From 2009 – 2011, Our Bodies Ourselves honored the work of women’s health advocates worldwide by asking readers to nominate their favorite women’s health hero. View all nominees by year: 2009, 2010, 2011
Entrant: Cynthia Weisbord
Nominee: Mary Ann Sorrentino, Former Executive Director of Planned Parenthood of Rhode Island (1977-1987)
For decades she has fought fearlessly and fiercely for the health rights of women. Mary Ann Sorrentino has spoken out on women’s behalf through a time and in a place which were rife with hostility toward the issue to which she devoted her formidable energies and her powerful heart.
Mary Ann spent 10 years of her professional life as the Executive Director of Planned Parenthood of Rhode Island. Respectful of the position of pro-life advocates she encountered as the most visible and vocal spokesperson for the reproductive rights of women in Rhode Island, she spoke clearly, repeatedly and forcefully working to secure the means for them to control their bodies and exercise their reproductive rights.
Mary Ann’s resume reads as the biography of a woman dedicated to helping women (and men) through a wide variety of roles. She began her professional life as a social caseworker, became an outpatient unit manager at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, then taught high school English and Italian. Her passionate commitment to the equality of women took her next to Planned Parenthood of Rhode Island (PPRI).
She became the Executive Director of the agency in 1977. At a time when abortion was a heated national issue, Mary Ann spoke and acted to provide the medical services that would make reproductive freedom a reality for the women of Rhode Island, despite attacks, some vicious and personal, on her and her family. For five of the ten years Mary Ann headed the agency I worked as its Education Director and formed a close friendship with her. That friendship and working relationship made me only too aware of the punishment to which Mary Ann was subjected by many groups and individuals.
During her tenure as Executive Director of PPRI, the statewide agency provided contraceptive and abortion services to a patient load of 10,000 patients annually. Mary Ann took a personal interest in the agency’s patients and played a highly visible and vocal role, speaking on radio, appearing on television and before the state legislature, and addressing groups throughout the state in a wide variety of settings.
She is indeed a role model for many Rhode Island women and was named the Woman of the Year in 1986 by the Rhode Island Business and Professional Women’s organization. In that same year she was honored with the Margaret Sanger Award and the National Organization of Women’s Susan B. Anthony Award. Demonstrating her ongoing commitment to the cause of women’s health, her book “The A Word – Abortion: Real Women, Tough Choices, Personal Freedom” was published in 2006.
Following her tenure at Planned Parenthood, Mary Ann has worked tirelessly to help those in need and in fact all of her community. She has hosted a radio talk show offering a mixture of news, humor and continuing her advocacy for women’s health issues.
Her radio hostessing brought her several awards, both national and local. She has served on the boards of the Rhode Island Rape Crisis Center and the National Abortion Federation. She was given the Exceptional Service Award by the Rhode Island Department of Health after working as a member and then Chair of the department’s Family Planning Advisory Council.
She currently contributes columns to several newspapers, as always using access to the public ear to advance the cause of women’s health when appropriate.
These accomplishments and activities are only a part of the life story of a woman motivated by the need to help her fellow human beings, and highlighted by her passion to advance women’s health. She is indeed a heroine for the many who have been recipients of her professional and personal acts of caring and kindness.
I am proud to count her as a friend and enthusiastic about recognizing her contributions to women’s health as well as to various other constituents of the community in which she has lived her life and to which she has given her extraordinary talents and energy.
Mary Ann is surely a worthy “Women’s Health Hero” having devoted herself in so very many ways to women’s bodies, to women’s selves.