Hillary Rodham Clinton, Gloria Steinem, Kamala Harris: These are just some of the names that appear on the back of Cecile Richards’s new book, praising the president of Planned Parenthood with stories of her resilience and activism.
But Richards is, in fact, stepping down from the position, which she’s held for a dozen years, later this year. Her changing role is, in part, how she found the time to write and go on tour for her new book Make Trouble: Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead, published earlier this month by Simon & Schuster, which recounts her lifetime of activism, from growing up with the former Texas Governor Ann Richards as her mother to making something of a last-ditch effort to talk reproductive rights with Ivanka Trump. One of her many stops has been in Portland, Oregon, which is where she took a break earlier this week to recap her thoughts on Ivanka, address those persistent rumors about whether she plans to run for office, and share some of the more ordinary things—like her Texan roots and her dog, Ollie—in the life of someone who’s weathered more than a decade of at times life-threatening counter-protesters, in her culture diet.
How has the response varied on the road so far? I saw you just stopped in both Austin and Houston, for example.
It’s been incredible, even in places where I really didn’t know who would turn up. We sold out our first three nights—Brooklyn, Pittsburgh, and D.C.—then made the trip down to Texas. Unfortunately, we only got to do Austin and Houston, so I’m going to try to circle back because there’s a lot of folks in Dallas, but we can only cram in so many cities in two weeks. We did a fabulous event last night in Seattle with Lindy West in this huge chapel, which was full of just great folks. So there have been very different kinds of places, political environments, and geographies, but it’s all overwhelmingly reflecting what I feel like I’ve seen this last year and a half, which is pretty much that all you do is put up the bat signal and women are just out. I think folks are just hungry for community and want to be around other women and not feeling like they’re crazy or losing their minds. And then, I think most importantly, they want to know what to do—including many women who’ve never done anything as an activist or for a political cause before. All in all, the book tour’s kind of a microcosm of what we’ve been seeing in city after city, particularly at Planned Parenthood.
Right. You say at the end of the book that you’re constantly asked, What can I do to help? Is that still the question?
[Laughs.] Yes, that is the question. But I also find that people are relieved to know that anything they do is better than not doing anything at all. I think there’s this enormous sense of, How could I fix everything? Which I think is actually a fairly feminine trait, right? We clean up a mess. So it’s relieving for folks to know that the cumulative effect of all the activism is making a difference, because it can be completely overwhelming when you wake up one morning and it looks like everything you believe in is at risk. I think that’s a big theme of the book: Do more than you’re doing, and certainly if you’re not sort of pushing yourself and feeling a little bit afraid, you’re probably not doing enough. I don’t mean that in a guilt-ridden way, but it’s helping people shake off whatever malaise we’ve been in and get going. That’s why I think there’s a record number of women running for office.
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Have you ever thought you’ve gone too far in, as you’ve put it, making trouble?
I would say just the opposite. When people ask what I would have done differently, it’s that I would not have let either fear or practicality get in the way of standing up for what I believe in. Look, change—whether it’s for women or the LGBTQ community or civil rights, social justice—it doesn’t happen because people take little incremental baby steps. It happens because people completely challenge the conventional wisdom and orthodoxy and dare to do things that are incredibly disruptive. That’s one of the reasons it’s been so interesting to see the teenagers organizing these enormous marches for gun reform, because I’m sure if someone was trying to be practical, they’d say that that was never going to work, there’s no way. But they did it anyway. Right now does seem to be a moment; in every town I go to, women have started groups and clubs. They’re writing letters to Congress; they’re showing up at town hall meetings. And they’re not waiting for permission or instructions.
You also started with activism at a young age; you were sent to the principal’s office in the ninth grade for wearing a black armband in protest of the Vietnam War. Do you have any advice for the kids who are really trying to make a change right now?
I was really impressed not only with the marches but with the fact that they did really have a call to action, which was: Go vote. That, to me, is one of the most important thematics right now. Marching is great, and calling Congress and going to town hall meetings are great, but voting is essential. It’s the number-one thing. I thought it was really smart of them not to give people 18 million things to do, but instead to say, “Look, educate yourself about where your elected officials and candidates stand on commonsense gun reform, register people to vote, and go vote this November. Because that’s the only way you’re really going to change some of the policies and certainly what this administration is trying to do. They have to believe that there is a political price to be paid for going after women, after LGBTQ folks, after immigrants, you name it. And that includes being willing to stand up to the National Rifle Association and to match political power with political power.
You just said that organizing things can be like a bat signal for those looking to come together, but at the same time it can also be one for counterprotesters. You write so jarringly, for example, about the death of George Tiller [one of the few doctors in the U.S. who performed late-term abortions, who was murdered by an extremist in a church in Kansas in 2009]. Did you fear for your life then, and do you now or ever at any point throughout your activism?
