Convention 2018: A conversation with Cecile Richards
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor sat down with Cecile Richards, former president of Planned Parenthood, for an hour-long discussion at FFRF’s national convention in San Francisco on Nov. 3. Richards was given FFRF’s Forward Award, which recognizes individuals who have moved society forward. Here is an edited version of that talk.
Cecile Richards: I’m so honored to be here, and this award is spectacular. And it’s so important because there are barely any monuments of women anywhere in the United States of America.
Annie Laurie Gaylor: I just finished reading and loving your book, Make Trouble: Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead. I wondered if you could talk about the very first sentence in your book, “Little lady, you are just trying to make trouble.”
I was just a wee child. I grew up in Dallas, Texas, and actually that’s where this took place. I was going to the University Park School, a local public school. I was in sixth grade, and my teacher decided to open every day with the Lord’s Prayer, which I neither knew the words to or wanted to recite. And I told her that. I said, “I actually don’t, that’s not what we do in my family.” And she replied, “Are you just trying to make trouble?” I realized I really wasn’t trying to make trouble, but if she thought I was, then I guess I was and that was OK. And it sort of stuck.
You just knew it was wrong.
Exactly. I just felt like, why should she be making me recite a prayer that has nothing to do with me and certainly had nothing to with my family? We went to the Unitarian church, not because we were religious, but because that was where all the social movements in town were organizing.
Before we talk about your mother, Ann Richards, you also had a very strong grandmother, Nona. And there’s a couple of funny stories about her.
My mom’s parents basically survived the Depression, and really never got over it. They grew everything. They lived down the country, outside Waco. They didn’t have any money, so when my grandmother got pregnant with my mom, it was unthinkable that she’d go to the hospital because they didn’t have the money and you didn’t do that. You had your kids at home. Once she went into labor, she had the neighbor lady come over and make dinner for my grandfather because, of course, it was unthinkable that he would cook dinner for himself. The problem was she had planned chicken for dinner and the neighbor lady didn’t know how to kill a chicken. So, my grandmother, Nona, hoists herself up on one elbow in the birthing bed and rings that chicken’s neck. And that’s how Ann Richards came into this world.
Tell us about Sarah Weddington, the young woman who argued Roe v. Wade, then went on to run for the state Legislature.
She’s as unrepentant a feminist as any woman that ever walked this Earth. Sarah had argued the Roe v. Wade case at the age of 26. Still the youngest person ever to win a Supreme Court case. And, of course, it was a case that came out of Dallas. And then when she came back, even though she had done that, even though she was obviously a renowned attorney, she couldn’t even get credit in her own name. She had to have her husband sign for her. She wanted to open a bank account because she had a law firm. She got so mad she decided she’d run for the state Legislature and change the law. And that was in the day when my mom had never worked for a living. She’d always taken care of kids. And Sarah asked Mom to run her campaign.
When I think of Ann Richards, I sort of assume she’d had a career her whole life. And, of course, no, not in that era.
Oh, no. In fact, she spent 20 years just building up all this energy. Once she found out about the women’s movement, she just never stopped. She basically left us back at home and said, “I’m going to go do this thing.” And she ran Sarah’s race. Mom was a campaign manager — and that was unheard of. So, we kids got to hand out bumper stickers and learn all those important skills you learn as a young person — like taking down the opponent’s yard signs, you know, critical things. [Laughs] And the statute of limitations has passed on all of that, but it was really wild. As a young person, I didn’t appreciate what Sarah had done at the Supreme Court. That wasn’t really part of my consciousness. But to have a woman win against all odds was really quite amazing. So yeah, Sarah won that race and that’s kind of what kicked off Mom’s political career.
So, you were in college by the time your mother was running for governor. She was the first woman to win a statewide office earlier, right?
Yes. She became county commissioner, which was kind of funny because they thought only men could be county commissioners because you had to do things like look at roads and bridges and heavy machinery. That was really unique to have a woman county commissioner. But then she ran for treasurer.
Well, let’s talk about that then. Because you were in California, right? Doing labor organizing when your mother decided to run.
Yeah. My husband and I had just had Lily, our first child, and we were just raising hell in Los Angeles. I was organizing immigrant janitors. Kirk was organizing home care workers, folks who take care of people that didn’t have a union, didn’t have any benefits or work protection. And Mom called and said she was going to run for governor. I mean, it was just like a movie. We just packed up the U-Haul, put all our stuff in, took Lily, put her in the car seat, and we drove to Texas and helped on her campaign.
It was amazing. Of course, she had gotten into the national consciousness of the Democratic Party. That famous speech.
Her convention speech in Atlanta. Yes.
Do you want to quote that one line?
