Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards on how she brought her activist background to the organization, and why she considers herself a "troublemaker."
Cecile Richards has never shied away from controversy. Back in seventh grade, she got sent to the principal's office for protesting the Vietnam War. More recently, as president of Planned Parenthood, she defended the organization in a heated 2015 congressional hearing.
For Richards, it's all worth it to be able to do the work she loves.
"You can go a lot of places or make a lot of money, but there's nothing quite like having a job where people actually say to you, 'Thanks for making my life better,'" she told us on an episode of Business Insider's podcast "Success! How I Did It."
Richards' parents were liberal activists in the conservative state of Texas — a state that Richards' mother, Governor Ann Richards, led in the early 1990s.
It was Ann who inspired her to take the job as Planned Parenthood president in 2006, a job she's leaving this year.
Planned Parenthood is a healthcare provider that's partially funded by the government. It offers a long list of services, including cancer screenings and STI treatment. It also provides abortions and birth control, which has made it one of the most controversial institutions in the US.
She has a new memoir called "Make Trouble." I started our conversation by asking her where the title came from.
Listen to the full episode here:
The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
Cecile Richards: Well I think it's because, I think trouble-making has actually led to a lot of the progress we've made in this country. You know, I think about even a hundred years ago, when Planned Parenthood started, women couldn't even vote, right? We didn't have the right to anything. And it really was because people made trouble and women went to jail and they challenged the laws and defied convention that women made progress. And so, I think it's as my friend Congressman John Lewis would say, it's about making good trouble. And I think when you do, and really stand up for things you believe, that's how we make progress.
Richard Feloni: Yeah, and you've never been afraid to be polarizing. Like, for example, feminist icon Gloria Steinem, she's called you, quote, "the best teacher on Earth — someone you trust." Then you have the National Review's editor, Rich Lowry, saying "a skilled defender of the indefensible." How have you dealt with such extreme perceptions of yourself?
Richards: Well, I think if you meet me, that's not really what I'm like and I'm like everyone else. I mean, I don't want to intentionally cause trouble — I really just want to make sure that we stand up for the values that we believe in.
And I've had really good fortune. I've led a very privileged life. You know, I've gotten to choose the work I do and I hope every job I've had has been a little bit about trying to push the ball forward, particularly for folks who may not have the same opportunities that I've had. Sometimes that's women, sometimes that's working people, sometimes that's immigrants. And, as my mom said, you can go a lot of places, you can be successful or make a lot of money, but there's nothing quite like having a job where people actually say to you, "Thanks for making my life better." And I've been real privileged to do that.
Feloni: So is that what drives you? Hearing from those people?
Richards: Well it really does, I think, in the sense of, like, why are we on this Earth? And, you know, I've worked with a lot of people who didn't have any choice in what they did. I worked with women who were nurses and workers, women who worked in hotels, janitors who basically cleaned buildings, worked two jobs just to support their family. And, it really taught me a lot about how much opportunity I had to do anything I wanted to with my life. And so, when you do have that chance, I think it's on all of us to make the decisions about how we want to use our time on this Earth.
Feloni: Yeah. So it's like a really fundamental drive, like, what are we even here for? Let's do something about it.
Richards: Yeah and, you know, it's funny when I started my first nonprofit, this little dinky nonprofit in Texas, and I had no idea what I was doing, but I just —
Feloni: When was that?
Richards: Oh, my God, that was years ago, although it's now been operating for decades. So, it was right after my mom lost her re-election. And I just felt like, wow, someone needed to do something about public education and standing up for some basic civil liberties. I really didn't know what I was doing, but I did it anyway.
And, it was funny, during the time older men would come and say, "Can I just come volunteer with you guys?" Because, I think they were at a point in their life where they thought, "Wow what is it all about?"
And so I've always kind of tried to keep that in mind. This is the only life you have, so you've got to make the most of it.
Feloni: And did you have this, like this kind of streak in you, when you were a kid?
