Ep 7: It’s a Very Auspicious Time with Cecile Richards

There’s so much change that needs to happen—and so little time in between all the other things we do. Our friend and activist hero Cecile Richards is here with an essential reminder: If you feel overwhelmed, “It’s not you. It’s the system.” She shares her own experiences under pressure (including being mansplained to by members of Congress) and how she faces work that seems impossible. She also gives an update on Supermajority, the women’s action group she co-founded with Alicia and Ai-jen, and its efforts to build community and get out the vote. Plus: The importance of setting policy agendas post-election, and how women’s organizations can become more inclusive of diverse gender identities.

Twitter: @CecileRichards | IG: @CecileRichards

Learn

Read | Learn how Ai-jen, Alicia, and Cecile joined forces to launch Supermajority and organize women around the country.

Watch | Learn more about the political progress women have made thus far – and Cecile’s vision for the future – in her most recent Ted Talk.

Explore | Check out the Supermajority Education Fund for resources, trainings, and education to help you tap into your power.

Act

Share | Has Planned Parenthood been there for you and you want to share your story (or just show your support)? Planned Parenthood as a tool to do so! 

Buy | Grab a copy of Cecile Richards’ New York Times bestselling book, Make Trouble: Stand Up, Speak Out and Find the Courage to Lead, from your local independent bookstore.

Shop |  Ambition definitely suits you. Pick up a new power suit today.

Vote

Your election day could be today! Head over to Supermajority Education Fund’s voter checklist to make sure you have everything you need to vote safely this election season. 

Transcript

 

Alicia Garza:

Welcome to Sunstorm, where we get real about what’s happening in the world and what we’re doing about it because we are the light in the storm. Hi, I’m Alicia Garza.

 

Ai-jen Poo:

And I’m Ai-jen Poo, and we are super excited today because on Sunstorm, we have the one and only Cecile Richards.

 

Alicia Garza:

Yes. Cecile is not only our dear friend, but she is the former president of Planned Parenthood and a co-founder in Supermajority, alongside me and Ai-jen. Supermajority is the organization we launched for women who want to work together to build economic and political power, organize for gender equity, and transform this country. Yes. Welcome, Cecile.

 

Cecile Richards:

It’s so great to be with you all. And it’s such an auspicious time.

 

Ai-jen Poo:

Indeed. Indeed.

 

Alicia Garza:

Yes, that’s kind of like the understatement of the year.

 

Ai-jen Poo:

Auspicious is one word, yeah. All right. So, where do we even start? I mean, Cecile, how are you keeping yourself going right now? How are you staying focused?

 

Cecile Richards:

Well, it really helps actually getting to talk to you all all the time. And just, I think in this time of COVIDness and being separate from so many people that I love, I think just being able to think about how we can use this moment most effectively to build this unbelievable and capitalize on this incredible energy that’s coming from women everywhere.

 

Ai-jen Poo:

This whole season of Sunstorm is about finding your lane. And part of what we’re trying to do here is also be another channel through which people can understand that there’s so many lanes and so many ways to contribute. And I’m curious about your journey in finding your lane. What has motivated you in making choices about where you want to spend your time and your energy as you look back?

 

Cecile Richards:

It’s funny. I think some folks grew up in thinking, “Okay, I’m going to find something. I’ll find a career. I’ll get a degree in something, and that’ll be how my life goes.” And that hasn’t ever been my life I suppose. The lanes have always changed a bit. But I will say, and I genuine, I talk about this, the privilege I’ve had in my life of always being able to choose what I did for a living, support my family, and to choose to do that to make social change is such a privilege. I worked as a union organizer for many, many years with women who had damn few options, if any, about what they did. And yet, they also chose to be rebels and change-makers.

 

At Planned Parenthood, I saw the power of investing in young women. And how much I learned from them, I mean, they see the world differently. They think about organizing differently. And I guess that’s really, to me, the joy of getting to do this work at Supermajority now is I’m surrounded by young women who have nothing but opportunity ahead. And so, try to get out of their way so that they have the space and the freedom and the support and encouragement to lead is, that really is completely exciting to me.

