the information to make good decisions.

How has technology changed the reproductive rights debate?

Nuances and tactics have changed because of technology, but it's still the same basic debate: Is reproductive health an individual choice or is it up to the government? The most wonderful technology is EC [emergency contraception--also known as the "morning-after pill"]. It is not an abortion; it is a dose of hormones that discourages ovulation and conception. We have seen a drop in the abortion rate, and we attribute it to EC more than any other factor.

Looking forward, what are your greatest concerns?

Funding is the biggest one. One of my goals is to approach this as a business, to be as cost effective as possible. I aim to stretch every dollar, just like I learned to do in the oil business. The other piece is education. People need to know that their freedoms are being undermined, that however they choose to make decisions about reproduction--be it by themselves, with their religious advisor, with family--it is in grave danger of no longer being up to them.

--Carol Cambo

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Last modified: Sep 13, 2004, 12:19 EDT
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