Abortion rights, grassroots activism, and getting a woman elected president: Former Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards re-enters the political fray
- Cecile Richards left her job as president of Planned Parenthood nearly a year ago. Since then, she's travelled the country taking the political temperature of American women.
- "How do we pull together all this energy and make sure this isn't just this moment of resistance, but actually a longer term movement for women's political equality?" Richards told INSIDER in a recent interview.
- Richards wants to make sure women are heard loud and clear in 2020. "The most powerful political leadership in the country is not coming from Washington. It's coming from women at the grassroots," she said.
- She argues that focusing on healthcare, childcare, and equal pay can bring women across the political spectrum together.
- But Richards is concerned that the media is biased against women candidates. "We are already seeing, not just a double standard, but a real insensitiveness about what it's like to run as a woman," she said. "I think that's not incidentally a result of the fact that two-thirds of political reporters are men."
- And she's pessimistic about the future of the federal judiciary, as Trump fills hundreds of seats on the federal bench and solidifies a conservative majority on the Supreme Court.
- Read on for the full interview and watch Richards' appearance on Business Insider Today.
- Visit BusinessInsider.com for more stories.
After 12 years of leading the fight to protect abortion rights and access to women's healthcare, Richards left her job as president of Planned Parenthood a year ago.
Since then, Richards has spent much of her time traveling the country and meeting with American women, an unprecedented number of whom are engaged in politics right now. Her new goal is to help channel the grassroots political energy among women on the left into making progressive change in 2020 and the years ahead."How do we pull together all this energy and make sure this isn't just this moment of resistance, but actually a longer term movement for women's political equality?" Richards told INSIDER in a recent interview.
She won't endorse a 2020 candidate yet, but her daughter, Lily Adams, is Sen. Kamala Harris' 2020 communications director, and Richards believes the 2020 Democratic ticket must have a woman on it.
Richards sat down with INSIDER politics reporter Eliza Relman in New York to discuss the state of US politics, the future of reproductive rights and healthcare, and how women are shaping politics.
The following interview was edited for length and clarity.
Organizing women into a political force
INSIDER: You left Planned Parenthood about a year ago. What have you been working on since?
Cecile Richards: I've been able to go around the country and talk to and listen to women from a lot of the states where we don't get to hear from women very often. They have a lot on their mind. I spent the last 12 years hearing from women about their healthcare needs, but women's needs are much beyond that. Women feel like they are struggling in this economy, whether it's on equal pay issues, the lack of paid family leave, the lack of affordable childcare.INSIDER: What is your biggest takeaway from talking to all these women across the country? What's the central thing you've learned?
Richards: I thought what I would find is that women were just completely burned out, but it's actually been just the opposite. The exciting thing is how many women are just raising their hands and saying, "I've never been involved in anything before, but now I know I need to be." That's the real challenge and opportunity as an organizer, which is kind of my chosen profession - how do we actually grab together all of these amazing groups of women around the country who want to make a difference?
One of the most interesting facts I learned in this process is that women these last two years contributed $100 million more to candidates and campaigns than they did two years ago when Hillary Clinton ran for president. Increasingly, women are not only the ground troops and all the activists, but they're also the donors.
INSIDER: What do you think the biggest barriers are to women running for office?
Richards: On the fundraising side, don't get me wrong, Citizens United is a disaster. We have to get big money out of politics.
But the biggest barrier is that still, and we see it in this presidential election, there are people who just can't see a woman in office. I believe we are already seeing, not just a double standard, but a real insensitiveness about what it's like to run as a woman. I think that's not incidentally a result of the fact that two-thirds of political reporters are men.
On Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's political tactics
INSIDER: You've long been viewed as a villain by the right and a hero by the left. What advice do you have for women, including freshman members of Congress like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who are attacked in the same way that you were?Richards: For one, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez is doing a fabulous job on her own, so we should all take lessons from her. The most important thing is that people are just standing up for their values and for the people they feel like they're there to represent. That's what people expect from government. That's what people expected from me at Planned Parenthood. I guess my only other advice is just don't read the comments section, it just doesn't help at all.
INSIDER: I think Ocasio-Cortez's tactic has been to engage with the criticism. Do you think that's effective?
