♪ Activating change is a way of life.
People who do it professionally will tell you it's incremental, loaded with disappointments, and occasionally a real thrill.
Cecile Richards is decidedly activated, and she has been since she refused to say the Lord's Prayer in grade school.
Since then, she's lobbied for janitors and garment workers, helped her mother get elected as the Governor of Texas, and took a turn as the deputy chief of staff for Nancy Pelosi.
She's best known for her 12-year run as the president of the health services nonprofit Planned Parenthood.
I'm Kelly Corrigan.
This is "Tell Me More," and here is my conversation with strategist, Texan-turned-New Yorker, O.G.
influencer, and tireless troublemaker Cecile Richards.
♪ OK, so it's seventh grade in Austin, Texas, and a young Cecile Richards is getting dressed to go to school, and you made a very deliberate fashion choice.
The night before, I carefully cut out of black felt-- I mean, just, like, I remember it like it was yesterday-- a black armband.
I had my little safety pin.
It was perfect.
I was wearing it to school because I had heard from some other friends at another school that there was gonna be a protest against the Vietnam War.
I was new to this school-- we had just moved to town-- but I got on the school bus and then realized there was no other kids with black armbands on, and I get to school and was walking to class, and the principal-- who, of course, I had never met-- "Chk.
Come on in here," brings me to the principal's office, and he says-- or to his office.
He says, "Does your mother know what you're doing?"
referring to my black armband, and I said, "I'm pretty sure she does," but he tried to call her at home, I guess, to, you know, turn me in, and it was his good fortune that Ann Richards was not at home that day because that would've been a tough call, but I'll never forget it because it was like just standing up for something got me the attention of the principal for the whole school, and I guess I just got hooked.
That was it, you know, and I thought, "You can make a difference."
You were also a kid who washed out the dog food cans.
Earth Day had never even been invented.
Environmentalism was, like, a whole new idea.
Me and some other girls in my class decided we were gonna start a recycling club, which--recycling didn't exist, either, and so I spent my time washing out our dog's cans, and my dad thought I was completely, you know, out of my mind.
He said, "This is never gonna catch on, this recycling thing," and that was the beginning of activism.
That was like, "OK. You can actually do a little piece," and we started-- I think it was the worst acronym ever for it-- it was Youth Against Pollution, which is YAP, obviously, but it was the first group I ever started, and--I don't know-- it kind of caught on.
And your father was a civil rights attorney?
Still is, actually, still alive and lives in Austin.
He just filed suit against the lieutenant governor.
I mean, he is an unrepentant activist and Progressive.
That was our family.
The dinner table was not where you ate dinner.
It was where you organized for whatever campaign they were working on.
It was kind of a magical childhood.
It was not like other kids' growing up, I think, in Texas, but we all had purpose, right?
There was, like, a reason we were doing the things we were doing.
When you went to Brown, you got to know a janitor named Eddie.
I went away to school.
I was totally a fish out of water, right?
Here I was, this kid from Texas in Rhode Island at this fancy, Ivy League school, and the janitors-- one of whom in my building, Eddie-- went on strike against the university for better pay, and so I got involved in supporting the strike for the janitors, and then, frankly, I spent the rest of my time at Brown as a hellraiser.
That was kind of-- That became part of my education, I mean, I guess, a big part of my education.
It was interesting.
It was the first time I'd kind of on my own and had to figure out how do you navigate an institution where the values that they're espousing aren't necessarily the values they're living every day, and so that--no.
I mean, it was that strike, probably, that made me when I left college become a union organizer in Texas.
Was it garment workers that you went to help next?
When I left Brown, I moved to Guatemala, lived with a family, learned Spanish, and then I started working on the border with garment workers.
I kind of bounced around, and I eventually moved to New Orleans and worked with a bunch of people to organize hotel workers, and it changed my life.
It completely changed how I think about work and, frankly, the privilege I have for getting to do the jobs that I have had in my lifetime.
