In the fall of 2017, Planned Parenthood’s then-president, Cecile Richards, was campaigning in Ohio for Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown’s reelection, when she noticed something she had never seen before.
Everywhere she went, no matter how small the town, it seemed that women were organizing themselves for political action. They had marched to express their opposition to President Trump. They were writing postcards to save the Affordable Care Act. They were donating to candidates who favored abortion rights. In 2018, women like these were the force behind the election of record numbers of female candidates to offices at every level of the ballot. And yet, women continue to be regarded — including among themselves — as a special- interest group. That trip to Ohio helped inspire Richards’s post-Planned Parenthood mission: to help women harness their collective power across lines of race, age and economic circumstance, and to turn “women’s issues” into the mainstream issues they’ve always been.
“Women are actually the majority of pretty much everything,” Richards told me. “And yet, it feels like the things that women care most about and are talking about are kind of put aside. We’re seen as a constituency, rather than the majority of people in this country.”
As HuffPost’s Emily Peck pointed out, when CNN held a marathon forum Monday night, in which five of the contenders answered questions one by one before an audience of college students, only the three women — Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) — were queried about sexism and the pay disparity between men and women. Once again, women’s issues were consigned to female candidates, rather than being treated as a set of problems that ought to matter as much to contenders such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the other two candidates on the program.
All of which has been a call to action for Richards.
The daughter of former Texas governor Ann Richards, she became one of the most recognizable figures in liberal politics during her 12-year stint at the helm of Planned Parenthood, where she battled efforts by abortion foes to cut off roughly $450 million in federal funding to the organization.
When a misleadingly edited 2015 undercover video purported to show that Planned Parenthood was illegally selling fetal tissue, Richards was called to testify before a Republican-led House committee. Over four hours of hostile questioning, she coolly defended its mission as a front-line health-care provider to 2.7 million patients a year.
In the eyes of the antiabortion movement, Richards was the elegantly dressed, politically savvy personification of evil. But during her years as Planned Parenthood’s leader, its membership nearly quadrupled, from 2.5 million supporters to more than 11 million. After she stepped down about a year ago, there was much speculation — and hope, among her admirers — that she would run for office.
But instead, Richards — who spent her years after graduating from Brown University working to unionize low-paid hotel and hospital workers — is returning to her political roots as an organizer. On Monday, she will launch a new organization called Supermajority that seeks not only to change that mind-set but also to provide resources and training for female activists across the spectrum of backgrounds and life experiences.
Her partners in the endeavor include Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza ; Ai-jen Poo, who was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 2014 for her efforts to organize domestic workers; and Libby Chamberlain and Cortney Tunis , who lead Pantsuit Nation, the organization that grew out of the private Facebook group Chamberlain started for Hillary Clinton supporters during the 2016 presidential election, and which now counts more than 3.8 million members.
“In many ways, women have been doing all this work — whether it’s running their PTA, or organizing around reproductive health care — but we haven’t been doing it together,” Richards said. “What are we going to do to make this moment not something that is just a fleeting flash point of activism, but actually creating a permanent organizing ability for women?”
Richards acknowledged that upending the assumptions that drive U.S. politics is a daunting task.
“The issues we share as women are deep, and they are wide, and they’re very similar across the country. But we have to be in rooms with women that we don’t know,” she said. “I know that there are many more of us, even though we don’t come from the same backgrounds. I don’t know what the model for that is. It’s not something that we have done.”
Women now have the force of a majority in politics. Richards wants them to start acting like one.