The best and worst part about being a professional troublemaker is that the trouble never ends, Cecile Richards writes in her new memoir, Make Trouble.
She should know. Though she is now president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Richard’s leadership and activism, organizing and civil disobedience in the name of social justice, spans virtually her entire life. Even before the work with women’s reproductive rights, her career took her from worksites in New Orleans and East Texas, where she organized hotel and nursing home workers, to Washington, D.C., where during a gap year from college she was involved in efforts to implement Title IX, the law, passed five years earlier, requiring men and women have equal opportunity to education.
As head of what is perhaps the most visible symbol of feminism in this country, Richards routinely faces down attacks from anti-abortion and far-right foes and has fended off repeated efforts to defund and derail the women’s health care organization. Perhaps no single episode has raised her public profile as much as the five-hour grilling she endured by Republican male members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in 2015.
“Here’s what I learned sitting in front of that committee,” Richards writes in her book, Make Trouble: Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead. “Focus on the people who are counting on you, not the ones who are trying to drag you down.”
Now, as she prepares to leave Planned Parenthood after 12 years, her sentiments about never-ending trouble seem inarguable. Uncertainty hangs over women’s rights issues in this country, from reproductive health to the gender pay gap. The Guttmacher Institute reports that, between 2010 and 2016, states enacted more than 330 measures to restrict abortion access. Meanwhile, the #MeToo movement continues to unmask a sexist, if not misogynistic, underbelly.
“For the first time in my life, I’m wondering whether my own daughters will have fewer rights than I’ve had,” writes Richards, the mother of two daughters and a son. “That alone is enough motivation for me to keep making trouble.”
You could say she was born into her role of troublemaker. Her mother was the late Ann Richards, who turned a career as a homemaker in a conservative state into one of progressive activism and politics to become the first female governor of modern-era Texas. Her name had become familiar to Americans during the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta when she famously derided then-Republican presidential nominee George H.W. Bush: “Poor George. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
Ann Richards’ 1991 gubernatorial campaign was an inspiration to women across Texas and beyond. “Everywhere I went, women my mom’s age and with her hairdo would grab me by the arm and say, “I never thought I’d see the day.”
Planned Parenthood is the nation’s largest provider of sex education resources and affordable health care.
She describes a life surrounded by kickass women. “At every job I’ve had, I’ve tried to work for someone who could teach me something—and more often than not that someone has been a woman.”
At age 16, she worked on the Texas House of Representatives campaign of Sarah Weddington, the ambitious young attorney who had argued the case of Jane Roe in Roe v Wade before the U.S Supreme Court in 1973. “It was a really tough race, and I saw firsthand how ugly it could be for a woman to run for office,” she says.
She worked in the office of Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the highest-ranking woman in the U.S House of Representatives, admiring her courage and determination in going against her party leadership on the invasion of Iraq and then persuading the majority of House Democrats to go along with her in voting against it. She crisscrossed the country campaigning for Hillary Clinton in battleground states. Speaking at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in 2016 Richards said, “Tonight we are closer than ever to putting a women in the White House. And I can almost hear mom saying, ‘well, it sure took y’all long enough.”
Of course, that didn’t happen.
After the election, Planned Parenthood was heading into a “battle of a lifetime,” she wrote. As a candidate, Trump promised to defund the organization, and House Speaker Paul Ryan vowed to repeal Obamacare.
“Get ready women, we are going to war.”
But her organization was used to this. At one point, four congressional committees were investigating it, more than were assigned to investigate Enron in the 2008 global financial crisis.
With more than 100 years of research in reproductive health, Planned Parenthood is the nation’s largest provider of sex education resources and affordable health care—for both men and women. In 2016, it served more than 2.4 million patients.
When a Republican-controlled Congress passed a bill to defund it in 2015, President Obama vetoed it. Nearly every “knock-down-drag-out fight over the Affordable Care Act had to do with women’s health,” she writes.
She recalls a scene in the Capitol visitor center before a news conference to announce Planned Parenthood’s support for Obamacare. Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, the longest serving woman in Congress, jumped up on her trademark step stool, pulled out her bright red lipstick, and smearing it on declared, “Get ready women, we are going to war.”
Just before passage of Obamacare, a last-minute proposal was introduced, with support from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to prevent insurance plans from covering abortions under the law. The Stupak Amendment, as it was called, went against everything Planned Parenthood stood for. Eventually it was removed, but only after intense lobbying.
“Without the women in the House and Senate, it would have been a different story,” Richards writes. “I firmly believe that when half of Congress can get pregnant, we will finally stop arguing about birth control, abortions and Planned Parenthood—and we might even fully fund women’s health care.”
Richards believes that now, more than ever, women are the most important political force in America. “We have enormous power to change the direction of this country, and it’s time to use it.”
Lornet Turnbull is the former civil liberties editor for YES!, a Seattle-based freelance writer, and a regional freelance writer for The Washington Post. An award-winning enterprise reporter who's worked in media for more than 20 years, Lornet has covered everything from the auto industry and labor unions in Michigan, to real estate and statehouse politics in Ohio, to homelessness in Seattle, to refugee children in the West Bank, and sex workers in Mexico City. She speaks English.