Cecile Richards has been president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund for 12 years, but this May she’ll step down.
“In that time, I’ve worked hard to invest in, and lift up, a new generation of leaders,” says Richards, 60. “Now I’m trying to not just talk the talk but walk the walk. I don’t see this as stepping down; I’m stepping aside to make room for someone else. This is a moment when the organization is stronger than it’s ever been, and no one is better positioned to help lead the fight for women’s health and rights. I’m looking forward to staying in this movement as one of Planned Parenthood’s 11.5 million proud supporters.”
In that span of 12 years, Richards has collected a lifetime’s worth of stories, many of which she’s sharing now in her memoir Make Trouble: Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead.
The book starts with her childhood in ultraconservative Texas, where she grew up
watching her mother, Ann Richards, become a feminist icon after her historic win in the Texas governor’s race in 1990. (Richards is generally considered the first woman governor of Texas; Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, who was elected in the 20s and 30s, was a proxy for her husband, James “Pa” Ferguson, a disgraced former governor who’d been banned from holding state office.) Richards credits her parents for helping her launch a life of activism. When she was just 13, Richards wore a black armband to school in solidarity with those fighting to end the Vietnam war. Her principal summoned her to his office and called her mother, who wasn’t home. Later that evening, Richards excitedly related the events to her mother, who went ballistic, angry the principal would try to intimidate Richards for standing up for her beliefs. “It felt like she and I were in a conspiracy together,” recalls Richards.
Richards would later experience a bit of deja vu, if only just in the sense of feeling part of a conspiracy, after meeting with Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump at a Trump golf course in New Jersey in February 2017 about federal funding for the nonprofit. In the weeks after President Trump’s election in 2016, Planned Parenthood saw a 900 percent increase in requests for appointments for IUDs from women who wanted to to make sure their birth control would outlast the Trump presidency.
So Richards was hoping to find an ally in the administration when an acquaintance offered to facilitate a connection with Ivanka Trump. At that meeting, Kushner told Richards Planned Parenthood had made a big mistake by becoming “political” and that if the organization wanted to keep its federal funding, it would have to stop providing abortions. If Richards could agree to that, he said, funding might just actually increase.
“Honestly, it almost felt like a bribe,” she recalls telling the vice president of Planned Parenthood. It should come as no surprise that her answer was an unequivocal no.
Richards will visit Senn High School on Saturday to chat with David Axelrod, chief strategist for Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns and current director of the University of Chicago Institute of Politics, about these stories and more. But first, Richards shares with us why it’s better to fight and lose than to not fight at all, how making trouble can be a career path, and what’s next for her.
You call yourself a professional trouble-maker. What does that mean?
It’s someone who had to decide whether she accepts things the way they are or questions authority, and I chose the latter.
In the book you recommend trouble making as a career path. To you, what’s worth raising trouble for?
Making trouble is an excellent career path. It’s challenging, and there can be really tough moments (I’m looking at you, November 8, 2016). But it’s also fulfilling, inspiring, powerful, and a lot of fun. Not only that, it introduces you to people who will change your life. In the book, I write about meeting my husband, Kirk [Adams], when we were both working as union organizers in New Orleans. Some of my best friends are people I met on picket lines and campaigns.
To answer your question, anything you believe in is worth raising trouble for. It’s like my friend Representative John Lewis says, “It’s good to make trouble, as long as you’re making good trouble.”
You also say that if you’re not scaring yourself, you’re probably not doing enough. What are some of the things that scare you?
Losing. Any time you’re taking on a fight you’re not sure you can win, it’s a little scary, especially when there are people counting on you. I write in the book about a union campaign Kirk and I worked on in Beaumont, Texas. We lost, and it was crushing. I felt I’d let down all of the nursing home workers we’d been organizing [to fight for fair wages]. It took a long time to get over that. But I still think our cause was just, and it was better to fight and lose than not fight at all. The way I see it, if you win every battle, you probably need to set your sights higher.
While a student at Brown, you first learned to question authority during a janitors’ strike that, you write, “became a battleground between a rich Ivy League corporation and the folks who cleaned our dorms.” Do you think that’s still an important lesson today?
Absolutely. We are living through a moment in America when pretty much all of our fundamental values are under siege: democracy, pluralism, equality, and a whole lot more. The future of our country depends on people who are willing to question authority—to push back against the regressive movement we’re seeing and say, “This is not OK. This is not normal.” It is inspiring to see teenagers standing up, demanding change in gun laws and criminal justice, and putting these questions to people in office.
Give us a preview of what you’ll discuss with Axelrod on Saturday.
You mean other than how much we miss having President Obama in the White House and how we need to fight to preserve the progress we’ve made? I’m looking forward to sharing some behind-the-scenes stories, like what it took to get birth control included in the Affordable Care Act. We’ll talk about this insane moment we’re living through and what people can do. And, of course, we’ll talk about the book!
I’m really looking forward to this one, and I’m thrilled that Women and Children First is sponsoring this event. They are legendary!
What’s next for you?
I’ll be wrapping up my time at Planned Parenthood, which has been the most incredible job of my life. And then I’m going to do everything I can to mobilize women, because marching is great, knitting our pink pussy hats is great, but voting—that’s the whole ballgame. Women are the most powerful political force in America right now, and if we show up at the polls this November, we can change the direction of this country. v