In 1926, my paternal grandfather Henry A. Wallace borrowed $5,000 from his wife's dowry to found an agricultural seed company. The company prospered, thanks to both his vision and his wife's brilliant investment. His successes led President Franklin Roosevelt to choose him as Secretary of Agriculture, and then as his Vice President in 1940. He ran for President in 1948 on a Progressive Party platform that supported civil rights and equal rights for women.
The stock of that company, Pioneer Hi-bred International, provided the assets for the Wallace Global Fund, the family foundation which, under my parents' watch, prioritized women's rights and access to family planning worldwide. I am now proud to continue that tradition.
Many foundations worry that funding advocacy feels too "political," but we see it as essential to empowering women to freely exercise their reproductive choices...
For my mother, protecting the rights of women and girls was personal. She had a childhood of psychological and physical abuse by her domineering mother, enabled by her passive father. But she excelled at the piano. She played the Rachmaninoff second piano concerto at age 11 with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, but what stuck in her mind forever was throwing up offstage beforehand, fearful of her parents' criticism. I can never listen to that concerto without getting choked up, imagining that terrified little girl giving the performance of her life.
She became a sociologist to be able to help people who couldn't help themselves, and dedicated herself to women's reproductive freedom. In her later years, her greatest cause became ending the practice of female genital mutilation in Africa. I know how viscerally she wanted to protect the terrified young girls subjected to this practice, and to empower girls and women to break free and take control of their own lives and reproductive choices.
My father's route was more circuitous. He was a businessman whose wife happened to be active with the local Planned Parenthood office. When they needed a new president, they didn't ask her, with her Yale PhD and years of experience in family planning activism. No, they asked her to ask my father – chief executive of a chicken hatchery – because they frankly felt that they would be taken more seriously if they were led by a man.
The good news is that the job turned my father into a population activist. He came to Washington in 1974 to be co-chair of the Population Crisis Committee (now Population Action International) and made population a major focus of the Wallace Global Fund's work. He and my mother regarded rapid population growth as a root cause of the world's major challenges – from poverty and famine to resource collapse and environmental catastrophe.
When my generation took over the foundation in 2002 after my parents had both passed away, we developed an increasing focus on the climate crisis, which has only reaffirmed the importance of our population work. The population trajectory, combined with the inevitable aspirations of people in emerging economies to burn more fossil fuels and own more stuff – just like Americans! – is worse than unsustainable; it's a pathway to disaster. And population growth won't abate unless women have access to voluntary family planning, and girls are protected against coerced early marriage and childbearing.
My personal background is as a lawyer, first for two U.S. Senate committees, and then as lobbyist for nonprofits focused on individual rights. So my instinct is to focus on policy solutions and advocacy. What will it take, both in donor countries and developing countries, to empower women to know and exercise their reproductive rights? If decent policies aren't in place, why not? Is it because of narrow-minded religious or patriarchal opposition? What would it take to fight back – exposing the opposition's manipulations, mobilizing a countervailing grassroots movement, supporting hard-hitting legislative advocacy or litigation? Many foundations worry that funding advocacy feels too "political," but we see it as essential to empowering women to freely exercise their reproductive choices – all the more so because of other funders' reluctance.
Now my wife Christy, a retired U.S. diplomat with two decades of experience in developing countries, has brought her own passion to this mission, and our daughters in their early 30s are starting to get involved. The family tradition continues....
Scott Wallace is Co-Chair of the Wallace Global Fund, a private charitable foundation based in Washington, D.C..