Cecile Richards Vows To Keep Making Trouble!
By: Sophie Lee
For most people, being labeled a troublemaker would come as quite a blow. For Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, it was a revelation. Tucked away in the auditorium of Senn High School on April 14, safe inside from the cold, rainy day, she explained to David Axelrod why she wears the title with pride. She loves it so much in fact, that she decided to call her autobiography “Make Trouble.” On the title she said, “I was born to a family of troublemakers so I came by it honestly.”
This much is true as Richards is daughter of the well-loved former governor of Texas, Ann Richards. She claims her mother was initially a stay-at-home mom who went through an extreme metamorphosis. Her family grew up in a right wing community before moving to Austin and seeing the more modern lifestyles available. The surprising political success of her mother meant that Richards grew up surrounded by politics and a challenging of the status quo. She cites her first “run in with the authorities” as a time when she tried to wear a black armband to school in the seventh grade as a protest to the Vietnam War. It was clear to the Richards that she never quite fit into their largely conservative surroundings. When her mother won the seat of Governor it was a shift heard round the country. Cecile said, “That to me is the lesson about politics, you just never give up.”
Once in college, Richards’s troublemaking tendencies only increased tenfold. She had ambitions to be a union organizer once she left since she had spent significant amounts of time helping immigrant workers fight for their rights. Although this may not be what people expect the roots of activism to be for someone who is now known for her work campaigning for women’s rights, it shows that Richards has always had a fighting spirit, regardless of the cause. She said, “Hopefully in the long march towards a more just society, it all adds up.” She was also willing to be very upfront about the drawbacks of an activist career, citing a time when she was a bit older and had to call a friend to pick her kids up from daycare because she was being taken to jail. Regardless of the complications, Richards encourages young activists to push themselves past their perceived limitations. She stated, “If you’re not scaring yourself, you’re not doing enough.”
Richards is also very aware of the recent surge in activism due to the shift in American politics. However, she doesn’t believe that the focus should be on who the president is, the focus should be on the social values that allowed him to get there. She applauded all the women currently running for office and the people winning races in areas previously believed to be deadlocked with conservative candidates. “Democrats tend to be in love with federal races...but grass roots races are important too,” Richards said. She encourages all activists to go out and try to make change, even if they don’t know how far they will be able to get. “Women aren’t waiting for the party to come ask them to run for office,” she said, and the message she’s pushing is: neither should you.
Richards now works as the president of Planned Parenthood, a nonprofit organization that provides reproductive healthcare in the U.S. and abroad. In recent years, the organization has come under the spotlight as a favorite target of conservative government representatives. Although the organization has historically always been under fire, that anger seems to be growing as women’s health care becomes more and more of a political talking point. When Richards was asked to interview for her current position she said she remembers being scared to do so. Previously, she had worked exclusively with small campaigns and startups. She called her mother before the interview, who told her she would regret it for the rest of her life if she walked away from the opportunity. So Richards went and has now been running the organization for over ten years.
Since its inception, Planned Parenthood has straddled the line between health care provider and activist icon. Richards has had a hand in managing this balance and said, “It’s not enough to just stand up for our clinics to stay open, we’ve got to stand up for our brothers and sisters.” Planned Parenthood provides healthcare to 1 in 5 American women and takes this seriously, making the issues facing these women ones that the company hopes to impact. Richards said she believes that women of color have been carrying the rest of the Democratic party for a long time and hopes to give back to them through her work. She said her goal for the future is to gain equal access to health care rights (such as abortions) for women of color. Richards also said that she does not believe the struggle between Pro-Choice and Pro-Life should be viewed as a binary. Many individuals fall somewhere in the middle, with contrasting personal and political views. These people, according to Richards, need to be included in the conversation. “It is one of the most personal medical decisions someone will make in their lifetime and that is why politicians should not be deciding it,” said Richards.
Looking back on her career, Richards said the day she will never forget is the one when President Obama called her and told her birth control would be covered under health insurance. She also said that at the start of his presidency he told her to “force him to do the right thing”. This is a promise she took quite seriously and her impact can be felt by every American woman. Now, Richards is leaving her position at Planned Parenthood, but feels confident about the future of the organization. She talked about how Planned Parenthood has been adapting to meet the needs of its patients, introducing many new digital services, such as an online chat with healthcare providers, available to anyone who has questions about their reproductive health. “The government can try to defund Planned Parenthood but they can’t defund the Internet,” said Richards. She hopes these new additions will help reach a younger audience. She explained, “I think that is going to be one of the lasting commitments of this organization, to be there for a whole new generation.”
Overall, Richards is optimistic about the future, for her personal career, for young activists, and for the future of the organization she is leaving behind. She said, “To me there has never been a more exciting time to be an organizer, and for me, a troublemaker.”