Activist Cecile Richards urges women to take action and fight for progress.
Above: Jodie Wittenberg Heicklen, Fran Heicklen and Cecile Richards
Photo by Barbara Lewis
More than half of the registered voters in the U.S. are women, more than half of all college students are women, and women account for nearly half the workforce. And, if Cecile Richards is right, women are about to come into their own at last.
Richards, who left Planned Parenthood earlier this year after 12 years as its president, has been an activist practically her entire life.
“I come from a long line of no-nonsense, get-it-done Texas women,” said Richards, 61, who was born in Waco and raised in Dallas. Her grandmother got up from the bed where she was laboring in childbirth so she could kill a chicken for her husband’s dinner.
Richards spoke to more than 430 women at the National Council of Jewish Women’s annual Women of Vision luncheon Oct. 11 at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills.
Both her parents were activists for numerous causes. “The dinner table was not where we ate but where we sorted precinct lists,” she said.
With a degree from Brown University, Richards met her husband, fellow organizer Kirk Adams, while both were working as labor organizers in New Orleans. She was living in Los Angeles with a young child and twins on the way in 1990 when her mother, Ann Richards, ran for Texas governor. Richards moved back to Texas to run her campaign. Her mother, who served a single term, was the first woman governor of the state — and the most recent Democrat. Richards later worked as deputy chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).
Helping To Bring Change
Richards is proud of her accomplishments at Planned Parenthood, a 100-year-old organization she first came to know as a client during her college years. Under her direction, the organization’s base of volunteers and supporters grew from 2.5 million to 11 million. After the 2016 election, Planned Parenthood added 700,000 new donors.
Richards regards her work on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) as her signature achievement.
“There was no sweeter day in my entire lifetime,” she said, than the day President Obama called her to tell her the ACA would include no-cost birth control.
“It’s hard to overstate how dramatic this change was,” she said. “For the first time, women had access to no-cost, effective birth control as well as to preventive care.”
Now, possibly because of the ACA’s birth control coverage, the number of abortions in the United States is lower than any time since the procedure was legalized in 1973, she said. The rate of teenage pregnancy has declined as well.
Richards is also excited about new forms of birth control that Planned Parenthood advocated for, including a self-administered injection, now in clinical trials, that provides protection for three months.
Since leaving Planned Parenthood, Richards, who lives in New York and spends her summers in Maine, has published a book, Make Trouble: Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead, a combination memoir and call to action. She keeps busy working on behalf of progressive causes and candidates.
As American women look toward the 100th anniversary of their right to vote, granted by Constitutional amendment in 1920, they are still waiting for full equality, she said. She noted that the U.S. is the only industrialized nation that does not offer paid maternity leave and that also has the highest rate of maternal death.
“Women want to do more than resist,” she said. “They don’t want to be an afterthought or an accommodation.”
Fighting for Progress
If women had political clout equal to their numbers, she said, clean air and water would be a priority. There would be an end to the epidemic of gun violence and more support to keep families together.
Richards sees progress even in Texas, where women have less control over their own bodies now than they did when she lived there in 1990. A new Planned Parenthood clinic opened in conservative Waco, and the state sent a Latina woman to Congress.
“Women have been speaking up for centuries,” she said, “and we’ve finally found the frequency where people are hearing us.”
“Marching is great; knitting ‘pussy’ hats, calling senators, sending postcards, those are all great; but voting is the whole deal. Every bit of progress we’ve made is on the line.” — Cecile Richards
Like many women, Richards was enraged by the controversial Senate hearings before the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. “Christine Blasey Ford [who accused Kavanaugh of attempted rape] spoke for millions of women, and we’re not going to be silent anymore,” she said.
She wants to see women turn their rage into action — and the most important action to take is voting.
“Marching is great, knitting ‘pussy’ hats, calling senators, sending postcards, those are all great, but voting is the whole deal,” she said. Not voting could undo the progress of the last 50 years. “Every bit of progress we’ve made is on the line.”
She ended on a positive note. “We stand on the shoulders of those who went before,” she said. “Now it’s our turn. We are a movement, and we’re