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Komen’s CEO Nancy Brinker Under Fire

Nancy Brinker, Founder, Susan G. Komen for the Cure makes remarks at the Komen Community Challenge rally 26 April, 2007 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
Nancy Brinker Photo: Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

The Planned Parenthood–Susan G. Komen Foundation controversy isn’t over yet. Last week, Karen Handel, the former GOP gubernatorial candidate who was widely cited as the driving force behind the decision to revoke Planned Parenthood’s funding, resigned from her VP post at Komen — but that isn’t big enough game for those who are still furious with the foundation.  Nancy Brinker, the foundation’s CEO and founder, is facing increasing calls to step down,  from grass-roots activists,  from journalists like Keith Olbermann, and, perhaps most aggressively, from a former Komen New York board member. Sally Quinn wrote Brinker an open letter in the Washington Post, publicly shaming her as only a Washington socialite can:

No way would the Nancy Brinker I know be involved in something like that. Could this possibly be the Nancy Brinker who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, by President Obama in 2009? Could it be the Nancy Brinker who is the Goodwill Ambassador for the World Health Organization, former ambassador to Hungary and former chief of protocol under George W. Bush?

Brinker responded to Quinn’s passive-aggressive recitation of her accolades (which was also, more pointedly, accompanied by lines like “Betrayed. I think that’s the perfect word for how so many people feel. You are going to have to do a lot of work to repair that feeling”) with an apologetic open letter of her own.

I’ve seen many commentators suggest that the swift reaction to our decision is an indicator of something larger and more dangerous in our society — culture wars, if you will, or the feeling that women’s health care is being sacrificed on the altar of political ideologies. If I have learned nothing else from our experience of the past week, it is that we in women’s health organizations must be absolutely true to our core missions, and avoid even the appearance of bias or judgment in our decisions.

I made some mistakes.  In retrospect, we have learned a lot and  must now rebuild the trust that so many want to have in us, and respond to the many thousands who continue to believe in our mission and do what we do best: the funding of cutting-edge science and to bring that work to our communities to help the hundreds of thousands of women we serve each year.

So Brinker, who, from her days as a Nieman Marcus sales trainee probably knows something about the art of smiling through gritted teeth while being taken to task, seems more likely to do damage control of this sort than to resign. And she’s good at this kind of thing. It’s no accident that she responded to Quinn and not some of her other critics: her genius in building Komen foundation into the juggernaut it is today came partly from her ability to cultivate allies among the elite,  and convincing them of the imperative of being as broadly appealing as possible. 

In a pre-controversy Times article on Komen’s success and the “pinking” of America, Brinker explained her marketing approach: “It’s a democratization of a disease. It’s drilling down into the deepest pockets of America.” She meant that she wanted the message spread as widely as possible, of course, but the accidental phrase “deep pockets” in that context also serves as a reminder that Komen, for many years, was able to strike a balance between reaching the 99 percent and enjoying the support of the  1 percent. Putting aside the question of Planned Parenthood supporters among the hoi polloi, or Keith Olbermann’s rage, if she can’t mollify Quinn and company in decently short order, Brinker might have a harder time making the case that she’s the best person to helm the ship.

Komen’s CEO Nancy Brinker Under Fire