Very few people get to choose what they do for a living.
Well, that goes to this interesting thing, which is that we don't mix that much, like, by class.
Part of, I think, our political problems in this country is, we really don't walk in other people's shoes.
We don't know what they're going through.
I spent a lot of time organizing immigrants who came from Latin America who literally crossed hundreds of miles, like, risked their lives to get to Los Angeles to become a janitor and were still willing to risk their job to go on strike to actually get a better wage, and, like, that's courage.
When you look back on all the activism that has made up your decades, what is your happiest achievement that maybe gives you hope to stay in the fight?
If you're fighting for things-- social change, progressive change-- you lose more than you win, but I guess one example was the fight we made during President Obama's tenure to get birth control covered under the Affordable Care Act, and that sounds like very-- Maybe it even sounds small, but it was, like, a radical-- it was really hard to get done, and it was-- I mean, I'll just never forget that happening, and it wasn't just because of what we did when I was at Planned Parenthood.
It was, like, decades of people, you know, I mean, back in the Griswold years, like, fighting even to get birth control to be legal.
I remember the day.
I was sitting in the Planned Parenthood office, and President Obama called, and he said, "Cecile, I just wanted you to know "I'm about to announce at the White House "that from now on, birth control "will get covered by all insurance plans at no cost for all people," and I felt so honored to be the person who got the call, right, but, you know, obviously, it was millions of people that had made that happen.
A lot of time, people think, "OK. What's the one thing I can do to make everything better?"
I know people feel that way right now about a lot of issues, and it's never one thing.
It's, like, all these things that happen, you know, and I love that because, to me, that's very empowering.
It's because the women who showed up at town hall meetings.
It's because people who elected folks.
It's because people who ran for office.
It's because people who were in office fought, but all of these things had to happen for this big piece of change to take place.
But one of the things that made it possible to get birth control covered-- Wasn't Viagra related in some way?
Once they all started covering Viagra, it was sort of like, "This is ridiculous, right?
"You're covering Viagra.
You're not covering birth control," but, I have to say, I mean, I look at some of the things happening today, and the hypocrisy is so profound.
The same states that, you know, are banning abortion won't pay for prenatal care, won't pay for new mothers' health care.
I would be at Planned Parenthood, and folks would go, "Can't you just explain "to members of Congress that investing "in Planned Parenthood actually helps prevent unintended pregnancy?"
and it was hard to explain to people that actually logic is, like, the last thing that is influential when you're lobbying Congress.
Right, and what does work?
Because your mom had a line-- "People don't make changes "because of your beliefs.
They make changes because of their own beliefs."
Well, yes, or, to put a finer point on it, Mom always said, "People don't do things for your reasons.
They do things for their reasons."
I mean, to me, that's, like, sort of the number-one political lesson to learn, which is, "What is motivating this other person?"
and I learned this working for Nancy Pelosi in Congress, is that all those folks, you can have the biggest, baddest lobbyists in Washington, D.C. What they really care about is what are folks back home saying, and if you can't actually mobilize people back in their district to say they care, it's not gonna matter.
After the Women's March when there was this huge fight over defunding Planned Parenthood, all the Women's March folks, we just then deployed to town hall meetings, and you couldn't hold a congressional town hall meeting without women in pink hats and signs just going after them, but that was because people didn't want to hear from people back home, and women were not gonna stand by while Planned Parenthood was defunded.
That's what real organizing and real political power is about.
It's about when people care enough back home to speak up, to show up, to vote.
Are you encouraged at all by some moves in corporate America to take a stand on some issues?
I mean, I think it's not enough alone, but it's really an important element, and, look, you know, we can't build an economy in this country, rebuild it after COVID, or sort of move it in this next century without women, and you can't treat pregnancy as a problem and maternity care as, you know, a deficit if you're gonna have women work for you.
It's just not possible.
Or if you want, like, an ongoing species, like, this is how we continue, folks.
Well, that is kind of how we all got here.