 

And I do believe that women and women of color, young people, they are the agents of change. They always have been. And the thought that we could now maybe just kind of supercharge that so that women didn’t have to wait 20 years to be reaching a certain point but actually could be doing it much, much younger, means the world could change that much faster. I think that is really what Supermajority is about, is making change faster and in bigger ways.

 

Alicia Garza:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Making change faster I think is on the minds of women everywhere. And as we know, COVID-19, lovingly known as Ms. Rona, has disproportionately affected women, especially low-income women and women of color. In addition to unemployment or having to work risky frontline jobs, women are taking on huge burdens at home, childcare, elder care, managing remote school, trying to find hand sanitizer when it’s sold out everywhere, trying to make sure that the masks are washed. I mean, we’re tired, and we want change now. So, how can people who are already overloaded with the kind of chaos of this moment really find space for more action? How do we make political engagement a realistic option for people who are already holding and juggling so much?

 

Cecile Richards:

Listen, Alicia, it’s such an important question. And I want to just go back to something you said, what I think is important, is that all the things you’re saying are right and have always been true for women, particularly for women that are low incomes or working two or three jobs, women of color. Depending on where they live and their circumstances, women have always had to be holding it all together.

 

And I think what COVID has done is actually just put this massive spotlight on all the systemic issues that women deal with. And that’s what we hear at Supermajority a lot, which is, I remember this young woman saying to me in one of our early focus groups, she was in Texas, and she said, “I worked really hard to get maternity benefits at the company that I work in. And of course by the time I finally got them, it was too late for me.” But at least she felt like, “Okay, this is going to be different.” But she realized, she said, “But we can’t do this one company at a time. This is a system wide problem.”

 

So, when are we actually going to say, “Okay, actually, women are half the workforce,” or they were before corona, because of course, the coronavirus has now taken women out of the workforce in huge numbers. And it’s going to be a really, really long recovery back. But how do we look at the things that are systemically keeping women back? And there’s so many, lack of care for kids. Why are we still in an agrarian school calendar? That, I do not understand. So that every mom’s got to figure out what to do with their kid for three months.

 

It’s time that we actually think about systems change so women don’t feel like, “Okay, each one of us is inadequate to somehow figure out the way to fix this,” which I think relates to your point too, which is in terms of engagement, one is saying, “Okay, we got to have bigger ideas,” right? Because it’s one thing to phone bank for a candidate to get elected to do something. And it’s another to say, “Okay, but we’re doing this in service not just of actually changing an election or electoral outcome but actually changing the agenda and changing sort of big national policy in a way that the domestic workers that you will have done so successfully putting care giving and caregivers at the top of the agenda for the first time.”

 

And then the other is it’s like any kind of organizing, right? It’s just giving people small manageable pieces. This week, I’ve spent every night, I’ve kicked off a phone bank, a text bank, a whatever. And honestly, for some women, I guess a lot of women, they are really busy. But that one hour that they actually spend on a Zoom with women from all over the country, calling women in Arizona, to make sure that they are ready to vote is really empowering because otherwise, you can just feel like you’re just surviving to survive. So, I do think we have to find ways for women to feel like they can make a difference because they are.

 

Ai-jen Poo:

That’s right. For some, it may be harder to figure out how to draw the line between getting on that phone bank and the level and scope of change that we need to see. But I think as someone who’s been organizing for such a long time and seeing how policy change happens, I think it would be great to hear from you kind of how… Just draw that line for people a little bit more sharply. How do we get from here to the kind of policy systems change that you just talked about?

 

Cecile Richards:

Well, I’m going to take a good example, what I think is a good example, of childcare. It’s just something I’m kind of obsessed with because we got no plan, right? I mean, the government bailed out the airline industry for $50 billion and spent like almost nothing on childcare. So, what would actually have had a more effect in terms of allowing people to stay in the workforce and caregivers to get paid?

 

There are stacks of great childcare policies that we could adopt, and in some ways, I would say I’m pretty agnostic about what one we do. We just have to build the political will in this country to say, “This has to go to the top of the list.” This can’t be the thing that never gets talked about, or it gets talked about after we’ve already funded the military, the roads and bridges, all the other things. And so to me, that’s the idea, Ai-jen, is, how do you build a big enough bad-ass cadre of women and people who support gender equity in this country to say, “No, no, no, no, no, this is going up. This is going to go up to the top”? That, to me, is empowering because then people feel like, “I don’t have to be an expert in every little policy thing. I just have to make sure that it happens.”

