A Tribute to Mary Lindsay

By Alexander Sanger

Mary Lindsay, former board chair of Planned Parenthood of New York City and hence my one-time boss, died on October 4, 2020 at age 100.

Not just indominable, she was unfailingly kind, thoughtful and gracious. As a leader at PPNYC, she was universally respected by her colleagues on the board and the staff. Being a nurse, she cared deeply about how we treated our clients and would walk through the clinics with an eagle eye open and her mouth shut, saving her comments for when we were alone. She knew the role of the board and that of the staff and would behave and lead accordingly. But for term limits, she would have been PPNYC’s board chair for decades.

Generous to PPNYC, she inspired her fellow board members and friends to be as generous as they could, again leading led by example. She chaired at least two capital campaigns, made the lead gifts and then solicited her friends to join her. She was inspiring for our common vision, and friends could not resist Mary’s call to be a part of building something larger than themselves. “I have learned it is a wonderful thing to have people give their money to something they believe in,” she once said. “I have also learned that if you do not ask for it, someone else is going to, and so you had better get there first.”

And coming from Republican stock, though she had become a Democrat, she was invaluable in lobbying and cajoling politicians and donors from the Republican side of the aisle and insured that the staff be nonpartisan in our communications, when it was so tempting to be otherwise. She joined with P.L. Harrison, Barbara Mosbacher and Barbara Gimbel, of the New York State Republican Family Committee, to lobby in Albany for family planning and abortion rights.

She came to PPNYC from the board of the Margaret Sanger Research Bureau, where she had first volunteered as a nurse and then became board chair after my father stepped down, and where she helped that organization merge into PPNYC. She and my father worked closely together and had immense respect for each other. She worked with PPNYC to incorporate the training of doctors and nurses from around the world in family planning into our clinical practice. This program, called the Margaret Sanger Center, brought the best in family planning training to practitioners serving the most needy women and men in the Third World. Mary loved to travel with PPNYC’s education staff, Peter Purdy, Shirley Oliver and Errol Alexis, to view and evaluate our far flung programs around the world.

Below is the list of the board and advisors of the Margaret Sanger Research Bureau before Mary became chair. 

The MSRB board was a distinguished and powerful group: women like Charlton Phelps, Helen Edey, Emily Workum and Jane Canfield worked alongside the equally powerful men: Alan Guttmacher, M.D., Henry Clay Frick, M.D., Christopher Tietze, M.D. and George Zeidenstein. Mary led them all as board chair, a tribute to her leadership and diplomatic skills, as physicians were not especially known at that time for their high opinion of nurses.
Mary and I travelled to Cairo in 1994 for the UN International Conference on Population and Development where, among other things, we appeared on a panel together on how to advocate for reproductive rights in different cultures. With us on the panel were the Health Minister of the Philippines, Juan Flavier, and from Egypt, Aziza Hussein, a leading women’s rights advocate. I spoke about PPNYC’s subway advertising campaign and Mary spoke about how she lobbied Republicans and Democrats in Albany and Washington. We stunned our fellow panelists with our forthrightness about sex – Juan Flavier had been condemned from the pulpit by Cardinal Sin of the Philippines for his advocacy of condom use to prevent HIV transmission, and Aziza Hussein spoke of how she had to avoid mentioning sex when advocating for family planning in Egypt, instead advocating for child spacing. 

Juan Flavier, Mary, Aziza Hussein, Alex Sanger
Mary speaking in Cairo

On the day after our panel, at Mary’s instigation, she and I, accompanied by Peter Purdy, the PPNYC Vice President for International Affairs and his wife, Susan, along with Peggy Kerry, a PPNYC advisor and sister of Senator John Kerry who was at the Conference, took a dawn horseback ride to the Sphinx and Pyramids. We had the desert to ourselves. No one of the other 20,000 delegates had the imagination or gumption to organize this mad venture. We rode across the desert in a gallop and saw the sun rise over the Pyramids as the day warmed. It was an experience we never forgot. 

Mary is second from left

Mary was most interested in, as she said, “the rights of women and men to make the decision of when and whether to have a child.” She dedicated so much to make that a reality.

She said: “I cannot separate freedom of choice from family planning and abortion. It seems to me that you have got to be able to make your own decision about having a child, or not having a child.  And, if for whatever reason, you become pregnant and you do not want to be, the option to have an abortion should be available.  The same is true of contraception. From the time someone is fertile, that someone should be able to manage their fertility. I think it is as simple as that. That is not only an issue about women, but about the children that are brought into the world that is so important to me.” 


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