That's what I try to remind people in Congress.
It's like, this isn't just a fluke.
It's actually kind of the whole way we're all around, but I do think that element of understanding the important value of making it possible for women to participate in the workforce, we haven't gone near far enough.
Affordable child care is very hard to find.
Obviously, we have no paid family leave consistently across the country.
Which is very odd in developed nations.
We're the only one.
We're the only one that doesn't have any policy.
The barriers for women's participation in the workforce are still really high, and particularly women with lower incomes, women who are working minimum wage jobs, they have no safety net, and their decisions about rearing a family, raising a family, whether or not to have a family often are economic decisions, and this country doesn't make it any easier.
Do you have a theory about why the United States is different from so many developed nations when it comes to paid family leave?
One big reason is because we're not represented where policy decisions are being made, whether it's in corporate America or whether it's in elected office.
And in those countries, there's better representation.
Well, there's better representation, largely politically, yes.
I'll never forget when we had this wave of women come into Congress, actually a lot of women who were inspired by Hillary's race and angered by her loss, and so we just had this, like, flood of, like, I mean, thousands of women raising their hand to run for office.
That representation, at least for the Democrats in Congress, really changed-- more women, more people of color, more people from different backgrounds, but I remember being in the basement in one of these Capitol offices where this new group of women were there and some of the women who'd been there a long time, and they said-- You know, they were talking about their agenda, and they said, "Look.
"The men in Congress agree with us "on things like paid family leave "and child care and all this, "but when it comes to getting the money, "it's roads, it's bridges, it's, you know, everything but," and it was really-- I mean, for me, it was a great realization, which is, like, everyone talks the talk, but at the end of the day, you need people who are gonna, like, lay their body down and say, "This is what we got to have," and I think more women in office, it just changes the conversation.
We have something at "Tell Me More"-- it's called Plus One-- where we ask each guest to shout-out somebody who's been just sort of instrumental in your thinking or your well-being or the continuation of your work.
Who is your Plus One?
I think I'd say Dr. George Tiller.
He was a doctor in Kansas who was an abortion provider and a really courageous man, and his motto was, "Trust women."
He just was a very humble man, and he took care of women who had no one to take care of them, and, you know, he was murdered by an anti-abortion person who's now in jail.
He had to wear, like, a bulletproof vest to, you know, go to work, and, of course, he was shot in his church because he was a layperson in his church, and they came and shot him in church, but I went to George's funeral, and we'd already heard there was, like, a lot of concern because there were gonna be protests, and so we're in this car.
We start coming over the hill, and I see all these big motorcycles with flags on them, and I think, "Oh, my God," you know?
"We didn't even get here early enough.
This is gonna be terrible," and we get over the crest and get to the church, and I realized it's actually the Patriot Guard who's there to protect George because he was a veteran and they ride to protect fellow veterans at their funerals, and it was the most inspiring funeral service, I guess, I've ever been to.
He was an amazing man and was so courageous, never gave up, so anyway, George Tiller, that's-- That's your Plus One.
That's my Plus One, yep.
♪ So people tend to say that we've, like, gone back to a time before Roe, but that's not really quite true, is it?
Well, obviously, we've lost this right that we had for nearly 50 years, but a lot of things have changed.
One, medication abortion exists now, which did not exist before Roe.
In fact, a majority of abortions in this country, people use medication abortion.
Abortion's incredibly safe.
Like, it's actually safer than getting your wisdom teeth out, and most people who have abortions already have a child.
All of these things are, like, I think, important factors for people to understand, that abortion isn't gonna go away.
It's just going to, unfortunately, in many states be illegal.
The other thing that changes, we have the Internet, and so you can actually go online now and find out how to get medication abortion, whether in this country or even from a foreign country, and that is something that isn't gonna change.
There's going to be enormous harm and cruelty, and I think some of the stories coming out are just heartbreaking about what women are facing... And girls.
and girls, but we also have more tools than we had before, and I think a lot of folks are figuring that out.