I can never really quite do it justice because she had more of an accent than I do. But of course, that was the speech that not only launched her, but that people still repeat to me in airports and on the street: “Poor George. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
George H.W. So, anyway, then she ran for re-election. I know you were very involved. Of course, that was a bitter defeat. But that opened your eyes to a different need.
Right. So just to back up for a second, I do think one thing is important to remember. I think it’s important just to put it in context that Mom was never supposed to be elected governor. It wasn’t like people said, “Oh, my god, a progressive woman, pro-choice governor. That’s what we need in Texas.”
So, every step of the way it was a fight. And there was never a poll showing that she could win that race. Never. And yet people just never gave up. And I do think it is an important lesson. That was 28 years ago, but it was because teachers and farm workers and LGBT activists and students and labor folks or people who had been shut out of government for so long just never gave up. And it was a grassroots uprising.
That is the reason that Ann Richards became governor. It wasn’t just her. She just represented the hopes and dreams of a lot of people, and I think we are seeing that now in other parts of the country. At least I hope so. I think it’s important to remember that polls don’t vote, people vote. Right? And that’s really where we have to remember that’s what democracy is about.
So anyway, she was governor for four years. But it was also important because she was able to appoint more people of color, women, LGBT leaders, folks who had never been in office than all the previous governors in the state combined and literally changed the face of government in Texas. And that mattered. That actually mattered. Like President Obama did, I think those are things that could never be undone. She did lose re-election to George W. Bush in 1994, that horrible, terrible year. She got beat, Mario Cuomo got beat, Newt Gingrich and sort of the Christian Right took over the House of Representatives. And in Texas, I mean they just, it was a wipeout. It was a total wipeout.
You were seeing the Christian Coalition begin, and . . .
Well, it’s funny. Yeah, I was. I mean, honestly, I didn’t know. I still remember this sort of apocryphal call that I got from a friend of mine in California. She said, “Have you heard about this new group called the Christian Coalition, because we’re seeing them out here.” And it really wasn’t until after the election that we realized how much money organizing had been done in Texas. And I remember very specifically going to plant gates and handing out literature to union guys who had been the backbone of Mom’s support and how she’d done so much for organized labor and men snarling at me saying “I’m not going to vote for that baby-killer lesbian.” Things like that.
And it wasn’t until later we realized there had been a concerted effort around the country, and certainly in Texas, to not only defeat Mom but to elect people to our State Board of Education. And, honestly, they took over the Republican Party in Texas, and they still have control. And that’s when I realized, instead of just being despondent, that we needed to organize. And that’s how I organized the Texas Freedom Network.
Which is still thriving.
Exactly. In fact, it has grown and blossomed and is on the forefront of fighting for separation of church and state, fighting for public education, and fighting for LGBT rights, reproductive rights. I’m just so incredibly proud of the folks that are in Texas doing that work right now.
Then you went on to found, this is not quite in order, but another group, America Votes. And you write in your book, “Coordinating progressive leaders is like keeping puppies in a basket. Just when they’re all in, someone jumps out.” So how did you do it, and what is your advice on that?
Well, it’s like that because we’re opinionated folks. We don’t follow along as sheep. The reason we started it was because I felt like we had all these different groups doing great work, but none of them were really talking to each other. I think the only way that anything ever works is that people don’t do things for your reasons, they do things for their own reasons. What we were able to show is, and I’ll never forget being in Pennsylvania, that it was smarter in some areas for the labor union folks to be carrying the message and doing door-to-door outreach on voting. The Planned Parenthood folks could actually just go with them and help and support them. Whereas, in the Philly suburbs, where we have a lot of independent women, labor was able to join up with Planned Parenthood and begin to talk to people about issues that matter to them. And I do believe we’ve gotten better, but it’s very frustrating that we haven’t made progress on some fundamental issues of democracy.
They are being targeted. Now as a co-founder myself of a nonprofit with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, I nodded my head all the time when you were writing about nonprofits and talking about what a privilege it is to work for social justice, and I can’t believe they pay you to make trouble. That’s how I feel. But I sympathized also about something that came up with Planned Parenthood and abortion. People would come up to you and say, “Why don’t you change your name?” or “Why don’t you separate out the abortion from the contraceptive?”
I spent a lot of time on this topic, and so for those of you who don’t know much about Planned Parenthood, we just turned 102, so we’ve been around a long, long time. It’s important to put in context, too, that we were born in controversy. People say, “My gosh, Planned Parenthood is so controversial.” I say, “Well, if we aren’t, then we’re not doing our job, right?” Our founder was thrown in jail. As we know, Margaret Sanger and her sister opened up a completely illegal birth control center to hand out pamphlets to women. Even though it was illegal, folks lined up from day one. And it wasn’t until 10 days later that an undercover cop posing as a mother busted Margaret, threw her in jail where she taught all of her fellow inmates about birth control. I like to remind people of that. That is the spirit.
