Former President, Planned parenthood
A longtime activist and self-proclaimed troublemaker, Cecile Richards was president of Planned Parenthood, a Ford grantee, for more than a decade. In 2019, she co-founded Supermajority, a nationwide initiative working to build an intergenerational, multiracial movement to advocate for gender equity.
What inspired you to dedicate your life’s work to advancing women’s rights?
I grew up in Texas where women really didn’t have much of any power. In fact, my mom—she was a housewife, as we called them in the day, until she finally figured out that women could do more and eventually ran for office herself, and became governor of Texas. It changed opportunities for women in that state and around the country.
I remember the very first campaign I was involved in was for a young woman who wanted to run for the state legislature. She asked my mother to run her campaign, which was really interesting because my mother had never had the chance to work outside of the house. As kids, we did all the things you learn on early campaigns, like handing out bumper stickers and stuffing envelopes, and we ran that race. It was very, very tough, and the woman who ran was named Sarah Weddington. Of course, she’s the lawyer who had argued Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court—the youngest person ever to win a Supreme Court case. So my roots in the reproductive rights movement go back to being a teenager. It’s been an issue I’ve cared about my entire life. So I’ve spent, I guess, my entire lifetime organizing women, working with women, helping to lift up women, and I think it’s never been more important than today.
You spent 12 years at the helm of Planned Parenthood, defending and advancing women’s rights. What concerns do you have today when you look at the state of reproductive rights in this country?
We’re now seeing state after state pass restrictions on access to safe and legal abortion, restrictions on access to birth control and family planning, on access to medical care at all. I think access to reproductive health care is everyone’s issue. It should be everyone’s issue, because we can’t lose on the political side what we’ve gained in terms of medical advances.
We have seen an administration that has completely reshaped the federal bench with judges who oppose access to reproductive health care, and the Supreme Court. I mean, we are awaiting cases right now that could determine whether or not women continue to have a right that they’ve had for over 40 years. So the political implications and dangers are very real, and women know that.
You left your position as president of Planned Parenthood in 2018. What are you up to these days?
After the 2016 presidential election, several women and I got together and started talking about what we were seeing: Women were coming out of the women’s marches and were going to town hall meetings, calling their members of Congress about issues they cared about, and most importantly, raising their hand and saying, “What more can I do?” Many were women who’d never been involved in civic advocacy or political participation. So Ai-Jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Alicia Garza, a founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, and myself started a new organization called Supermajority. The idea being, what if all of us women began to work together across race and across issues to build our own power? I think it’s a very exciting moment in this country. Women are now a majority of voters, and I believe in 2020 women will absolutely determine not only the future of the presidency but the future of the government up and down the ballot.
What are your hopes for women and women’s rights in the next decade?
In the United States, we saw in the last election a historic number of women running for office and a historic number of women voting, and now the most women of color ever in the United States Congress—and they’re making a difference, not just in the laws they pass and the points they make but the inspiration they’re giving to a whole generation of young girls who are looking up and realizing that’s what a member of Congress looks like. To me, that’s so important, and I hope that in the next 10 years we continue to advance this so that women—and people of all persuasions and all walks of life—begin to run for office and get elected so that government actually represents everyone and we really do live out the dream of a true democracy.
What does equality look like to you?
Equality is the opportunity for everyone to have a chance to get ahead and to live their lives free of discrimination, fear, and oppression. Unfortunately we’re not there yet, but I think we will get equality when we actually have true democracy, and that means that everyone’s at the table. We’re getting there. Things are changing. People are standing up and saying, I want to be part of the process. But we have to keep investing in that. So we have to invest in young people. We have to invest in people of color, in women, in the people who’ve never been in the room where it happens. When we do, we’ll have a government that looks like us and that represents everyone. That’s true equality.