Cecile Richards, 61, retired this year after 12 years as president of Planned Parenthood. She is the author of “Make Trouble: Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead.” Richards lives with her husband in New York.
You’ve been successful over the years bringing progressives together. Have you been able to reach out to people on the opposite side of issues? Abortion, for example.
One thing I would just try to dispel is I’m not pro-abortion or antiabortion. I just believe that this should be a decision that people get to make. Some groups don’t believe abortion should be an option. They don’t believe in birth control — in large part, don’t believe in sex education. So where’s the common ground? Common ground in this country could be reducing teenage pregnancy. We’re now at a historic all-time low. And that didn’t happen because teenagers just quit being interested in sex. It’s because we started a more intentional effort — collectively. Yet now this government is trying to dismantle sex education and teen pregnancy prevention programs. So if I have 24 hours in a day, my time is better spent bringing together people who aren’t engaged in voting and having their voices heard than trying to convince people who just fundamentally disagree with pretty basic precepts about fundamental rights.
I mean, look, I talk to people in office who don’t agree with me — not to folks probably on the far edge — but I talk to members of Congress, and I try to listen to them, try to educate them. But right now the vast majority of this country needs basic things, including access to affordable health care. And I think that’s probably where I’d rather spend my energy and where it would be, frankly, more effective.
You’ve been talking with people all across the country on your book tour. What do you find that people tend to misunderstand about you?
I have been struck that the single most asked question is, “I read that you almost didn’t go to the job interview at Planned Parenthood.” Women, you know, fantasizing that somehow I’m different from them. But we’re all the same — mostly. I’ve hired a lot of women and worked with a lot of women, and we constantly think, Maybe I shouldn’t do this next thing, I don’t know if I’m ready. I have never had a guy say to me, “I don’t think I’m ready for that next promotion or that next job.” I was this close to canceling the interview. And I called Mom, and she said: “You’re going to regret it if you don’t go. You’ll always wonder what might have happened. What’s the worst that could happen?” I think women, we anticipate all the bad things that could happen. Mom used to call them baroque worries — instead of just saying, “Hey, I’m going to try this.” I think more women are doing that now. And other women are supporting them. But we have to dispel this notion that there are these sort of Joan of Arc characters.
I knew about your role leading Planned Parenthood at the national level, but didn’t realize until recently the extent of your activist bona fides with labor unions earlier in your career. What else might people not know about you?
When someone’s only seen you on television, they have one idea of who you are. I think people — even people that disagree with me — find me approachable. I hope. And empathetic. And they’re excited to learn that I’m actually a really good pie baker and that I have three kids and we have the same crazy challenges that every other parent has. [Laughs.]
People also ask all the time, “Isn’t it hard to be always the center of controversy?” I grew up in Dallas at a time [when] it was very conservative, and my parents were liberals and beginning to get into progressive politics, the labor movement, the civil rights movement. So I did learn from an early age that it was okay to be against what was happening. Fitting in was never a priority. And I think that did give me the ability, when I didn’t agree with things later on in life, to be able to say something because I saw that there was a path. I also learned that you’re going to lose a lot more than you’re going to win, but it is really important to stay in the fight — that that’s really why we’re on this earth. And that gave me this sense of purpose about my life, for which I’m eternally grateful.
This interview has been edited and condensed.WP Magazine. Follow the Magazine on Twitter. Like us on Facebook. Email us at email@example.com.