Q&A: Cecile Richards

The women’s health advocate will serve as the keynote speaker for the National Council of Jewish Women Michigan’s benefit

Cecile Richards is perhaps best known as the former president of Planned Parenthood — she retired from her 12-year role at the women’s health nonprofit earlier this year. But, from her politically aware childhood in Texas to her time on Capitol Hill and current position as a board member of the Ford Foundation, she’s been an advocate for women’s rights and social advocacy throughout her entire life. On Oct. 11, Richards, who released her book, Make Trouble: Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead, in April, will share some of the wisdom she’s gained from these experiences during a keynote speech at the National Council of Jewish Women Michigan’s Women of Vision benefit luncheon in Farmington Hills. Ahead of her visit, she spoke with Hour Detroit about her affiliation with NCJW, her best moment at Planned Parenthood, and her efforts to encourage women to vote.

Hour Detroit: When were you last in metro Detroit, and why partner with NCJW for your upcoming visit? 

Cecile Richards: I was there this summer and had a really great opportunity to do a listening session with women from Detroit on what they’re concerned about, how politically motivated they are, and what they’re feeling in this time. I was really inspired by the motivation that women had, and this was even before the primary. It felt like women in Detroit and Michigan were incredibly focused on what’s happening both in the local area and Washington. I feel like I have worked with the NCJW for my entire life. They’ve always been such strong advocates for women’s rights. Back in Texas, in my early days when I was organizing for religious freedom and public education, there was no stronger organization than NCJW. Then when I worked on Capitol Hill for Nancy Pelosi, NCJW was always pivotal on every issue related to women.

During your keynote speech, will you expand on any of the lessons you learned while at Planned Parenthood or the words of wisdom shared in Make Trouble?

Absolutely. [I’ll talk] a little bit about my book, which is a memoir but also a call to action. Also, what I’ve learned about what women want and what women are hopeful for in this time of challenge. I’ve seen, across the country, this outpouring of activism from women not only running for office but creating new organizations and advocating in Congress for issues they care about. This is the right time for women, and it couldn’t be a better time to be talking to NCJW.

“Women see issues differently. We’ve seen that women come into office because they want to get things done.”
— Cecile Richards

Can you elaborate on what “make trouble” means to you, and why this advice is imperative right now for women? 

It’s a little tongue in cheek, but it means that the only way we really make change is when we make some good trouble. What a lot of women are asking me, and what I talk about in the book, is what should they be doing. There’s this idea that there’s the perfect thing, that if women did this the whole world would change. I don’t think that’s it. I think it’s about long, hard work for women’s equality. It’s completely in line with what NCJW has done. Women aren’t being polite, they’re not being quiet, they’re not waiting their turn, they’re not asking for permission. Women are starting before they’re ready. Particularly with young women, it’s been exciting to see that they’re not waiting until they know all the answers or have the perfect resume. That is a lot of what this book is about.

What are your most proud of from your time at Planned Parenthood, and what are your big goals moving forward?

The most important thing that happened in the 12 years I was there was the day that President Obama called me to say that he was going to announce that all women would have birth control covered at no cost in their insurance plans. That has been a game changer. That took not just years of work when I was there, but decades of work before I ever showed up on the scene with the women who first fought for birth control to be legal. We’re seeing now the lowest teenage pregnancy rate in the history of the country. These things make you feel good. I’m now completely focused on getting women out to vote this November. There’s millions of women in this country who will not vote this year, and I think trying to really emphasis to women that marching is good and writing your members of Congress is good, but voting is the whole thing.

Michigan’s primary election is on Nov. 6, and there’s a record number of female candidates on the ballot this year. What unique perspective can they bring to politics, and what’s your advice for women during this time?

Women see issues differently. We’ve seen that women come into office because they want to get things done. We’ve seen that even in the bipartisan work by women to protect the Affordable Care Act and access to Planned Parenthood. Women aren’t perfect, but they need to have equal representation. Women are finally speaking out. They’re telling their stories, they’re not being quiet. We don’t know what will happen with this nominee, but we have put this issue of sexual assault and sexual harassment inescapably into the public conversation. Women are not willing to be shamed, be stigmatized as we have our entire lives. I am really proud of the fact that women have not gone quietly. I think when Dr. Ford spoke, she spoke for millions of women in this country who feel like they never had an opportunity to speak their truth. It’s a moment that none of us will ever forget, and I hope it empowers women forward.

For more information about the National Council of Jewish Women Michigan’s Women of Vision benefit, visit ncjwmi.org.

Related: Meet Some of the Women Running for Office in Michigan