On this whole topic, abortion, it’s important to me that people, that all of us, understand that abortion is healthcare. It’s health care for people who are pregnant, and they need the right to it, and it’s not different. At Planned Parenthood, we are never going to be where you go in one door if you’re getting an abortion or you’re going to the other door for other care.
For us, it is the continuum of reproductive health care. So much has been done to stigmatize and shame people who have had abortions. And one of the most important things I think we’ve been doing over the last decade, led by the reproductive justice movement that was way out in front of this, is for women to actually share their abortion stories. And it is incredibly important to me that we all, that everyone who can, is public about this because it is not uncommon.
I had an abortion. I wrote about it in a women’s magazine. And I can’t tell you the number of women who come up to me and say, “Thank you for sharing your story because I was able to go home and share my story for the first time with my family.” We’ve got to make sure that we keep abortion safe, legal and available. And I know that there are folks in this audience that help do that.
I do write about one person in particular who wanted us to quit providing abortion, but I don’t know if you’re going to ask about him. It’s OK. He’s related to the president. Jared Kushner.
Yeah, well, good. I had gotten a call after the election that Ivanka Trump wanted to meet, wondering how she could help with Planned Parenthood because obviously the president had said he was going to defund us. And I thought, “OK.” I really didn’t want to go, but then I talked my husband into going. I said, “Kirk maybe you would go with me because I just want a witness.”
Was it a very weird meeting?
It was, actually. It was a meeting at one of the golf clubs, a Trump golf club, I guess. Jared Kushner and Ivanka were there. Jared said, “Look, we control everything now. Republicans have the White House. We have the House, we have the Senate. So, if you want to keep your funding, you’re going to have to make a deal with us.” He basically said, “If Planned Parenthood will quit providing abortion, then I will talk to Paul Ryan and maybe we’ll get you even more funding.” And I said, “First of all, that is never going to happen. We are not going to give up. We’re not going to trade away women’s access to abortion for money. That’s not going to happen.” And he said, “I just can imagine a headline in The New York Times that says ‘Planned Parenthood quits providing abortions.’” And I said, “That’s not ever going to be in The New York Times. I’m not going to do that.” And we went back and forth, and Ivanka was very upset that I hadn’t said anything nice about her father because once he said something nice about Planned Parenthood. I said, “I know he did. He said that we did great work because he knew women who’d been helped by Planned Parenthood. And he was going to defund us.” There was really nothing more I could say.
Anyway, we went on about our ways, and I just have to say this because I think it’s important as freethinkers, as people who believe in justice: That was a scary time. I do think it’s important, particularly in these moments when I think everyone is trying to figure out how are we going to make it through. Even though we were threatened in that way, and Paul Ryan said he was going to have a bill on the president’s desk was going to defund Planned Parenthood and get rid of Obamacare by the very beginning. It was a long, hard fight, but I’m just here to say Paul Ryan is in retirement and Planned Parenthood’s doors are still open all across the United States of America.[applause]
You write that one of the things that drew you to Planned Parenthood was that history of brave, troublemaking women. Margaret Sanger, “No gods, no masters” was her motto, and she said she thought women should have a go-to-hell look in their eye, and that they risked their reputations and even their lives to change things. But you also say you have a concern that for the first time in your life you are concerned that you will have had more rights than your daughters, that our daughters are going to lose those rights. And I, as a mother, share that concern. It is a scary, scary time right now.
It really is. Right now, if my daughters lived in Texas, they would have fewer rights than I had when I lived in Texas because abortion is harder to access. Access to Planned Parenthood is much more difficult. It’s not even a future state. I know a lot of folks say, well, now with Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, which I can’t believe those words have just come out of my mouth, because it is so distressing. People say, “Well, with Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, does this mean that Roe is at risk?” And I would say, “100 percent.” That’s why women and other people mobilized so strongly over the last few months.
But Roe already has been undermined. In fact, I was just talking to someone here who is an escort, or a volunteer, at a Planned Parenthood in California, saying a woman from Alabama had just been brought by her grandmother to get abortion services in Pasadena because she couldn’t get them in Alabama anymore. This isn’t like a theoretical, intellectual issue — it’s happening already all across the country.
When you wrote your book, Neil Gorsuch had just been confirmed. Let’s talk a little bit about Planned Parenthood. I know you retired from it, but just to go over all that it does.
The latest research I saw was that one in three women in this country have been to Planned Parenthood at some point in her lifetime, including me. That’s where I got birth control. Right? So, it’s not a kind of a random thing. It’s actually a community health care provider all across the country. We’re in all 50 states, and we provide safe and legal abortion, and proudly do and will. We also provide birth control of all types. We provide STI testing and treatment. We provide for a lot of people, in particular women. We may be their only healthcare providers, so they come for their breast exam and their annual exam. And I’m really proud of the fact that we are also expanding LGBTQ services.