Richards: Well my parents, of course, were complete troublemakers. We lived in Dallas, Texas, and it was pretty conservative and my parents were very liberal. My dad was a civil rights lawyer and he was actually defending conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War. My mother, she was just a rabble-rouser. I mean, she was a housewife but she was fighting for the farm workers and she was, when the women's movement came to town, she just jumped head first. And, so I think as a kid, and I have siblings, all of just saw our parents and saw politics as — it wasn't drudgery or it wasn't dirty; it was actually where all the action was. And so I think it was logical that I chose this path.
Feloni: Yeah, and even like, as you were saying, growing up in Dallas, controversy wasn't a problem. It was something you were comfortable with, right?
Richards: Well, it was something you had to do. I mean, again, that was a time in which everything was segregated. The schools were segregated. The pools were segregated. I mean, people of color in Dallas had very few options. And, I know, we've made progress, but not enough. And women — I mean, none of the women and none of the moms I knew had the chance to work outside the home. So there's just a lot of things where people had to really fight to say, "You know what? We need more opportunity." And, of course, my mom began to take her own path, and finally kinda left that life as a housewife, which was rewarding but not enough for her. And eventually ran for office herself.
Feloni: Yeah, so your mom, governor Ann Richards, served as governor from '91 to '95. And, when you got to see this transformation throughout your childhood of her ascent through politics, what was that like, even when you started to join her as a kid with this activism?
Richards: Well, it was kind of amazing and I think, one of the things I learned from it is that no one ever thought she could do what she thought she could do. I mean, there would never have been a woman elected in her own right in Texas as governor. And my mother was like completely the wrong profile. I mean she was a liberal, she was divorced, she was a recovering alcoholic and we never had a poll showing that she could win. And the fact is, she just did it anyway because she thought it needed doing.
And I think like a lot of women who run for office or maybe get into business, they look at who's in the job and think, "Well, I think I can do a better job." And that really was what motivated her. And, of course, we did win that election and what we're seeing today is women winning elections that no one thinks they can win. So I think it's a lesson for us to, you know — don't ever let your practicality step on your idealism, or what you really think you need to do and want to do. Because that's the only way things happen.
Feloni: And even before that, when you were a teenager, for example, were you like joining her in her political activism?
Richards: Well, you know what, it's interesting, I went away to college. I kind of escaped Texas. I never lived outside of the state and I went pretty much as far as you can go. I went to Rhode Island and —
Feloni: To Brown?
Richards: To Brown, and that was the first time my mother had run for anything. She was running for county commissioner. And so it was all very different. And then, of course, whenever she ran for something else we'd all come home and help her out. And so it was really very late, you know, in my life, that she became this feminist icon. Before she had just been Mom. I think it's another lesson that I hope that she showed and that women are seeing, which is it's never too late to have a great life or to do what you're destined to do.
Feloni: Yeah. And when you were at Brown, sophomore year, you dropped out actually, right?
Richards: I did, yeah.
Feloni: Why'd you make that decision?
Richards: There was a labor strike, actually. The janitors at Brown went on strike and I had never been involved in anything like that but I got very deeply involved, because my own janitor, who had been cleaning our dormitory, was now out on the picket line and I was somewhat disillusioned. I thought, "Wow, are these the values of my university?" I think I probably just needed to get out and get my head clear.
So I went to Washington and worked for a nonprofit. And then I eventually came back to Brown, and made a lot of trouble, but also got my degree. But it was a really great education. I think it was, for me, a lot of the education we get in life is not necessarily what is being taught in the classroom, it's the experiences we get outside of that and that was absolutely true at Brown.
Feloni: What was it like returning to Brown? How was it different after you had this experience?
Richards: I think one is I just had the confidence to question authority and stand up for the things I believed in. I got very involved in the divestment movement. It seems like ancient history now — but it's relevant because of what young people are doing on campus now — but one of the international movements to support folks in South Africa that were trying to overthrow the apartheid government, or at least change and have a democracy, was to get universities to divest their holdings in South Africa. And believe me, at the time people said students were crazy, it would never happen, it was disruptive, you know, fill in the blank. And we did it anyway. And it was really a great experience. I learned so much. I learned a lot about Africa, I learned a lot about organizing, and, eventually, Brown did divest and then several universities divested. I've learned, as others have, just how critical that global movement was. And years later, in an interesting twist of fate, they gave Nelson Mandela an honorary degree at Brown.