It was important to me to write that chapter because I don’t want people to think I live in some naive world where we don’t have to deal with serious defeats, and certainly the murder of Dr. Tiller was one of the lowest, if not the lowest point of the 12 years I’ve been at Planned Parenthood. I’ve never lived in a fearful way—obviously I take security seriously, and it’s our number-one goal for our patients and our employees. But I don’t think you can live your life in fear. I think it’s also important to note that for every person who walks up to me and has something really negative to say, there are another 99 who’ve stopped me to say thank you for what Planned Parenthood does, so it’s important to put it in perspective.
The other thing is, I think that out of every really bad thing, something important can happen. Before Dr. Tiller was murdered, there was sort of an unspoken culture that abortion providers were not very public about what they did—for obviously incredibly legitimate reasons. Dr. Tiller was one of the few who was very up-front—he spoke publicly and was politically involved—but he was really quite unique in that way. And after his murder, as the community really wrestled with it and came together, more and more abortion doctors started being public, telling their own stories and the stories of the really important health care they provide. They started coming to Washington, D.C., and lobbying on behalf of abortion rights. It’s definitely a generational change, but to me it was a really important sign of resilience, and I think it’s really helping to lead this important cultural change we have to have in America, which is to destigmatize abortion and reproductive health care. People ask me who my heroes and heroines are in America, and many of them are the folks who provide reproductive health care, including safe and legal abortion, at health centers—not only at Planned Parenthood but all across the country.
Abortion was also of course a topic when, at the urging of one of your friends, you met with Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner after the election. At the time, Planned Parenthood saw, for example, a 900 percent increase in requests for IUDs, a longer-lasting form of birth control, which seemed to be with the hope that it would last the length of the Trump administration.
Again, I was skeptical about that meeting, but I felt like if there were an opportunity to convince two very powerful people in this administration about the importance of preserving Planned Parenthood funding and access, you know, I had to do it. Unfortunately, I think it really did come down to some kind of political deal that Jared Kushner wanted to make. He basically said that if Planned Parenthood quit providing abortion services to women, they could work on making sure we got funding, and maybe even more funding. And look—of course I care deeply about access to the health care we provide. And of course the funding we’re talking about has nothing to do with abortion, which is the irony of all of this—they’re talking about defunding birth control services, cancer screenings, and the like, and I explained that to him as well. I just said, “Look, we’re never going to trade away the rights of women in this country to access abortion for dollars,” and it sort of really ended there.
You had planned for the meeting to be with Ivanka, but in the book you describe how it ended up as a sit-down at the Trump golf course in New Jersey, almost entirely dominated by Jared. I’m curious about Ivanka, though—can you tell me more about how she seemed that day, when her husband was doing all the talking?
For me, the complexity about Ivanka is that she has two roles, and they’re different. One is as the president’s daughter, and I know she feels quite committed to defending her father in every way. But she also decided to take a job as one of the highest-ranking women in the White House, and my understanding is that her job is to represent women—and this administration has been terrible for women. Just terrible. So my criticism of her isn’t as a daughter of the president—it’s that if you’re supposedly in charge of advancing women’s situations in this country, then show up. And for God’s sake, you can’t be trading away women’s rights. That’s not a very effective goal. But, I mean, I think all of us are somewhat perplexed by the workings of this White House, so I’m not sure I can shed that much more light on it. [Laughs.]
Right. The fact that Jared immediately described Planned Parenthood as your business, for example, really shows the disconnect.
I know. [Laughs.] It was hard to explain.
When Jared was saying all of this, did it seem more like Ivanka wanted to speak up or that she had nothing to say?
I don’t know, but she was pretty quiet. The only thing she really said directly, which I absolutely remember, is “Well, you have to understand, my father is pro-life.” It’s hard to even respond to that statement, but I did tell her, with respect, “Whatever your father’s personal position is, it’s irrelevant here, because his personal feelings do not give him the right to take away a right that women have had in this country for more than 40 years.” That’s just what I believe, but also I think they have to understand the obligation and the responsibility they have. This White House, through their nominations to the federal bench, potentially their nominations to the Supreme Court, it will be on them if they lead to the unraveling of abortion rights in America. And I’m sorry, but just saying that your father is pro-life doesn’t explain the full impact of what his policies could be. I mean, I’ll remain optimistic, but I haven’t been too impressed so far by any progress this White House has made for women.
Do you think there is some hope, then, that they’ll change perspective at all?
I don’t know. You know, during the election, Donald Trump said that he knew that [millions] of women had been helped by Planned Parenthood. It’s extremely difficult to say one day to the next what’s on his mind. All I know is that the important role we have to play is to stand up for the women who are counting on us. That’s our job—end of story. It’s not to make political deals; it’s not to curry political favor. It’s to represent the people who are counting on us, many of whom unfortunately don’t have a voice in this White House or in this Congress.
Do you have any update to another question you’re plagued by—that you’re planning to run for office?
