Her grandmothers’ twin tragedies helped forge Stacy James’ steely determination to spend her career helping women gain control of their bodies and control of their lives.
Her mother’s mother died at age 47 in northwestern Pennsylvania after giving birth, leaving her husband to raise eight kids. She was buried on Mother’s Day.
Her father’s mom died after an illegal abortion in 1933, leaving another family widower to raise a child.
“They didn’t think they could afford another mouth to feed during the Depression,” James said. “There was no access to birth control or it was incredibly limited at that time.”
For 12 years, James has served as the chief executive and president of Planned Parenthood of Montana, only the second leader to hold that post.
During the organization’s annual fundraiser Friday evening at The Northern Hotel, James got a sendoff to her next job as chief executive of Planned Parenthood Columbia Willamette in Portland, Ore.
Board president Roger Welshans called James a “dynamic and passionate leader.”
“I’m not surprised that a Planned Parenthood affiliate that is more than three times the size of PPMT would seek someone with Stacy’s proven abilities and national stature,” he said.
The board expects to hire another chief executive this summer from three finalists.
Although she never wore a flak jacket to work, James said the challenges to defend reproductive rights are daunting.
“It’s a tough job that’s gotten harder,” she said. “In today’s political environment, truth, honesty and integrity, all that’s been thrown out the window. It’s bewildering.”
Opposition to Planned Parenthood nationally and at the state level includes bills cutting off all federal funding, blocking the organization from offering sex education in public schools and even fatal attacks on abortion doctors and staff.
PPMT offers many other services, including reproductive education, contraception for men and women, screening for pregnancy, cancer and sexually transmitted diseases and primary health care, she said.
Dr. Clayton and Joan McCracken, of Billings, helped start Planned Parenthood of Montana in 1969 and Joan ran the organization for 35 years until James took over.
“It was like a different time,” Joan McCracken said of that era. “You had to say you were married or had to give a reason why you needed contraception pretty much across Montana.”
Condoms had to be kept behind a pharmacist’s counter because state law called them “sex-inciting devices,” McCracken said.
James said her job has been to keep 80 staff members and Montana volunteers positive and focused.
“We know we’re having an impact on people’s lives,” she said.
When the U.S. House of Representatives tried to eliminate all federal funding for Planned Parenthood in 2010, James testified informally to congressional members and staff about the impacts to rural areas like Montana.
When a pharmacist in Broadus decided not to sell birth control because of his personal beliefs, James said she explained the implications.
“Women would have to make a 160-mile round trip from Broadus to Miles City to get birth control,” she said.
The actions of some politicians have energized more young activists to work with Planned Parenthood, she said.
“When Congress started attacking birth control, annual exams, breast exams, it was like awaking a sleeping giant,” she said. “Phrases like ‘legitimate rape’ really get people going.”
James also heads up a separate nonprofit for political work called Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana. Unlike 2010, when base supporters stayed home, almost all the political candidates that Planned Parenthood affiliates backed won in 2012, she said.
During her tenure, the Montana organization’s annual budget had doubled to $6.2 million to serve about 20,000 people. Services have expanded to help more males, more Native Americans and transgendered people for the first time, she said.
“We’re financially sound in an economically tough time,” she said.
The organization is ready for 2014, when most provisions of the national Affordable Health Care Act take effect, James said, including adopting electronic health records and offering more primary health care services.
Planned Parenthood has five Montana clinics, including two in Billings, plus the Planned Parenthood Without Walls program that brings reproductive health care to rural areas.
The organization has applied for a grant to offer more medical services in Eastern Montana, where sexually transmitted diseases have jumped with the oil boom, James said.
Past board president Mitzi Vorachek, of Red Lodge, said James steered the organization through the political whitewater with competence and grace.
“She’s probably, in my estimation, one of the most powerful women in Montana and it’s a great loss for Planned Parenthood and Montana,” she said.
James also served on the national committee that coined a new Planned Parenthood catchphrase.
“We don’t care about your religion, your politics,” she said. “We care no matter what.”