The lifelong activist and former Planned Parenthood president is now helping women and girls get involved in politics with the nonprofit organization Supermajority.

Cecile Richards is no stranger to high-stakes battles. 

She spent her entire life preparing for the pivotal moments when she needed to defend the future of Planned Parenthood, the nonprofit health care organization she led as president for more than a decade. One of the defining moments of her career occurred in 2015, when Richards appeared before a Congressional committee for another in a seemingly endless series of stand-offs over the fate of the organization’s federal funding. 

More than 600 Planned Parenthood affiliated health centers provide services and treatment to more than 2.4 million patients in the US each year. Planned Parenthood offers birth control, condoms, testing for sexually transmitted diseases, cancer screenings, pap smears, and other essential health services on a sliding fee scale for people who might not otherwise be able to afford them. Planned Parenthood also provides abortions, which has been a point of political contention since Roe v. Wade legalized the procedure more than 40 years ago.

“One hundred years ago, when Planned Parenthood was started, everything was illegal,” Richards said. “Now birth control is legal—in fact it’s [covered] under the Affordable Care Act now; you can get it without a copay. Abortion is not only legal, it’s one of the safest medical procedures for women in this country, and as a result, all kinds of things have changed for women. We’re now almost half the workforce. We’re more than half the voters. Everything changed, but it is because people kept fighting for those things.”

Cecile Richards. Photo courtesy of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Even when Planned Parenthood faced opposition from lawmakers, Richards was driven by the desire to keep the clinics’ doors open for patients. Although Richards became the face of the organization after taking the helm in 2006, she had never been featured so prominently as during a 5-hour Congressional hearing in 2015.

That particular hearing was over videos that had been manipulated to make it appear as if Planned Parenthood sold fetal tissue following procedures at its clinics. Republican lawmakers threatened to direct the nonprofit’s funding toward other health care organizations, calling Planned Parenthood a “political advocacy” organization that misused federal dollars. Richards describes the scene in her memoir, Make Trouble—which is now available in a young readers edition—as a 5-hour exercise in dealing with “sneers, interruptions, and plain rudeness.” The congressmen (and they were mostly men) didn’t seem to understand what Planned Parenthood did, or the impact the nonprofit’s clinics have on women who live in their own communities. 

“I was the most prepared person in that in that room, and that mattered, because doing your work, being educated, studying, knowing your subject—it actually did matter, because they didn’t know anything,” Richards said. “I was really scared, and I didn’t know that I could sit there for 5 hours and be peppered with questions on live TV, but I just did it anyway. I found that I could do so much more than I ever thought I could.”

“This is coming from a grown woman, and so I think to all young girls or young people out there, [the message] is: You can do so much more than you even know you’re capable of.”

Following Richards’ testimony, House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz announced that no evidence of financial wrongdoing on the part of Planned Parenthood had been found, and the nonprofit was allowed to keep its federal funding. The televised hearing cemented Richards’ status as a household name, according to The New York Times.

It wasn’t the last time that politicians threatened to gut the mission Richards believes in. In 2017, she rallied again to defend Planned Parenthood’s federal funding, this time in a bitter Congressional fight over the Affordable Care Act. President Donald Trump was determined to overturn President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, which included funding for Planned Parenthood, and Richards wasn’t sure she had the support necessary to win in a Republican-controlled Congress. The fight ended with a dramatic, tie-breaking thumbs-down from Senator John McCain. Again, Planned Parenthood’s future was temporarily secured.

A year later, Richards stepped down as president of Planned Parenthood to found Supermajority, a nonprofit that offers training and resources to women who are frustrated with the status quo and want to get involved in activism.

After a series of seemingly endless fights to protect Planned Parenthood’s federal funding and its mission to offer accessible health care, and now a new venture gearing up for a contentious 2020 election season, I had to ask Richards: Don’t you ever get tired?

“I feel so lucky to be able to do work that might make a difference,” she said. “Most women in this country and around the world, they don’t get to choose what they do. They don’t have the luxury of being an activist.” 

Finding her way

Richards comes by her activism honestly—you could say it was the family business. Her mother, Ann Richards, broke barriers as governor of Texas, while her father, David, was a civil rights attorney. The couple was deeply involved in Texas politics from the time Richards and her three siblings were in diapers, and Richards grew up campaigning for local officials and meeting union leaders and reporters. These experiences formed the foundation for her lifelong career in activism and leadership. 

