Robin Duke received the Lifetime Legacy Award from Planned Parenthood Hudson Peconic at its benefit Saturday night in East Hampton. A longtime Southampton Village resident, Ms. Duke devoted most of her life to promoting and leading organizations supporting abortion rights and equality for women, the stabilization of rising global populations, and health and education programs in Africa, Asia, and other parts of the world.
She was the national co-chairwoman of the Population Crisis Committee/Draper Fund, which financed International Planned Parenthood; the president and, later, the chairwoman of the National Abortion Rights Action League; the president of its successor, Naral Pro-Choice America; a founder of the United Nations Fund for Population Activities, and the chairwoman of Population Action International.
Her granddaughter Maggie Valiunas spoke at Saturday’s fund-raiser on her family’s behalf. This is what she said:
A part of me kinda wanted to wing these remarks as an homage to my grandmother, because I watched her wing it successfully so many times at important events like this one. She had an innate ability to stand in her power and speak her candid truth — no matter what the circumstances or audience. She had zero qualms about getting up in front of a room full of powerful people and telling them the truth. Hard truths oftentimes — instructing them how they could better use their influence, frequently in support of Planned Parenthood.
When I was 15, Grandma was the ambassador to Norway, and my boarding school, Exeter, invited her to come speak at assembly. Assembly was the place to see and be seen. I was a lowly sophomore with something to prove to the upperclassmen, and I thought, “Thank God! My articulate, gorgeous, polished, cool grandmother is coming, to really clinch my social position.”
Of course, she did wow them — but not in the way I expected.
The president of the school introduced her and spoke about her late husband, Angier Biddle Duke, who had served as chief of protocol for John F. Kennedy and ambassador to several countries, and then introduced her in a similar way, highlighting her political influence, activism, and business accomplishments. I’m sure everyone, including me, expected her to get up and talk about politics, probably her experience in Norway.
Instead, she walked up to the stage with no notes and said: “You know, women weren’t allowed at this school until 1970. Let that sink in. Young men, you’re lucky they’re here. Young women, I hope you’re taking birth control.”
As Grandma looked down from her podium onto all our pimpled faces, she had to have been thinking of her own high school experience — one that was cut short when her father gambled away her tuition money when she was 15. Without a high school education or diploma, she began her working life in New York City to support herself and her mother and sister. So when I think of all her achievements and success, I can’t help but also think of the grit it took to get there. She knew what it was like to fight for survival.
In the 1950s she was a single working mother raising two children on her own, first as a TV broadcaster and then as one of the first female stockbrokers, battling sexism and bias along the way. Facing a pending divorce, she was the sole financial provider for her two kids when she learned she was pregnant with a third child. She knew that having another child would mean losing her job and the means to support her family, so she made the difficult decision to illegally terminate her pregnancy. That terrifying moment, of possibly having to carry that pregnancy to term and potentially lose everything and having no other recourse, defined much of the latter part of her life, fueling her advocacy for abortion rights, for women’s access to reproductive health care, and for women’s rights.
Grandma wasn’t resentful or bitter, not in the slightest. Instead, there was only work to be done. As she looked out at this room full of privileged kids, who by whatever stroke of luck found themselves attending this famous, powerful institution, she felt an urgency for all that was left to do, and gratitude to have the opportunity to do it.
Never one to shy away from a taboo, she continued her speech, reflecting that it was no coincidence that as soon as prestigious schools like ours began to acknowledge women’s equality and rights, and admitted women, Roe v. Wade followed not long after. Then she looked out at us and asked, “Do you all know what that Supreme Court case meant?” It was the landmark case, she said, deciding that women had sovereignty over their own bodies — for the first time.
To my grandmother, there was never any time to be wasted, never an end to the fight. She took every opportunity to speak truth to power, to use whatever platform she had to make even an inch of difference. She instilled that sense of responsibility in everyone she met. Don’t screw up this one chance you have.
She went on to tell my schoolmates about the time she spent with Louis Armstrong and his bandmates, touring Africa in 1960 as a marketing executive for Pepsi. She described how warm and welcoming he was, that his background could have lent itself to endless outcomes and how he’d chosen grace, to be big-hearted and courageous, and welcomed her into his family on the road. She emphasized his background — that he wasn’t born into ease, but that he chose to chase his dreams and make success for himself, and what’s more, to be kind and humble, and to bring other people into that success.
“We could all take a page out of Louis’s book,” she said.
Then she remarked: “From Louis to women’s rights, I’m sure you’re curious how this all fits together. For me, it’s simple. Whether you were born a man or a woman or poor or into wealth or Black or white, it’s all a game of chance. All we can do is be gracious, and take care of one another. This is a time for coming together. You kids don’t know it now, but you are sitting in the luckiest seats in this country. You all have a chance to make a difference in this world. Don’t dwell on it — don’t second guess it — just know it, own it, and get on with it.”
My first reaction to her speech was worry. I looked around the room at this patriarchal behemoth of an institution and my classmates and thought, “Well, this isn’t the speech that’s going to make me look cool.” Then kids started to come up to me, saying, “Whoa, that was not what I expected, but it was awesome.”
Somewhere in my soul I recognized that my grandmother had just shown me the way to be in this world. A way in which we can and must talk to each other, to reason things out, how to be honest and cut through the chaff. In every room she ever stood, she was always in her power. In her truth. A voice like that can change the landscape of this world, and we all have that voice within us.
Her honest call-to-arms messages weren’t limited to the public arena. They happened privately, as well. When I was 19 years old I was struggling with a lot of self-destructive behaviors. Grandma flew to visit my mother and me. I expected her to scoop me up, comfort me, and tell me everything was going to be okay. But instead she looked me in the eye and said: “I love you, and you are wasting your life, and you are hurting your mother — she won’t tell you this, but I will. And I can no longer stand by and watch this.”
And there it was: that honest voice, one of power and clarity. She saw me, and I knew she was seeing me. Although I wasn’t ready then, it was that clarity that later gave me strength to make drastic changes so I, too, could stand in my power.
What would we do in this world without the people who tell us the truth and don’t allow us to let ourselves down? Though it may feel hard to swallow at times, that is one of the greatest acts of love we can offer each other. My grandmother held me to a standard that she knew I could meet, better than I even knew myself at the time. Ultimately that changed my life.
If my grandmother were here today, she would be pissed. She would be seething. She would be looking across at the anti-abortion movement sweeping this nation and would be calling in every favor, working every angle, bringing us together to say to us, “What more can we do? How hard can we fight? We cannot stand living in the world as it exists today without holding each other accountable and fighting injustice.”
She would not be taking this award as a pat on her back or anyone else’s. She would be looking out at this crowd and reminding us that there is so much more to do. Reminding us of our responsibility to self and to others — holding us to a higher standard.
As long as there are people who have less, people whose autonomy is being stripped away from them, people who have to fight for survival, then we have not done enough. She would remind us of the same thing she reminded my classmates and me years ago: “You all have a chance to make a difference in this world. Don’t dwell on it — don’t second guess it — just know it, own it, and get on with it.”
Maggie Valiunas is a marketing and communications strategist in San Francisco. She grew up spending summers in Southampton.