Feloni: When do you think you first realized that you have to not let things get you down, that you have to take a long-term perspective?
Richards: Well, probably, an unsuccessful thing I did at Brown, I was involved in the anti-nuclear movement to try to keep the Seabrook nuclear plant from being built and I think it's now been operating for decades. So sometimes you just lose and you just have to keep going on.
When I left Brown — probably an unlikely path for a Brown graduate — I became a union organizer. I worked for garment workers in the southern United States and in Texas and along the Rio Grande border. And I realized this was going to be a long haul. These are women who had been working at minimum wage for decades, you know. And, to make a change in their life was going to take a long, long time. It helped me be a tad more patient than I was in college, realizing that this is work that you have to be committed to for your life, and so I have been.
Feloni: When you were offered the role at Planned Parenthood in 2006, you called your mom for some advice. What was that call like?
Richards: Well the truth was — and I think this is relevant for women who are trying to think about what to do next — I didn't think I was skilled enough to take the job. I mean, I had run smaller nonprofits, but I had never raised that much money, been responsible for a huge national organization with this almost hundred-year history, and so I was afraid of failing. And so I called my mom and she said, you know, "Get over yourself. You never know unless you try and the things you really regret in life are the chances that you didn't take." And so I went for the job interview. And then, lo and behold, you know 12 years later I've had the honor or being the president of Planned Parenthood and really having a window into some of the most important work happening for women in the country.
Feloni: I'm sure that she was always a go-to person for advice, right?
Richards: Well, and she had a lot of advice. Yes.
Feloni: Even if you didn't want it.
Richards: That was something everyone would agree on! Yes.
Feloni: What do you think maybe is the single best piece of advice that she gave you in your life?
Richards: She spent a lot of years just doing what society expected her. She was just to raise kids, be a perfect wife, throw the perfect dinner party, and she did that for several years. And it wasn't until she had the chance to break out and do what she wanted to do for her — I think she was always regretful that she, you know, missed some time. You know, she let social convention get in the way. So her best advice was, "This is the only life you have, so do it." And whatever it is, never turn down a new opportunity. And, you know, she used to say when I was worried about taking a new job — or to other women who would say, "You know, I'm not sure if I'm qualified" — she said, "Look. What's the worst thing that could happen?" And I think that's really good advice when you're thinking about starting a new business or changing jobs. It's just, "what's the worst thing that can happen," because usually, once you can imagine that, it's not that bad.
Feloni: And so what ultimately drew you to the Planned Parenthood job?
Richards: Well, like a lot of women — like one in five women in the country — I had been a Planned Parenthood patient. When I was at Brown, that's where I got my birth control. And so I knew about the organization, had been a supporter, and, to me, it was one of the most important organizations in the country in terms of helping women live out their lives and have opportunity to finish school, and start a career, and support a family. So, to me, there was no question that if this was something I could do, it would be such an honor. And the job has been big and challenging, but I never even imagined how great it would be. So I'm so glad that I did go for that interview and, obviously, glad they chose me.
Feloni: And you were tasked with kind of making it more political, right? Bringing it back to its activist roots in a sense?
Richards: Well, I think one of the challenges that Planned Parenthood had was we were an excellent healthcare provider. We provide healthcare to about 2.5 million people every year, but politics was getting in the way. More and more laws were being passed, and restrictions, and so I think it was not necessarily to be more political, but just to really rebuild our movement roots.
But then there were other things that we figured out, too, like we needed to use technology more and invest in new ways of getting care to people — which I'm proud to say we really have done. And investing in young people. Investing in a whole new generation of young people as patients, because they want different things than young people when Planned Parenthood was started, or even when I went to college at Brown. So that has been part of the exciting thing, is just thinking about healthcare delivery in a new way, as well as bringing in another generation of activists.