Richards: I think everyone has to do what they feel like they can take on. I have enormous respect for the fact that she can and does. And I like the fact, too, that she is demystifying politics and serving in office in a way that is so authentic and pulling the curtain back and saying 'This is where I work. This is what it took to get here. This is how I do it.' A lot of women are terrified because they feel like they're not qualified and they don't know what it would take.
INSIDER: Nancy Pelosi has suggested that some freshman House members who were previously activists use different language as lawmakers. Do you think that's right or do you think Congressmembers should retain their activist approach?
Richards: It's important that people don't do things for your reasons. They do things for their reasons. To be a good organizer, whether you're in Congress or out at the grassroots level, you have to listen to people and understand where they're coming from.
There have been a lot of conversations since the last election with people saying, 'Why do women vote against their self-interest?' That's a very condescending way of approaching women.
How to get more women in elected office
INSIDER: Do you think the Democratic Party should change in any way to encourage more women to run? And how should they do that?
Richards: Yes. Every party should - not just the Democratic Party. The Republican Party is making backwards progress on electing women and they have the most hostile agenda for women on everything. But the entire political process has to recognize that women are here to stay.Women are a majority of the voters, a majority of the volunteers, increasingly the donors, and leaders. And yet still we're right behind Somalia in terms of women's representation. And so it's important to me that at every level of politics, in state legislatures and school boards, we need to have women's representation.
INSIDER: People like Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts challenged incumbent Democrats in primaries. Do you think it's healthy for the Democratic establishment to face primary challengers? Do you think the party should encourage that, rather than discourage it as they're doing?
Richards: I can't really speak for the Democratic Party as an institution, but I don't think women are going to get parity and representation if they wait for all the men to leave, it's just not going to happen. It's time for some of the men to look up and move over and make room.
It's sort of what I felt like at Planned Parenthood - I needed to make room for a younger generation, a woman of color to come in and lead. Those of us who've had the privilege of serving have to wake up and go, okay I maybe have done my part and I've got to make space for another generation.
Court-packing to save abortion rights?
INSIDER: What do you think about the proposals to expand the Supreme Court - by just a few seats or to 15 seats - that some Democrats have put forward recently?
Richards: I absolutely think the Court needs to be depoliticized, but I don't know what the right idea is.
Under this administration, they've now nominated and confirmed a record numbers of judges - primarily Anglo men that are on the far right of the spectrum. It's very difficult for women or people of color to look at the Supreme Court or the federal system and say, 'I'm going to get a fair shot.'
INSIDER: What do you think the realistic future of abortion rights looks like, given the makeup of the Supreme Court?Richards: My worry is of course that it's going to go back to being a state by state issue. And that's why obviously some states have chosen to now confirm the tenets of Roe [v. Wade] in their own state legislation.
The challenge is going to be women with low incomes, women who live in certain geographies, women of color in particular are going to have less access to reproductive health care than other people. That actually is true today.
Kamala Harris 2020?
INSIDER: You've traveled the country this year talking to women. How deep do you think the desire is among women to elect a female president in 2020?
Richards: I actually haven't posed that particular question. The overwhelming sentiment is women want change. They feel like women are going backwards under this administration. They resent being bullied. I think they're open to who represents that change. More importantly, they really want to know that the work they're doing makes a difference.
What's important this next 18 months is that women organize and lift up the issues they care about and put them into the public sphere, so that everybody running for president will be talking about what women need in this country.INSIDER: Of those issues, which are the few that you think women are most concerned about and that 2020 candidates should be talking about?
Richards: 100% equal pay. Two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women, and those who are moms are spending two-thirds of their salary on childcare. The second biggest expense for most families now is childcare and we have no national childcare policy.
We have a rising maternal mortality rate in this country. Women who are giving birth now are twice as likely to die in childbirth or with maternal complications as their mothers. That's not being talked about anywhere.
The last thing, and it's also an economic issue, is the fact that we have no nationally-mandated paid family leave. We're the only developed country that doesn't.
INSIDER: Your daughter, Lily, is the communications director for Sen. Kamala Harris's 2020 campaign.
Richards: That's true. And she's doing a fabulous job, I think.
INSIDER: So would you endorse Harris? Do you support any candidate?