Where were you the day that it was overturned, and what'd you do?
I was in New York.
I had literally just spoken to women who ran abortion funds in Texas the night before, and they said, "You know, when this decision comes down, "if it comes down the way we think it will, we're gonna have to all shut down," so it wasn't only that abortion was illegal.
Giving any woman information was also illegal because in Texas, you know, it's a criminal offense to aid and abed anyone to get access, even to information, so I feel like that day, I already knew that things in Texas-- it was literally gonna be a blackout, and that's what it really has become in Texas.
It's, like, an information-free zone.
In all the time that you were running Planned Parenthood, there were multiple cases where a doctor would be shot, as George Tiller was.
Did you fear for your safety?
I really didn't in that there was just no way to live, right, and I also knew that the folks who really wanted to harm people really wanted to harm our doctors and our clinicians, so we took security and safety of our patients and our health care providers-- That was the number-one goal at Planned Parenthood, was keep everybody safe.
For every person who wrote me a nasty letter or accosted me, there were 99 people who came up and said, "Thank God for what Planned Parenthood does," and, "Planned Parenthood saved my life," so I don't want people to get a misunderstanding of just how profound the organization has been in the lives of millions and millions of people and continues to be.
♪ Your mom was a divorced, alcoholic, Progressive woman, and she was elected to the Governor of Texas...
It's still a miracle.
Ha ha ha!
and do you think that that gives you a sense of possibility that maybe the average Joe wouldn't have, like, to watch that happen?
She almost didn't make it, right, I mean, and she defied all the sort of conventional expectations not just because Ann Richards was this sort of feisty, you know, "tell it like it is" whatever.
She was all that, but it was because there were thousands and thousands of people who were organizing at the grassroots level to make it happen, right, who were knocking on doors and going to PTA meetings and registering voters, and it really was this incredible band of people who'd been left out of politics, honestly, probably never really been involved in politics.
It was farm workers and union folks and teachers, LGBTQ folks who really were not, you know, openly serving in government, and they came together and sort of made this amazing thing happen.
She kept saying, "You know, if I win, "we're gonna all march down Congress Avenue for the people of Texas," and folks showed up, right?
That's what I believe in.
I believe in grassroots democracy.
I just think that is how change happens.
It's how people get engaged and they begin to see the possibilities.
That's what happens as people go, "Why not me?
That could be me."
For all the things that you're trying to get done in the world, what are the pros and cons to Cecile Richards for President?
Oh, the-- Oh, my God.
I've thought about running or office before, and I've always kind of gone back to the side of we need people that are, like, holding everybody accountable that's in office and actually helping support the good folks that are in, and that's kind of been my-- That's just been my way.
I mean, maybe I could've made more of a difference being in office, but you also kind of have to find your joy, and, for me, the joy is seeing people come together and make change and be inspired to do more than any one individual can do on their own.
You know, people say, like, you know, "Why do you still feel encouraged?"
It's because, like, I just met this seventh grader in Austin, Texas, who organized against the abortion ban.
I guess maybe I do kind of see myself in her.
Here she is, and she texted me the other day when the decision came down.
She says, "Now we've really got to get organized, and we've got to be loud," and I'm just like, "Yes, Vienna.
I just was back in Austin for a rally for gun reform, and there I look up on the stage, and she's got her little box.
She's standing up there.
She's rallying the troops.
I was like, "That's who I want to invest in."
That's hat gives me hope, is that young people, we invest in them, they're gonna change this country.
They're gonna change the world.
That's always how it's happened.
Sometimes I think about when I'm spoken to "as a woman" and like, "Women want this," and, "Women want that," I think that that is sort of that flawed, monolithic thinking.
Like, my mom's a woman, too.
We've never voted for the same person, so how do we think about women in a more nuanced way?
After the 2016 election, it seemed like there were a lot of people in certain circles saying, "Why do women vote against their own interests?"
and I just said, "Well, have you spoken to them?"