Feloni: And what was the biggest challenge that you faced as the head of it?
Richards: The biggest challenge is the disruption in the healthcare world. And we specialize in serving folks that don't have a lot of options, often. Sometimes they're uninsured, they're younger, they may be more mobile. And the healthcare system hasn't always been an easy place to navigate, and so one of the most exciting things was the fight for the Affordable Care Act. Because we made a lot of progress and that has fundamentally changed life not only for women that come to Planned Parenthood but millions of others.
You know, the most successful moment I think of my life was the day that President Obama called me, and said he was about to announce that now all women that get insurance would get birth control covered at no cost. That has been revolutionary for women. And we're now at like a 30-year low for unintended pregnancy in this country and I'm really really proud of that.
Feloni: Can you tell me a little bit more about what that fight was like?
Richards: Yeah, I think it was a good lesson in that sometimes you have to fight with your friends, not just people who are your opponents, because getting this done was a big lift —
Feloni: Within the Democratic Party?
Richards: Yeah, within Congress, within the White House. We really did have to mobilize young people on college campuses — dressed up in giant pill packs, go to Congress, write to the White House, and so it did take a lot. And, you may even remember, there was a moment in which Congress was holding a hearing about whether birth control should be covered where they refused to let a Georgetown law student testify because they said they needed experts. And when we saw the panel of experts there was one thing they had in common: They never used birth control because they were all men.
So we really had some pretty big obstacles, but I think the exciting thing is now, and, of course, unfortunately this administration is trying to unravel this birth control benefit, but once you win something that big, it's much harder to take it away. Women in this country are very aware of what that means for them. They'll be able to have that economic freedom and access to care.
Feloni: So are you worried about the future of Planned Parenthood and any of the accomplishments that you made with it?
Richards: Well, nothing's ever finished, so we always have more progress to make. But one of the reasons I felt like I could leave after 12 years is the organization is as strong as it's ever been. We have more than 11 million supporters, we're delivering healthcare all across the country, we're delivering healthcare in some states online. Birth control is getting better. I feel really hopeful. And, most importantly, we have a generation of young people who are their own advocates, and, you marry that with the excellent healthcare we provide — I feel good about the future, even though I'm sure there are going to be battles ahead.
Feloni: Yeah and you explained in the book this meeting that you had with Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump where they invited you to talk. What was that about? That was shortly after Trump's inauguration.
Richards: Basically, they wanted to meet about Planned Parenthood because I think they knew this was going to be — Paul Ryan had already declared they were going to defund Planned Parenthood. And so, even though I was, frankly, a little anxious about having that meeting, because I didn't know what to expect, I felt like I owed it to our patients to try. But, in the end, I really believe, certainly, what Jared Kushner expressed was that he wanted us to quit providing abortion services to women in this country in exchange for keeping our public funding. And I just said we really stand for the right of women to get the reproductive healthcare they need and that's a legal service, and that it's really important that women can get it and we're not going to trade that off for money.
So, it didn't go that well, but at the end of the day we were able to mount a campaign with hundreds of thousands of people around the country that supported Planned Parenthood and were able to keep our public funding, and I hope we continue to do so. Because it makes a big difference. A lot of women have come to us. We're their only healthcare provider.
Feloni: Yeah. So when you were having that conversation, what was going through your head when this proposal was made?
Richards: I thought this was my chance to educate the two of them about who we see, what we do, and of course reeducate them if they needed to know that federal funding doesn't go to abortion services so, in fact, the money that they were talking about cutting off from Planned Parenthood provides access to breast cancer screenings and birth control and STI testing and treatment. And, again, for a lot of the women and young people that come to us, there's no one else in town to do that work. So even though they understood that, I felt like they were trying to make a political deal and that's just not who we are at Planned Parenthood.
Feloni: Was this an example of how you have always had to kind of balance politics with your personal ideals, as well as leading an organization?