One of the last things I did before leaving: We had spent a lot of years raising resources to expand services in the South because of course health care outcomes and access to reproductive health care is particularly bad in the Deep South. Before I left, I got to cut the ribbon on a brand new health care center in South Carolina that not only is providing safe and legal abortion services, but also providing transgender care in South Carolina. It’s just been really interesting to talk to patients and to talk to providers about the shame and the stigma. And just the downright challenge that exists everywhere for transgender people to actually get life-affirming medical services by someone who knows what they’re doing. And that is extraordinary to me.
A young woman in Virginia said to me, “Going to Planned Parenthood in Richmond was the first time I had a doctor who actually knew more about my health care needs than I did.” And I’m proud that Planned Parenthood is doing more.
And Planned Parenthood also serves many, many low-income women.
Predominantly. I’d say like 75 percent of our patients are at 150 percent of poverty or below. A lot of them are young people. This gets back to the work of the Texas Freedom Network and some of the fights we had under, actually, the Bush administration. But then it got better because we provided sex education to tons and tons of young people. And for a lot of young people, they live in places that you don’t get sex education in your schools. One of the things that just makes my head explode is that we actually got this teen pregnancy prevention program under President Obama and we actually are now at a record low for teenage pregnancy in the United States. And that’s a big thing. Folks always say to me, “Where can we find common ground?” I say, “That’s about as common ground as you get.” And we’re in a lawsuit against the administration. He is now trying to end the teen pregnancy prevention program and give money only to abstinence-only organizations that are not health care providers.
And they are usually religiously based.
One hundred percent. And it doesn’t work. This is just one of the things that really upsets me. There are so many young people, that if they don’t get sex education when they’re in high school, where else are they going to get it? And then they go off. They may leave home, they may go to college, and I just feel like it’s directly related to the issues we have around sexual assault, sexual violence, the fact that we don’t even talk to young people at an early age about what healthy relationships are like, and we are doing an enormous disservice to young people in this country. And it just is very upsetting.
We’ve been on the defensive for so long. I remember when Roe v. Wade was handed down. I was a teenager and I thought that the battle was over. Can you give us your thoughts on how we can counteract this weaponizing of the idea that religious rights give you the right to impose your dogma on other people and even deprive them of civil liberties?
Well, that’s a big task. I do think one is we have to vote. It’s so distressing that we don’t. Even my home state of Texas, we’re not a red state or a blue state. We’re a non-voting state. And it’s just true. And absolutely we have to stand up for the right of people to believe and think and live in whatever way they want to. And I think that was really how we held ourselves at Planned Parenthood. That people needed to know there was a place where you could go, as our tagline says: “Care, no matter what.” That means no matter your beliefs, no matter your income, no matter your immigration status, no matter who you love or where you live. And I just think we need more of that this country.
Obviously, you all know, you are at the forefront of this, that is increasingly what young people in this country want, too. They don’t want to be judged. They don’t want to be shamed. They don’t want to be labeled, and they don’t want anybody using their own religious values to tell them what they can and can’t do.
They don’t want to hate.
That’s right. When did this idea come up that there was one true way, one true religion? Of course, religion was being used to go after women’s rights, to go after LGBTQ rights. It’s happening again more and more, and I’m so grateful for what you all do because the hypocrisy of the evangelical community standing with a president who has thrown in their face every single tenet of what they purport to believe. If there were never a time to really unmask the danger to people of having religion dictate government, this is it.
Well, the Religious Right has totally ceded the high ground. You have just recently retired from Planned Parenthood. You have defined politics as a contest of wills between folks who are satisfied about how things are and those who are passionate about what could be better. I do want to ask what’s in your future. Do you have some plans?
I don’t really know. I did step aside at Planned Parenthood, but I hate the idea of retiring because I’m definitely not retired. I had the best job in the world for 12 years. Being the president of Planned Parenthood, it was the honor of a lifetime. And I could have stayed forever. I loved it, I loved everything about it. But I also think as an organizer and as someone who spent a lot of time and resources to invest in young people and a new generation, it’s important for those of us who have had these awesome opportunities to step aside and make room for other folks. That’s why I don’t want anyone to think I gave up on the fight, because I also believe there’s never been a better and more important time for us to organize as a country. I’ve been running around the country, not only supporting people running for office, but trying to figure out how do we take this moment, this organizing moment, and make it into a permanent movement for equality in the country. And that, to me, is the challenge.
It’s going to take us a long time to get out of the fix we’re in. And I think it requires all of us to think about what we do, how we live our lives, how we build multiracial, multigenerational organizations and coalitions. The exciting thing is I do believe that change is coming. And I think what we are experiencing now in this country is the last gasp of the patriarchy seeing that its time is almost over.