“You are on this earth to do something, to make a difference, and you shouldn’t wait until everything became clear and it was all revealed,” Richards said. “I think that was sort of the way my parents were, is they just jumped into whatever was happening, whether it was the farm workers’ movement, the women’s movement, the labor movement. We’re here for a reason.”

Richards’ first political act was small, but meaningful: she wore a black armband to school to protest the war in Vietnam. Richards was ordered to the principal’s office, but when school officials tried to call Ann Richards to tell her of her daughter’s behavior, no one was home. After school, Richards recounted the story to her mom, who wasn’t mad—in fact, she was proud.

Richards jumped into activism at her school, starting a club to protest environmental pollution, campaigning against forced pep rally attendance, and rabble-rousing over other issues that were meaningful to a high school student in the ‘70s. The best way to become an activist, she tells teens today, is just to do it.

“Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity or the perfect solution,” Richards said. “I know sometimes, particularly girls, I think we think we have to know everything. We have to have the perfect answer. We have to be completely schooled on all the background. And I think it’s more important to jump in.”

Jumping in has higher stakes in the age of social media, when complete strangers are tearing apart young activists (particularly girls) who take a stand. Climate change activist Greta Thunberg, who was just named Time’s Person of the Year, is routinely and loudly criticized by older men—including the president of the United States—who think she should stick to homework instead of taking to the streets to protest.

For Richards, who worked as a labor organizer and as Nancy Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff prior to joining Planned Parenthood, the poor treatment of young folks concerned about climate change and gun reform is a symptom of a deeper issue.

“I think everyone has the right to disagree on issues, but I think the disregard [for] and the attempts to really diminish and shame young people for being active in this time, that’s distressing for me,” Richards said. “But I think it speaks to a much larger problem of really the lack of, frankly, empathy and in some cases basic humanity that that we’re experiencing right now in the US and around the world.”

Creating a supermajority in 2020

But there’s a backlash to the current administration’s policies and the climate of what Richards calls “hateful rhetoric.” Women are pissed off and they’re rising up: marching, running for office and getting ready for 2020. Richards launched Supermajority earlier this year to answer the call. 

“We just realized that this was a moment where women, young women, women of all ages and backgrounds, were raising their hands and saying, ‘Now what are we supposed to do?’” Richards said.

The nonprofit has a goal of mobilizing 2 million women by the end of 2020. And while Supermajority doesn’t train women who want to run for office (or endorse any candidates), Richards said the wave of women who have run for office (and won) in the last three years should inspire the next generation of activists. This wave included some long shots, such as Lauren Underwood, a Democratic representative from Illinois elected in 2018 who beat four-term Republican Randy Hultgren in a district Trump won in 2016.  

“Once you meet Lauren or hear her, you want to run for Congress too,” Richards said. “She makes it sounds so fun and exciting and important. I hope that what young women are seeing is not only that you can do it, but it could be a great life for you. I think that part of what we want to do with Supermajority is make sure that we are actually lifting up these stories every day and shining a light on it so that young women could be inspired and say, ‘Well, if Lauren Underwood could do that, I can too.’”

What’s next?

Planned Parenthood celebrated 100 years of providing healthcare to women in 2017, just before Richards stepped down. But Richards is looking forward to another centennial: the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote.

“It’s really important that people know that women of color did not get that right, and it took decades more for all women to have the right to vote,” Richards said. “But how awesome would it be, on the 100th anniversary of women beginning to get the right to vote in this country, to have the largest turnout of women ever in a presidential election? I think we could do that.”

It’s an anniversary that could also be marked with the election of the first female president. Richards hasn’t completely ruled out running for office herself. 

“I thought about it before, but I’ve always found something that I really wanted to do more,” she said. “Right now for me that’s Supermajority, and it’s organizing women. I’ve been very lucky in my life that I’ve always gotten to do work that felt meaningful for me, and that’s bringing people together and building power for people who haven’t had it. That’s our goal at Supermajority. At least for the meantime, I’m happy. But I also try to tell women, ‘Never say never, because you might just change your mind.’”

Caitlin McGarry is a Los Angeles-based journalist who specializes in consumer technology as a senior writer for Tom’s Guide. When she’s not writing or testing out the latest gadgets, you can find her running or hiking the trails of L.A. and seeking out the finest tacos California has to offer. Her bylines have also appeared in the Las Vegas Review-Journal and Macworld.

Elisa Macellari is a Thai-Italian illustrator and graphic designer based in Milan. She specializes in children’s illustration and editorial illustration. Elisa likes colorful things, wild animals, jungle, mysterious creatures, strange objects and tom yum soup. Her illustrations have been exhibited in Italy and abroad.