Richards: Well, you know, it's interesting, because I have been through congressional hearings. I've done a lot of other things in this 12 years at Planned Parenthood. I think the things that's important to me is that we always keep women at the center of everything we do, decisions we make and positions we take. And so for me it isn't hard. It's not a political game. It's actually about women whose health and sometimes lives are at stake. And I think if we can continue to lift up their stories and create more empathy in this country for what women need, which is basically access to affordable healthcare no matter where they live, no matter their immigration status, their geography, their income, then we'll have done the right thing. So I just try to keep that in mind.
Feloni: When did you decide that you were going to step down from Planned Parenthood?
Richards: Well, after we beat back this effort to defund Planned Parenthood, I felt like we sort of got — and that was with the help of two really important Republican senators, Susan Collins from Maine and Lisa Murkowski from Alaska. They are national heroines to me in terms of really standing up for women in their caucus. But once that happened, I had really made a commitment to invest in a new generation of leaders, and even though it's really hard to leave an organization that you love, I think it's important to demonstrate sometimes that you can step aside and let someone else take the reins and so we'll have a really smooth transition at Planned Parenthood. A lot of women are interested, and probably some men are interested in this job, and that's great and I will tell them I'll be cheering on the sidelines every step of the way for what they do next.
Feloni: So what's next for you?
Richards: I don't know, and that's kind of exciting, too. I've been a little bit of an entrepreneur in the past. I've started nonprofits and I've been always involved in movements. There's a lot of work that needs to be done in this country. And one of the things I'm most focused on right now is making sure that every single person is registered to vote and that they vote this November. I really think we need to restore democracy in the sense of having people not only have the right to vote, but then exercising that right. And I think if we do, we can change the direction of some of the areas that I'm concerned about.
Feloni: Are you going to run for office at some point?
Richards: It's not really in my plan, but you never want to say never! That's one thing my mother told me, right? Never turn down a new opportunity. But, I am excited about all of the women running for office — twice as many women running for Congress as two years ago, up and down the ticket. I mean there's all kinds of women running and so I'd love to do everything I can to help them, support them, and again just change the face of who's in office a bit.
Feloni: So throughout your career, whether you were with unions, or even with the Democratic Party, or with Planned Parenthood, you've gravitated towards jobs that have had lots of intense opposition, sometimes even violent threats. Do you seek out jobs that have that type of thing?
Richards: You think I'm just like a magnet for controversy?
Feloni: Well, yeah — there's a struggle involved.
Richards: Well, I guess, I think that you really should stand up. I believe, if you can, if you have the privilege that I have, you should really stand up for the things that you believe in and fight hard for hard stuff. I think if it's easy, someone else has probably already done it. And so, it's not that I'm a glutton for controversy, but I do think when it comes to LGBTQ rights, when it comes to women's rights, when it comes to the right of everyone to have equal pay and a fair chance, those are hard fights. And I know we've learned people don't give up power without a fight.
If I think about all the time I've spent in Congress fighting for women's access to affordable healthcare and just access to be able to make their own decisions about their healthcare, I feel like I'd love to be still alive to see the day when half of Congress can get pregnant, and then I think we'd finally quit fighting about birth control and reproductive healthcare. So that may be inciting controversy, but I think it really more is just hoping for a world that can be a little bit better than it is now.
Feloni: It's like these are fights worth having, you're not seeking out opposition.
Richards: Yeah, definitely not seeking trouble just for the sake of it. And again, I think some of the most important things that we've been able to do at Planned Parenthood have been to just continue to push the envelope. Not sit back and rest on our laurels and say, "Well, it's good that birth control is legal." It doesn't matter if it's legal if not everyone can get it. And again, I think we're making huge progress, and we're at a record low for teenage pregnancy in the US — that's something I'm very proud of — but I will also say it's not equal, that rates of teenage pregnancy are still too high among young women who have low incomes, young women of color, young women in the southern United States, and so there's just work left to do.
Feloni: What advice would you give to someone who wants to have a career like yours?
