Linda Wertheimer is a senior correspondent at NPR.
Making trouble may have come naturally to Cecile Richards, born to a father who was a civil rights lawyer and a mother who would make the great leap from housewife to governor of Texas. Richards traces her first act of speaking out to a dramatic day at her Dallas elementary school when she told her teacher that she did not want to recite the Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of class. Her teacher was horrified. Cecile was 11 years old.
Now Richards, who is stepping down as president of Planned Parenthood, has written a memoir of her life of activism called “Make Trouble,” with the inevitable subtitle “Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead.” The book begins in September 2015, when Congress investigated Planned Parenthood after a group calling itself the Center for Medical Progress released a video that appeared to show Planned Parenthood staffers talking about selling fetal tissue. Not true, Richards writes, and not “our first rodeo with video scams.” This was an elaborate one that prompted antiabortion activists to leap into action. Richards was called to testify before a congressional committee, almost never a pleasant experience. Members of Congress can say whatever they want; the witness is sworn but they are not; the real audience is the mosh pit of cameras between the committee and the witness. There is no comforting Perry Mason to object to questions and no dignified judge to insist on order.
Richards got it with both barrels from a largely hostile committee of mostly men. She presumably offers this experience as a cautionary tale: Making trouble as a profession carries with it the certainty that there are plenty of people prepared to make trouble back at you. She talks about her panic, about long hours working to be well-prepared, about wearing a blue suit that she regarded as a suit of armor fortified by a pin that belonged to her mother, and about taking up meditation. And in another lesson for political women, she notes that during five hours of testimony, none of her distress or vulnerability showed. This tale almost has a happy ending: Planned Parenthood was vindicated, though the episode did take a toll on an organization that is almost always under siege.
After her eat-your-peas beginning, Richards takes us back in history to Texas and the beginnings of her mom and dad, who came from opposite sides of Waco, a greater gulf than you might imagine. They married and moved to Dallas, where Ann Richards worked hard at being a wife and mother, and volunteered for progressive causes and candidates in a very conservative community. Those were the days when smart and motivated women were teaching fifth grade, if they were working at all; when moms in Dallas’s upper-class University Park enclave were cooking elaborate meals for their friends and making creative Halloween costumes for their kids. Those women might have brought the same determination to running General Motors, but that was not happening.
When Cecile went to college she chose Brown University, distant from Dallas in every way, which did not prevent her Texas mother from assembling a wardrobe for her Ivy League daughter. Richards felt like a refugee from “Little Women” in her long wool skirts until her roommates re-dressed her. Being Ann Richards’s daughter was wonderful of course, she says, but the woman who went on to govern the huge state could be overpowering at times when she concentrated her efforts on her slender blond daughter.
In college, Richards began her work as an organizer, working for Brown University’s janitors and against the Seabrook nuclear power plant. “I may have majored in history,” she writes, “but I minored in agitating.” She was working as a union organizer in New Orleans when she met her future husband, Kirk Adams. One of the threads running through her memoir is: If you want to make trouble as your life’s work, be mindful of who you marry. Richards repeatedly gives thanks to her husband, who is not the sort of man who assumes that his wife will follow wherever his work takes him. In their lives, it has been mostly, although not always, the other way around. Inevitably, their work and her family took them to Texas when Ann Richards decided to run for governor.
Ann Richards’s fans will enjoy Cecile’s account of her mother’s political career and the amazing Texas women who played supporting roles, including Barbara Jordan and Molly Ivins. Cecile Richards recounts the painful decision of friends and family to stage an intervention and start her mother on a path to sobriety (Ann Richards called it “drunk school”). She takes us to her mother’s triumphant speech at the Democratic convention in 1988 and on to her tough campaign for governor and her unsuccessful bid for reelection. Every step along the way, Cecile Richards was “all in” for her mother — which seems to be a family trait. These parts of the book are my personal favorites, and I would love to have had more stories of women waging politics.
Almost as interesting are Richards’s lists of things to know about political organizing, learned from her mother’s experience and from working with women like former House speaker Nancy Pelosi. After the Democrats’ big loss in 1994, she felt a need to make some trouble of her own, and eventually she did, organizing a coalition of groups called America Votes that works to register voters and get out the vote.
Richards offers a few tips on organizing, notably: “You have to be willing to ask for money.” She also points out that you have to have an idea good enough to encourage people to support you financially — “proof of concept,” she calls it. And always hire a room that’s half the size you need with half the chairs you need.
Richards also has a list of things you might do if you want to raise activist kids. Guard against gender roles, she says; they are alive and well and start early. Everything you need to know in life you can learn on a campaign, she says, even beyond winning and losing. Kids can pick up new skills, she writes. “There is nothing like sorting a mailing list to nail the ABCs.” This is a woman who has a way with maxims.
Maybe her most important tip is contained in a chapter title: “Say Yes.” Although America Votes was making progress, she found herself considering a possible opportunity with Planned Parenthood after a search firm called to see if she’d be interested in discussing a job as its president. As it became clear that the organization was serious about her, she was terrified. “Somehow,” she writes, “I gutted up and showed up” and took the job. “Never turn down a new opportunity,” she advises. “And never ever hold yourself back from accepting a big job or a big chance.” She asks, “What is it about us women” that causes us to hold ourselves back? Early on she notes that her mother didn’t do that: “Every political race she’d gotten into, it was because she knew that she was qualified and could do a better job than the incumbent, even if she was the only one who thought so.”
At the 1984 Democratic convention, an NPR reporter found Ann Richards on the convention floor to ask how it felt to see a woman nominated as vice president. Richards was “teary eyed” as Geraldine Ferraro’s name was announced. “I wasn’t sure I would ever live to see this day,” she said. Cecile Richards is nowhere near saying that a new day is coming in the wake of women’s marches and pink knitted hats. She does say that now women have enormous power and it’s time to use it — presumably to make trouble.
By Cecile Richards
Touchstone. 276 pp. $27