 

And I mean, Alicia, obviously you have so much experience in this, but the other thing to me is we just can never, never quit. And I learned this at Planned Parenthood because all the things that we wanted to do, we could never do because it was impossible. And we just didn’t give up. And that’s how we finally got birth control coverage for folks. It was never going to come down from Congress. It was just because people never gave up. And look, Alicia, on all your work, your extraordinary leadership in the Black Lives Matter movement, that’s what I see happening there too is folks just saying, “No, this isn’t a one week or this is the march of the month. This is a systemic problem that we have to be committed to solving. Everybody’s got to be in.”

 

Alicia Garza:

I mean, I just want to do a quick follow-up here because, Cecile, you’ve been on my mind a ton in the last couple of weeks as we’re literally watching this country do lots of flips and back flips and front flips and all the gymnastics. And speaking of never giving up, I mean, I think we’d be remiss if we did not kind of rewind the track a little bit to you kind of leading an organization in a deeply tumultuous time where there was a whole push, right, to completely obliterate your organization. And this is when you were leading Planned Parenthood.

 

And I guess what I’m sitting with here is that I think it would be wonderful for us to go a little bit behind the scenes in that story as a way to kind of highlight, how do you actually stay the course in the midst of nonsense? What did you draw on? What did you need to be up in that, stay focused, stay clear, not get deterred? Were you scared? Were you freaked out? Because you looked really poised. You looked like you had it all the way together. But I just, I feel like it’s always important too for people who are like, “Can I be a change-maker,” to just pull back the curtain and be like, “Yo, we all share, right, all the kind of angst, the insecurities, et cetera. But here’s how I kept going.”

 

Here you were in front of the entire world, right, breaking it down about why Planned Parenthood literally deserved to continue to exist. And you were under a lot of fire. So, how did you do it? How did you stay the course? And how did you keep going?

 

Cecile Richards:

The real amazing thing about Planned Parenthood, people used to always say like, “Oh, my God, it must be so,” they’d come up to me on the street like, “Are you doing okay? This must be so hard.” And what I try to tell them is for every nasty letter or whatever I received, I got 99 from people who said, “Thank goodness for Planned Parenthood. That was a place I got family planning when I didn’t have any insurance,” or, “That was a place I got my annuals,” or, “I turned to Planned Parenthood when there was no one else I could.”

 

And frankly, that’s why having men in government and no representation is how they just get it wrong. They actually don’t get it. They don’t get how we live our lives. And so, actually being in that one congressional hearing, which I think is probably what you’re referring to, I mean, it was the ultimate mansplaining event. I’m not a Zen person. I’m like a in motion, all the time. But there was kind of a Zen moment there when I realized because every time I tried to say something, they jumped in, and it was very calming. I thought, “Okay, well, if someone’s got the mic on national television and they’re really making an idiot of themselves, maybe you should just let them have more oxygen.”

 

And the other thing I realize, Alicia, is that what they really wanted was a fight. They wanted this big macho like, “We’re going to tell you,” and then I’m going to get mad. And when you don’t do that, they really get mad. And then the veins start coming out of their forehead. And I think that is just a… It’s important to have representation in government because there’s just some guys who they just, they think differently.

 

And then I guess the last thing I would just say about that moment is, something like one in four women in the country have been to Planned Parenthood. That’s a lot of people. And there is something about sitting, even in a hostile congressional hearing, knowing that you’re not there by yourself and that there are a lot of folks that are counting on you and that are with you and sort of just trying to feel that warm embrace, if you will.

 

And I guess the last thing I’ll say is as women, we always think we can’t do something and we have to do everything perfectly. And of course, there’s always a million reasons why you make mistakes and you would embarrass yourself, your family. And after I did that, I was like, “Oh, I can do that.” And so, I just, I think that’s why I love seeing all these women running for office, seeing that women can do so much if we just give them a chance.

 

Ai-jen Poo:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Absolutely.

 

Alicia Garza:

Yes.