Richards: If you're really young and just getting started, sometimes it's hard to get into big nonprofits. I think volunteering, finding a cause you care about — one of my first jobs, I remember I volunteered for someone running for city council in Austin and like two days later I was in charge of the phone bank. They were just so excited to have a volunteer and I learned a ton of skills that way. So I think it is important sometimes to just get on a board of an organization that you care about. Throw a fundraiser for them. Those are the kinds of things that help you begin to know if this is the organization that you want to be with either as a job or just as something you do in your volunteer time. But there are so many opportunities now and I think there's never been, frankly, a better time to be a volunteer and to stand up for something that you really, really do care about.
Feloni: And when you've been part of all of these different organizations, what would you say is the common thread among all of them?
Richards: I think it's to try to get people just a better shake and really I hope, whether it's economic activity, whether it's women having equal chance, we're doing better but we're still not doing near enough. And one of the things I learned from this, being at Planned Parenthood all these years, is just literally the difference it can make, the fork in the road that someone can be in. And whether they can't get a breast cancer screening, or they did and Planned Parenthood was able to actually get them the treatment that saved their life, or what it means for a young woman to be able to get affordable healthcare and get birth control that gets her through college, that can mean the difference about what her opportunities are. And so getting to be part of a movement like that is unbelievably rewarding. I realize it's a huge privilege. And so I always feel like every day I need to pay back it some way.
Feloni: Was there ever a moment in your life where you questioned this burden that you had?
Richards: Well it's never really felt like a burden. But I've never tried to take a straight job, that's true.
I had the good fortune when I was young to meet Kirk, my husband, who was also an organizer. Finding someone that actually has the same ideas and dreams and idealism that you do makes it a lot easier. It was easier to have three kids and raise them with someone who understood that sometimes I needed to be off on a picket line or had to be traveling and doing this. Wwe both tried to balance that. But it's meant building a life that really has had great meaning for us and now, of course, all three of our kids, I think they're all activists in their own right. And that's the best reward for any parent.
Feloni: It's like the family business.
Richards: Well, except it's not a business so much, but yeah.
Feloni: I know, of course.
Richards: But it is. It's a family passion. It's a family passion and look, I'll say there have been some great moments with my kids, but nothing better than all five of us being at the inauguration of Barack Obama as president of the United States because all of them had had a role in that. Even though the twins weren't even old enough to vote, they volunteered, they door-knocked, and it felt like a huge accomplishment.
Feloni: When you're looking at the entirety of your career so far, what do you think would be a big time you failed and it taught you something?
Richards: There's been so many. One was I went to work on Capitol Hill, and actually it was a great job.
Feloni: When was this?
Richards: We had moved to Washington and I can't even remember the year, but actually it was when Nancy Pelosi first became the Democratic Whip. She was the highest-ranking woman ever in Congress. And I'd never worked on Capitol Hill. I had no idea how things worked there, but I spent about a year and a half on the Hill and then left to start a new nonprofit. But it was one of these things where even though I always felt like a failure because there were people there who knew everything about every rule and how Congress worked and all this — I don't feel like I was successful — I learned so much from Nancy Pelosi and from the people who had built their entire career working in government. So even though I realized it wasn't the job for me, I wouldn't trade that experience for anything.
And I think that's also one of the things to learn, is that you can try something and it's OK to say it didn't work out. But you almost get something from every single job or new adventure that you take, even if it doesn't work out in the long run. And Nancy Pelosi is still a really good friend and we worked together on passing the Affordable Care Act and a lot of other things, so those relationships have become some of the most important in my life.
Feloni: And what did that experience teach you specifically going forward?
Richards: Well, one was that I wasn't cut out to work in government. I was impatient and I really wanted to be out making things happen, and right then it was really, really difficult. But it reminded me of a lesson that I feel like I've learned and had to relearn, which is any time you can take a job with someone who can teach you something, go for it. And again, I learned a lot from Nancy, I learned a lot from the people on the Hill, and so just soaking that up, it was like taking a graduate course on Capitol Hill.
I advise young women in particular to always look for someone who can be a mentor to you or who can teach you about something that you don't know about. Because you never know when that's going to come in handy.
Feloni: Well, thank you so much, Cecile.
Richards: Hey, thanks for having me. Great to be here.