Richards: I haven't taken any position in the presidential race. I'm sort of like the more the merrier, everybody get out there. What I'm really interested in is making sure that they're addressing the issues that are on the minds of women: economic issues, healthcare access issues, sexual harassment and assault issues. We need this to be in the water for every single candidate.
INSIDER: One of those candidates is a fellow Texan, Beto O'Rourke. What are your thoughts on him and what he's done in Texas?Richards: I don't really know Beto, so I don't have a strong feeling. We don't have a personal relationship. I obviously am devoted to Texas changing and my observation in Texas is that women have been fueling the change.
We saw amazing progress in Texas. We saw the first two Latinas ever elected to Congress, Veronica Escobar and Sylvia Garcia. We saw a record number of African-American women elected to the judiciary in Harris County, in Houston, the most diverse county in the country.
Beto's race was important, but there was a lot of other important things that happened in Texas. His campaign demonstrated and ignited was that there actually is a pathway for victory for folks in Texas, but there are a lot of people that are responsible for building that.
Organizing women activists
INSIDER: I know you're working on a new project coming out of this past year of talking to all these women across the country. What is it that you want to do next?
Richards: When I was campaigning for Sherrod Brown and traveling through Ohio, you couldn't throw a rock without hitting a new women's group in Ohio. Every single town there was a group. I thought, 'Well what if all these women were pulled together?'
Women are telling me they want to know what other women are doing. How are they being successful? How can I be part of something bigger? So that's really what I'm focused on now: how do we pull together all this energy and make sure this isn't just this moment of resistance, but actually a longer term movement for women's political equality?
I've been working with other women - Ai-Jen Poo from the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Alicia Garza, one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement and now a head of the Black Futures Lab, some of my friends from the women's movement - and really putting together the architecture so that women are informed, they're connected, and they feel empowered. The most powerful political leadership in the country is not coming from Washington. It's coming from women at the grassroots.
INSIDER: Can you talk about some of the women you've talked to on this tour who are unlikely participants in this movement, or who have never been civically engaged before?
Richards: I've been in I think 15 different states holding listening sessions and they come from all walks of life. I remember this woman in Cedar Rapids who said, 'I've been door-knocking, volunteering, phone-banking, organizing, everything, but I'm still working within a system that was built by men for men.' Those were her exact words.
I remember there was a young woman in Austin, she works at a tech firm, and she said, 'I fought to get maternity benefits at my firm and we finally did.' She said, 'it was too late for me, I'd already had my children, but I realized that wasn't enough, that I had to get involved politically because we have to change the system.'
There are these interesting light bulb moments that are going off with women where they're realizing they're not crazy, the system hasn't really been built to support them being in the workforce. And women are taking such joy and satisfaction in the success of other women and that to me is the real powerful thing we have going.
And then as you say, I met a woman in her eighties in Florida at a Planned Parenthood health center. She said, 'I've never done anything in my life, but now I'm volunteering here every week' because she just is looking up and going, 'I think I have gotta be part of changing the world.'
INSIDER: How do you get more conservative or Republican women involved?
Richards: The belief that women should have access to affordable healthcare and be able to make their own healthcare decisions - this is a pretty universal value. The thought that women should be paid equally for the work that they do - that is also something that crosses party lines. The thought that we would have affordable childcare and policies that allow us to participate in the workforce.
If we lift up a values-based agenda that appeals to women across the board, that's how women begin to come together.
INSIDER: What do you want to hear from 2020 candidates on reproductive rights?
Richards: I want to make sure that they actually know and are educated about the challenges women have accessing healthcare. I not only want to know where they stand on reproductive rights in the constitutional sense, I want to know what are they going to do to address the growing maternal mortality rate, especially among women of color and black women in particular.
The progress we've made on getting preventive services for women, birth control, cancer screenings, all the things we fought for and got under Obamacare - I want to make sure that we're not only protecting those, but that we're expanding those.
INSIDER: Should we have a woman president in 2020? How important do you think that question is? How important do you think the identity of the next president or the makeup of the next ticket is for the country?
Richards: I think it's incredibly important. We've never had a woman president or vice president in this country, and so it's time. Now, that can look a lot of different ways. But women are underrepresented in this country politically at every level. There's an abundance of talent out there, but I really, really hope for the future of this country that we have a diverse ticket.