When Cecile Richards was in middle school, she spearheaded a campaign for a neighborhood recycling program, and won. In ninth grade, she was called into the principal’s office for wearing a black armband to school to protest the Vietnam War — at the end of the day, the armband was still around her bicep. Richards missed her graduation from college because she was off protesting nuclear power — or was it apartheid? She can’t remember.
The longtime activist and current Planned Parenthood President came under intense fire Tuesday at a Republican-sponsored House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on her organization’s federal funding. Question after rapid-fire question about Planned Parenthood’s services, Richards’ $590,000-a-year compensation and a series of purported undercover videos published by anti-abortion activists this summer produced five hours of heated testimony, with Richards and committee members constantly talking over one another and clashing over facts.
Republican lawmakers have an incentive to make these hearings as contentious as possible: abortion rights and Planned Parenthood’s funding are likely to be sticking points in budget negotiations this December and major election issues after that.
The account of Richard’s performance and who came out on top depended on who was reporting the hearing. “Planned Parenthood blasted over salaries, expensive parties,” was the headline at the Washington Examiner. “Planned Parenthood boss clashes with lawmakers over taxpayer $$, videos,” reported Fox News.
But according to MSNBC, it was a triumph for Richards. “Planned Parenthood chief embarrasses GOP rep.”
But Richards has a tendency to turn opposition her way and the stormy sessions could help Planned Parenthood.
The daughter of a civil rights lawyer and Texas’s outspoken, feminist former governor Ann Richards, Cecile Richards had a childhood that prepared her for combat. In a commencement address at Barnard last year, she recalled her father’s defense of conscientious objectors, how her mother dragged her and her siblings to the grocery store and made sure they all knew how to recognize the union label on a bag of grapes. Recounting the armband incident at her high school, she said, “being called to the principal’s office at the tender age of 13 sort of lit the fuse, but after surviving that standoff, I refused to take off my armband and that started my life of standing up for principles, even when they’re controversial.”
“I just grew up used to being in the center of some social justice movement that not everyone was supporting.” Richards told the left-leaning feminist site Jezebel.
For years after graduating from college, Richards worked as a labor organizer and activist. She jumped into politics in 1990 to help her mother campaign for governor.
Four years later, when her mother lost a bid for reelection to George W. Bush, Richards had an “awakening,” she told the New Yorker: “It wasn’t really about [Ann Richards] and George Bush so much as it was about this enormous organizing effort on the extreme right that had now become about politics.” Winning, she learned, was about finding a message, infusing it with urgency, and pushing it relentlessly.
Over the next decade, Richards headed a progressive get-out-the-vote organization and served as Nancy Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff. Then, in 2006, she was named president of Planned Parenthood.
Unlike past presidents, Richards didn’t have a background in women’s health. She was an organizer and a strategist. Her goal, she told the New York Times in 2008, was to turn Planned Parenthood into “the largest kick-butt political organization.”
Richard’s political tactics were targeted by Republicans at the hearing, who suggested that the federal funding received by the organization in effect subsidized the group’s political action committee, which raises funds primarily for Democratic candidates. “It’s the co-mingling [of the funds] that bothers us,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the committee chairman.
The years since Richards became president saw a shift in the debate about Planned Parenthood. Though the use of federal funds for almost all abortions has been banned since 1976, anti-abortion activists began pushing for laws that would prevent abortion providers like Planned Parenthood from receiving funds for other services as well. The concern was that federal support for health services like cancer screenings and STD treatments freed up funds for other activities.
Richards used those efforts to galvanize support. The organization’s email list increased by 1.2 million people in 2011, when Congress opened an investigation into the organization’s funding.
“I’ve been at Planned Parenthood for about five years and have spent those years telling people, ‘This is what we do, we see 3 million patients a year,’ and it’s just like the reaction is, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’ ” she told The Washington Post the following year. “In the space of two months, we did more to educate people about who we are and what we do than anything else.”
Another of Richard’s big successes came during a moment that might have seemed like a major blow. On Jan. 31, 2012, the Susan G. Komen foundation withdrew funding breast cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood, citing the investigation. That day, Richards sent an email to Planned Parenthood supporters, subject line: “Disappointing news from a friend.”
The reaction was swift and largely in Planned Parenthood’s favor: In the 24 hours after the news broke, the organization raised $400,000. Three days after that, that figure stood at more than $3 million, according to the New York Times, four times as much as it normally receives from Komen in a year. Meanwhile, the Komen Foundation had reversed its decision.
Like Richards herself, activism is almost always energized by opposition. The pro-life movement was born out of Roe v. Wade and is galvanized by laws and rulings that allow abortions. And Planned Parenthood’s rise, in Richards’s telling, was sparked by the arrest of its founder, Margaret Sanger.
It’s an anecdote that figures in many of Richards’s speeches: Sanger opened an illegal birth control clinic in Brooklyn in 1916, handing out ten cent pamphlets on contraception.
“From day one, women were lined up down the block — women with babies in their arms, women pushing baby buggies,” Richards said in one rendition of the story, at the National Press Club in January. “Ten days later, an undercover police officer posing as a mother busted Margaret, and threw her in jail, where she promptly taught her fellow inmates about birth control, and the movement was really born.”