I think if you really want to understand what women's anxieties, hopes, and dreams but also their fears are, you have to get back on the ground and actually talk to women.
I spent a lot of time after the election in organizing with other women to go around the country and actually just hold listening sessions.
I guess that, to me, why those early, union-organizing days are so important, you learn so much by listening to other people because people will tell you where they're coming from, and to be a good organizer, you have to be a good listener.
It's the most important thing you can do.
I mean, I remember thinking my mom must be pro-life.
She goes to church every day as a Catholic, and she said, "Well, I'm personally pro-life-- "I don't plan on having an abortion-- "but I'm also small government, "and I think it's weird that the government would have an opinion on that."
I mean, this is something I learned poignantly at Planned Parenthood, which is, when you put these labels on people, it completely ends the conversation, right, because "pro-life" or "pro-choice" or whatever because, in fact, most people don't think this is a political issue, and what we found and why we quit using those labels at all was that so many people actually kind of probably may have been like your mom, which is, they knew what they felt like their own position would be for them about pregnancy, but they also definitely did not feel like they could make that decision for every other woman in this country, and it's why, honestly, we won ballot initiatives in South Dakota and Mississippi and states where you think this is never going to be possible, but people respected the fact that women, families, couples, they had to make their own decisions, and making a decision about pregnancy is one of the most personal and probably important decisions you'll make in your lifetime.
Two things that I've heard you say before is that you've led your life by doing the next right thing and starting before you're ready.
I wondered if you could give a little encouragement to the people on the sidelines who want to step in.
It's hard to know what to do.
I mean, the number-one thing people, like, literally will stop me on the subway and go, "What am I supposed to do?"
and which is why I eventually wrote a book, because I was like, "OK.
I just got to go write the book."
I can't tell everyone what to do.
I just think because we have this-- Particularly as women, we think we're supposed to fix everything, and so suddenly, we're now, "Oh, my God, how are we gonna fix the country?
How are we gonna fix all this that's happening?"
and we don't, and I just try to tell people that.
"You just have to do more than you're doing now and find something."
It doesn't matter.
Maybe you want to run for office, but that's OK if you don't, but you could volunteer on a campaign.
You could join an organization.
You could start a club.
It's certainly more rewarding that yelling at the television set or just, you know, completely giving up.
Just do something else.
Do something more, and it doesn't have to be the perfect thing.
My friend Bob Kafka says-- He's a disability rights activist.
He was like-- His motto is, "We're gonna do it, even if it's wrong," which I think is very liberating because, like, maybe it's not the exact right thing, but it's gonna be more than what you're doing now.
♪ All right.
Are you ready for the speed round?
Bette Midler... Uh-huh.
Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, Texas.
I was in junior high, and she was on her "Bathhouse" tour, and she was risque and outrageous.
It was amazing.
If your high school did superlatives, what would you have been most likely to become?
What do you wish you had more time to do?
I really want to learn how to sail.
I don't have a boat.
I don't live by the water, but it's my dream, so maybe--I don't know-- maybe that'll be my next career.
If your mother wrote a book about you, what would it be called?
It would be called "I Can't Believe You're Going to Wear That."
Ha ha ha!
If you could say 4 words to anyone, who would you address, and what would you say?
Really only two words.
I'd say, "Trust women," and I'd say that to every politician who's in elective office.
What's your go-to mantra for hard times?
My mom used to always say, "what's the worst thing that could happen?"
although sometimes I do think the worst thing has happened, but she was a big believer.
It's like if you could figure out what the worst thing could happen and get over that, you just keep going.
Hey, thank you, OK?
You're the best.
You're the best.
It was so fun.
Thanks a lot.
If you loved this conversation, go to pbs.org/kelly for more like it-- Dolores Huerta, Bryan Stevenson, Ai-jen Poo-- and for all of our episodes in audio only, go to my podcast-- "Kelly Corrigan Wonders."
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