 

Ai-jen Poo:

One of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about is the power of women’s personal stories, and I think they are inspiring, and they’re also, there’s this other side to it. And I think in the political context, you’ve pointed out the downside that it’s unfortunate that women have to reveal deeply personal things about ourselves in order to be heard sometimes and that it’s such an important point, especially thinking about the Me Too moment. And there’s a way we have to both speak truth to power, and we shouldn’t have to be telling our abortion stories to the world just to have healthcare, right? And so, how do you think about the balance there of leveraging the power of our stories and our experiences and not having to always just do that?

 

Cecile Richards:

Right. I know. It’s like we just have to lay ourselves bare every-

 

Ai-jen Poo:

Every time.

 

Cecile Richards:

… single-

 

Ai-jen Poo:

And then we’re called cold if we don’t get personal and intimate.

 

Alicia Garza:

Ugh.

 

Cecile Richards:

Although, I did tell the story of having an abortion and my lack of regret about it that it was such an important decision to be able to make. So, I’d say what was important to me about that was, one, is I could. I have a supportive family. I didn’t feel shame, a lot of things that really are hard. And there were women who stopped me still in airports and say, “Thanks for sharing your story,” old women pulling me aside, whispering, still afraid to tell their story.

 

And I know a big part of what’s happened with the Me Too movement and the really courageous work of Tarana and so many others is just getting rid of all the shame that we’ve all been made to live with all of our lives. And so in some ways, it is very liberating to be able to say, “You know what? I just don’t have to feel bad about myself anymore.” And there is something really powerful in that.

 

And I think it’s also so important that we always tell anyone. Your story is your story. And however you want to share it or not share it is your business, but there is something and some times where you just feel like, “Okay, that was important maybe to a couple of people, maybe help them feel stronger, feel like they could do the next thing.” And I think that’s what this movement of women is about.

 

Ai-jen Poo:

Absolutely.

 

Alicia Garza:

Let’s talk about Supermajority because more and more and more, I’m getting messages like, “How do I get involved? This is just out of control. Where can I start?” And so, it’d be great to just do a quick rundown. What is Supermajority up to right now? How can people get involved, and why should you get involved?

 

Cecile Richards:

Well, one, because it feels better than just being angry and frustrated. And so I’m always like, “Turn off the television and just go do something, even a little thing, because it’s going to feel better. You’re going to feel better.” And it’s interesting what you said, Alicia, because I think for some of us who’ve been organizers, like the two of you, all of our lives, you think there can’t possibly be a person left that isn’t already doing stuff. And yet, we find them every day who are going like, “Okay, I just, I just, this is too much.” And so, I do hope that no matter if you’ve been an activist for your entire life or if you’re just getting started, this is a place where you can find community and just sort of take the next step.

 

Clearly, right now, we’ve got… How many days is it now? I keep forgetting the count, but all focus is on getting people to vote, particularly getting women to vote because women are the majority of voters and can and will determine the outcome of the selection. So in this very, very specific time, folks can go to supermajority.com. One, you can volunteer. So, you can text bank. You can phone bank. There’s all kinds of women that still need information about voting so you can actually take action.

 

At the bare minimum, you can go and find out, are you registered to vote? And believe me, everybody should check and see if they’re still registered because the, as we know, the rampant effort to try to disenfranchise folks is ongoing. Find out if you’re registered to vote. In some states, you can still register to vote. And some states, you can register on the day of the election so making sure you know. You can find out where your polling place is. You can find out what your early voting options are.

 

Because this country has, again, and we talk about systemic problems, the goal has never been to get everybody to vote so we make it as complicated as possible for people to get that information. And I mean, we could talk about all the examples in even my home state of Texas, it’s just outrageous things they’re doing to try to make it harder for folks to vote. But Supermajority has built that tool so at least for this election, people can find out the rules.

 

And when we think about, okay, if we elect a new president, vice president, if we elect a new United States Senate, one of the first orders of business has to be democracy reform. Election day should be a national holiday. It should be open registration all across the country. This state by state business is… Obviously, it was set up that way for a reason. And so, I think it’s really important. Now, that’s one of the things I hope at Supermajority, post-election, that we can really be totally part of the, I think, massive wave to get serious voting reform in this country.

 

Alicia Garza:

That’s so so important.