[Laughs.] Yeah, no new development there. I really am focused on this next election. I see record numbers of women running for office, and anything I can do to lend a hand and help them and get more people out there to vote, I’m keenly focused on that.
If you were to enter office, would you like to follow in your mother’s footsteps and do so in Texas?
Oh, I don’t know. Even though all my family’s in Texas and I’ll always be a Texan no matter where I live, I’m not living there right now. But it’s always good to go home. The sense of place there is pretty serious and pretty deep. But I really don’t know. I’ve really tried to allow myself in this next phase to just be open to a lot of things that are going on. I hope to really maximize this moment for women because I think it is enormous.
Getting into the much easier culture questions, what’s the first thing you normally read in the morning?
Axios. I feel like they’ve done a really important job of curating and synthesizing important news, so I always check them. I also subscribe to The Washington Post and The New York Times. And then a lot of times I text my daughter Lily, who lives in Washington and works for Kamala Harris, because she knows everything that’s happening. [Laughs.] She’s probably my best news source in the country. And then, I guess because I live in New York, I’ve been a longtime subscriber to The New Yorker. In fact, I dream of a life where I have somebody who could actually tab just the articles I have to read so I can catch up.
What are your favorite social media accounts to follow?
I love Roxane Gay; she always has something interesting to say. Lindy West, for sure. And then, well, I’m kind of obsessed with Harlow and Sage, these dogs on Instagram. In fact, that’s kind of how I ended up getting my dog—I got a rescue dachshund that’s, like, identical to one of the dogs on the page, so it obviously embedded itself in my brain. [Laughs.] If you look up Reese on that account, Ollie, my dog, looks exactly the same, and he’s completely adorable. Anyway, thank God now I don’t just have an Instagram dog. I have a real dog, so that’s good.
What books are on your bedside table right now?
I’m trying to finish everything I haven’t read by Ann Patchett, because I’m actually going to get to go to her bookstore [in Nashville], and I’m really excited about that. I just finished and reviewed a book called God Save Texas, by Lawrence Wright, who’s a really excellent writer and a Texan. He talks about the state of affairs politically in Texas, and it’s quite interesting—you know, a mix of depressing and encouraging. And then I’m in the middle of Sing, Unburied, Sing [by Jesmyn Ward], which I have to read in parts because it���s really heavy but really exquisite writing. I’m also a big fan of Haruki Murakami, so I’m constantly reading a new Murakami book for whatever reason. I’m trying to go to Japan this fall so that I can actually see more of everything he’s been writing about.
What TV shows have been keeping you up at night?
Okay, this is embarrassing, because I don’t watch anything that’s current. I’m obsessed with obscure British mysteries, so I just finished watching the third season of Broadchurch. In fact, because I’ve kind of run out of things, I just started rewatching one of Clive Owen’s early TV series, called Second Sight, where he plays this detective who’s going blind, but because he can’t see he’s actually really good at detecting things. It’s amazing. My favorite thing to be doing if I get back home is to be on the couch with Ollie watching some really kind of irrelevant British mystery.
What’s the last movie that you saw?
The Death of Stalin. It’s fabulous. Steve Buscemi is just crazy great. And honestly, it’s a movie to watch now. [Laughs.] It’s such a crazy cast of characters that there are some parallels, I think, but it was really, really good.
Do you have a favorite podcast?
When I have a chance to listen to them, I love Call Your Girlfriend.
What’s the last song you had on repeat?
I guess, actually—I mean, this is so hack—I was just running in Washington the other morning while on this book tour and re-listening to Dixie Chicks because, you know, I’m a Southern person. I was listening to “Not Ready to Make Nice.” They’ve been a very important group to me for a lot of reasons, and it’s such an anthem of resistance. I actually found myself kind of tearing up. [Laughs.] I was like, Oh my God, I didn’t realize how much this mattered to me.
Do you buy art? What’s the last piece you bought?
One thing I do have is an American flag that flew over the Capitol the day that President Obama was inaugurated. Unfortunately it’s in a box, but I just actually ran into someone and found out how to get it framed. It’s gigantic, so that’s my next art project—framing it and finding someplace where there’s enough room for it, because it seems like a perfect reminder to have every day of both better times and what we can do.
What’s the last concert that you went to?
Probably Steve Earle in New York. He’s one of my favorites. And also this great Cuban drummer, Pedrito Martinez. He plays in New York and was a regular for a while down in the Meatpacking District. Now it’s harder to find him, but I’m a regular fan of his.
What’s the last thing that you googled?
I think it was where to find the best breakfast tacos in Austin. I’ve rarely found a breakfast taco that I didn’t like, but it was nice to be home and have good tortillas again.
Last thing: What’s the last thing you do before you go to bed?
That’s really the only chance I have to read. The same goes for my husband, Kirk, so whoever falls asleep last turns out the light for the other person. [Laughs.] A really exciting life!