On inclusion and optimism: Cecile Richards speaks to the Phil

The former President of Planned Parenthood spoke to the Phil on Tuesday about activism, opposition and the “unique moment” we’re in

In celebration of International Women’s Week, the Phil awarded Cecile Richards the Gold Medal of Honorary Patronage. Richards spoke to a crowd brought together by their shared belief in the work Richards has done and continues to do surrounding pro-choice activism and the progressive movement in the United States. Sorcha Ryder, President of the Phil, chaired the discussion which was followed by a Q&A with the audience.

Richards has had an extraordinary career dedicated to progressive activism and positive change. She served as the President of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and President of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund from 2006 to 2018, and has taken on a range of other political roles such as Deputy Chief of Staff for Nancy Pelosi. In addition, Richards was the founder of the Texas Freedom Network and President of America Votes, an organisation which aims to “to coordinate and promote progressive issues”. In 2018, Richards released Make Trouble: Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead, which she described as not just a memoir, but a “call to action”.

Establishing her intersectional outlook and historical awareness from the offset, Richards emphasised the “unique moment” the United States is currently in, with 2020 marking 100 years of women’s suffrage, “although of course, it was only white women, it took several decades for women of colour to be granted a franchise.  Richards sees this milestone as a perfect opportunity to review what “we’ve been able to do in 100 years,” as women are “almost half the workforce, more than half of college students…women have, despite lack of political representation, moved into every field”.

Growing up in Dallas, Richards recalled how “from an early age I saw what it was like to have parents who challenged everything”. She then referenced an iconic quote by her mother, Ann Richards: “The law in Texas was that idiots, imbeciles, the insane and women could not vote. And, less than one generation later, I was the governor of Texas. Now that’ll tell you that we have progressed.”

Discussing the apparent paradox of Planned Parenthood being defunded when its approval rating was at its highest, Richards was optimistic. She views the congressional hearings as an opportunity to inform, she noted that they are “not really fact-finding missions” but allowed for more than five hours of education with an audience. This aligns with a recurring sentiment from Richards regarding her advice to activists: turn challenges into opportunities.

Addressing her decision to step away from Planned Parenthood in 2018, Richards articulated the importance of investing in a “new generation of leadership”.  While she could have stayed, this remained a priority, and in turn, “encouraged other folks to make space”. While the 2016 Presidential election, a catastrophe for progressives nationwide, made it harder to leave, Richards is content with her decision: “I’ll always be a supporter of Planned Parenthood.”

Richards further reflected her politics of inclusion and progression by underlining the importance of listening to those with opposing convictions: “Don’t assume anything, listen.” This was partially inspired by her experience with meeting groups such as Women for Trump, which rather than discouraging her, emboldened her belief in feminist activism, as “most women, they have the same issues”. In addition, Richards pointed out how Elizabeth Warren’s recent proposal surrounding childcare got “almost zero attention” in the media, epitomising the American media’s failure to reflect issues women care about proportionately, and the resulting stifling of a cross-party conversation.

Richards’ advice for students involved a maxim she picked up from Nancy Pelosi: “Just say yes, what’s the worst that could happen?” She emphasised the value of failure as an opportunity for learning, followed by a direct address to the women in the audience: “You can do this.” When Ryder inquired about the most rewarding aspect of her career, Richards responded with a memory of her mother’s belief that “there’s nothing better than having a job where someone turns to you and says ‘Thank you for making my life better’ – that’s worth everything.”

Richards described the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in October as her “lowest moment” in the last two years. Acknowledging the dismal outcome it posed for “folks who care about not just reproductive rights, but voting rights” and other progressive issues, she responds practically: “We can’t rely on the Supreme Court to protect us, now it’s down to the States.” Another notedly dismal moment was Trump’s implementation of a gag rule surrounding family planning, essentially making access to reproductive healthcare extremely difficult. Again asserting her intersectionality, Richards points out how “these laws have the worst effect on women of low incomes, women of colour, women in rural areas…”.

In spite of these events, Richards remains hopeful. She sees the several recent close races for figures such as Stacey Abrams and Beto O’Rourke as signs of a rapidly expanding and active electorate. She touched on the impact of the campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment to American progressives: “Maybe it was the emotional thought that women would actually go to such lengths to travel home to vote, it almost felt like we were all a part of it.”

When asked if there’s anything in particular she is currently working toward, Richards expressed that she can’t say much, however she did reveal that she is involved in “launching a new women’s organisation in April”, working with Ai-jen Poo, Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and Alicia Garza, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, focused on taking advantage of the current political moment and working out how to “pull” women with common beliefs together to help make positive change.

Richards finished the session with an energising message for students interested in political activism: “The most powerful political leadership in the world isn’t coming from halls of Congress or Capitols, it’s coming from women at the grassroots. If we could just begin to know our power and feel it together across borders, I think we will change this next century.”

Grace Farrell

Grace Farrell is the current Arts and Culture Editor of Trinity News.