 

Cecile Richards:

I mean, the sophistication, [inaudible 00:20:21] funny because we were doing a lot of research and talking to women who are not regular voters, some who really very seldom voted, doing very in depth conversations. Their fundamental understanding about how ridiculous the electoral college is, is they’re asking like, “How could someone get 3 million more votes and not be the president of the United States?” So, I mean, this is deeply understood, deeply felt. And I think a real opportunity to reassess and I hope make big change on how we elect, how we run elections, and how we make sure that everybody can vote and that their votes are counted.

 

Ai-jen Poo:

It does seem like there’s way more awareness about the importance of democracy reform and all the pieces that you just laid out. And do you feel like we’re in a moment where some of the stuff that we’ve talked about forever might actually be possible?

 

Cecile Richards:

I do, but again, it’s just like we were talking about, it’s not that we don’t know what to do. It’s that we need to build the political will. This has to just be a non-negotiable. And look, I think too, things don’t just happen. As we know, they happen because people organize around them. They talk about them. They lift that up. And so to give credit where credit’s due, there was nothing more important to me than Stacey Abrams’ race for governor of Georgia, one, to excite people all across the country that this woman was making this historic race and also see firsthand the rampant voter suppression that happened in the state of Georgia. I think we all know, if all the votes had been counted and everyone had been allowed to vote, Stacey would be governor today. And I’m so proud of her for continuing that fight on, right? So, I do think that it’s because of folks like Stacey Abrams and others who’ve just said, “We’re not going to just say, ‘Oh, well, that happened,’ but we’re going to actually fight to make a deal.”

 

Ai-jen Poo:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

Alicia Garza:

Absolutely.

 

Ai-jen Poo:

When I think about some of my favorite moments over the last year or so, many of them were with the two of you doing Supermajority work. We did so much. I mean, I can’t even-

 

Alicia Garza:

We did some wild stuff.

 

Ai-jen Poo:

… some wild stuff, the bus tour.

 

Cecile Richards:

The bus.

 

Alicia Garza:

The bus.

 

Cecile Richards:

The bus.

 

Alicia Garza:

Lots of good-

 

Ai-jen Poo:

What are some of your favorite moments, Supermajority moments over the course of the last few years? I guess it hasn’t been a few years. It’s just been a year.

 

Cecile Richards:

There’ve been, yes, hilarious times. And of course, I’m an organizer at heart, so I like to be out in the field. And I mean, we’ve had, I think the three of us, you’re right, have had some extraordinary sort of moments. But one of the things that was important I think to all of us is to say in the presidential primary that candidates needed to listen to women. Not just talk to women, they needed to listen to women.

 

And so of course, we did a series of presidential conversations or listening sessions. And I’ll never forget being in Austin, Texas, where we had Mayor Castro in a small restaurant on the east side with a packed audience of women, almost all Latina, many of whom probably didn’t speak English, and so, dual translation. And I mean, there were just… People were weeping that the thought that someone who was running for president, who could be president, could still be president, was sitting in this small room hearing from women and their stories was one of the most powerful times I remember. And that, to me, is, it’s why this work matters. It is bringing women together, giving this spot where they can influence not only their own future but the future of the country. So, I don’t know. That was a special, special time.

 

Alicia Garza:

All right, let’s jump into future forward but also very much into the present question. So, Cecile, you and Ai- jen and I have been organizing in this movement collectively for a while.

 

Cecile Richards:

I got a lot more years on you then, Alicia. That’s okay. You’re going to be very, very diplomatic. I appreciate it.

 

Alicia Garza:

Well, I am going to ask you to provide some perspective here knowing that where we enter in has a lot to do with how we see the future in our movements. So, more and more people I think have found the freedom, the support, and the language that they need to actually opt out of the gender binary. And there’s been a lot of progress here, like states offering a non-binary gender option on driver’s licenses. We’re also seeing many more non-binary and two-spirit candidates running for office.

 

But I think we’ve had this really interesting conversation that’s unfolded over the last maybe decade, right, about the implications for women’s organizations. And I think that the women’s movement certainly has not been perfect as it’s related to gender. And even though we are fighting for gender equality, right, there are things that get in the way including, right, being narrow in our understanding of what gender looks like. I guess what I want to ask here is, how does our movement need to shift in order to make sure that we’re bringing everybody with us? And how can we navigate these different experiences of gender in ways that lift up more people as opposed to leave out more people?

 

Cecile Richards:

Listen, it’s such a incredibly important and profound question and one I don’t think we certainly don’t have the answer to. And it’s interesting, when Supermajority started, I know we had a lot of conversations, the three of us and other co-founders, about this issue because I think we are moving to a less gendered world in all ways. And even when we launched, I think a third of the folks who joined Supermajority do not use she/her pronouns. And so, I think being attuned to that and figure out how do fight for a world where gender is not in any way limiting, gender identity, and also balance that with a recognition that there are so many institutions that being identified as a woman is hugely challenging. So, I think those two things, if you’re, what is it, like Gloria Steinem always says, the definition of a movement is you’re moving. And so, I would hope that for Supermajority, that this is a conversation that is continuing to grow.

 

As we know too, just representation by gender doesn’t… There are women in the United States Senate who routinely vote against the interests of, I’d say, women, of people of all genders. And so, just having that identifier is not actually that helpful. And that’s part of the reason we developed the Majority Rules with obviously an enormous amount of help from the two of you and thousands of people across the country, which is kind of, what is a country we want to build and live in, and then how do we start organizing around that? And I think your point, Alicia, is really important, how do we use gender in a way that isn’t a limiter, isn’t a construct that makes us smaller but that actually can make us more powerful? We got to keep this conversation going.

 

Alicia Garza:

Absolutely.

 

All right. So when this episode of Sunstorm goes out into the world, the election will be two weeks away.

 

Cecile Richards:

I can’t wait. I can’t.

 

Alicia Garza:

I can’t even picture it.

 

Cecile Richards:

Okay, it’s happening.

 

Alicia Garza:

All right, it’s happening, so any words of advice or action items for our Sunstorm listeners for these next two weeks?

 

Cecile Richards:

I think that, just keep it simple. So many people don’t vote because no one ever talked to them. They never even asked them. And there are people in all of our communities that we know, like, “God, I just need to reach out and say, ‘Did you register? Do you know how to vote?'” Again, as Alicia referenced earlier, if you can’t figure out another way to help them, just go to Supermajority, see if they’re registered. And they could get a copy of their ballot. They can figure out where they can vote. They could figure out what the hours are. They can find out if they can vote early in person. It’s not everything. As we know, and we talk about this a lot at Supermajority, elections aren’t the be all end all. It’s just the place where we get to push that door open and get to the other side where we have a fighting chance of making the kind of change we want to make. And I guess the only other thing, Alicia and Ai-jen, I want to say is, I want everybody who’s listening not to think that our work ends on November 3rd.

 

Ai-jen Poo:

That’s right.

 

Cecile Richards:

Because we got to be ready to be in the streets. We got to be ready to be doing whatever it’s going to take to make change happen. And we are not going to know everything on November 4th. There’ll still be a lot of organizing left to do.

 

Alicia Garza:

That’s right. We are in election season, which means it doesn’t end November 3rd. And in fact, we’re going to have a long road to hoe right afterwards. So, thank you, Cecile. It is always a pleasure to chat with you. It always lights a fire inside us to learn from you and to ideate and strategize with you. So, thank you.

 

And people can follow you at Cecile Richards on all the socials. And if you want to get more engaged in the work that we’re doing this fall, text Sunstorm to 97779. We’ll be sending regular updates on how you can take action on all the issues you care about. And don’t forget to check out sunstormpod.com, where we’ll have additional information on Cecile and how you can get involved in all the good things that she’s doing. Two more weeks until the elections of our lives. We got this, fam, big deep breaths. And until next week, ciao.

 

Ai-jen Poo:

Ciao, ciao. Thank you, Cecile, we love you.

 

Cecile Richards:

Love you too. Thanks for having me.

 

Ai-jen Poo:

Sunstorm is a project of the National Domestic Workers Alliance in collaboration with Participant. Sunstorm is executive produced by Alicia Garza, Ai-jen Poo, and Kristina Mevs-Apgar. Sunstorm is produced by Amy S. Choi and Rebecca Lehrer of the Mash-Up Americans. Producers are Shelby Sandlin, Mary Phillips-Sandy, and Mia Warren. Original music composed by Jen Kwok and Jody Shelton. Kind of a one… Oh, is that Ollie? Ollie.

 

Cecile Richards:

Oh, my God. That is Ollie.