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Cecile Richards Loves Seeing What Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Is Doing

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Photo by Cindy Ord/ Getty Images

Talking with the former head of Planned Parenthood about the new crop of politicians and her book, 'Make Trouble'

"We have to invest in young people and welcome them into movements," Cecile Richards, former head of Planned Parenthood and author (along with Lauren Peterson) of Make Trouble, told me over the phone recently. We're talking about her book, which has just come out in paperback, but we're also talking about the impending presidential election cycle, the issues that need to be brought to its forefront, and the power of young politicians, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Richards stressed that involving young people in grassroots movements is the key to comprehensive political success, and it was key to her strategy when she led Planned Parenthood: "Becoming an advocate or getting involved in sort of the civic world is sometimes a little frightening or overwhelming. It's why I love seeing what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been doing to demystify what it means to be in Congress. And when I was at Planned Parenthood, we invested a lot in supporting and lifting up young women leaders and, actually, just young leaders in general. They're the most diverse generation, they are very progressive, they have all the dreams and hopes and expectations that they and their peers can do anything with their lives."

Richards comes from a politically engaged family; her mother, Ann Richards, was the governor of Texas and bestowed upon her daughter a passion for progressive politics. And Richards made a name for herself for her staunch defense of Planned Parenthood, whose federal funding is under constant threat from Republicans who just can't seem to understand why health care access is important for all women.

Voices like that of Richards are essential right now in fighting for the rights of the historically oppressed, and helping to inspire people of all ages to take up the good fight. Below, she explains why she's hopeful about our future, how to stay motivated in the face of defeat, and why it's important to make good trouble.

Why do we still need to encourage girls to make trouble?

I grew up in Texas, where, yes, expectations for women were low. And I think that to really make any change—whether it was in the workplace or in school or in government, for sure—you had to make trouble. You had to be a bit of a rabble-rouser and someone who challenged authority, because men ran everything. I hope it's a little bit tongue-in-cheek in the sense that I think it's important to not make trouble just for the sake of it, but really, to make good trouble, as Congressman John Lewis has often said. And I do think that's what women are doing right now. I think it's actually an interesting time. I mean, it turns out it was a great time to write this book. And it's the time where, I think, women are in many arenas making trouble, in the sense of shaking up the status quo and challenging authority in a new kind of way.

Making good trouble is a really important distinction, because it's essential to affect change in a positive, progressive way. And it is really important to look at the way rules are applied to keep women and to keep people of color oppressed, and to try and break those rules.

That's exactly right. The very nature of questioning why you've never had a woman president, questioning why women are paid 80 cents on the dollar to a man—all of the women questioning these things just inherently can be considered troublemakers.

We're reaching a point for women in this country, where we're now almost half the workforce, we're more than half the college students. We are half the law students and medical students. In every walk of life, women are now reaching some parity. So it is a time in which women are feeling more empowered to actually question why workplaces, why government, has been built to keep us out, and it's time for pretty serious change.

Speaking of all of this progress, though, makes me think of the areas in which we're moving backward. Specifically, it feels like every day there's news of more restrictive abortion legislation that's being passed around the country. And those things feel and must be related, that the backlash is a response to the progress. How do you stay motivated in the face of such a fight?

I think you're right that it is the very specter of women's equality that is causing a lot of the backlash, and that's because, as we know, no one gives up power voluntarily and power-sharing requires that some people are going to have less than they currently have. And so, for women, for people of color, we have to be resolute because it's not going to be easy.

So, how do you—how does anyone—stay motivated? You have to pick the winnable battles while keeping your eye on the long game. I spent the last couple of years, before I left Planned Parenthood, fighting to keep the organization funded and from being blocked from federal programs. It seemed like there was no way we could win given the real imbalance in Congress, and so I just began to think that every single day we could keep our doors open and sort of battle back. I did the math, and it was about 5,814 people that got care each day that otherwise wouldn't have. And that may seem like a small thing, but it was what helped me to keep going, because I couldn't really determine what was going to happen in the long run. I just had to, every day, wake up and keep the doors open one more day; and then, of course, ultimately we were successful, which I think is another lesson, which is you only get what you fight for.

It's not like anything good ever is just given to you, and I think women know that. I think women are used to that, but I do think this is a time in which we have to take; we have to not only fight for every victory but then we have to lift it up so that women begin to recognize the power that they do have and the success that they have had. I worry that women are there on the front lines of everything now, whether it's fighting against this family separation policy that's taking children away from their parents, or striking for public school funding, or defending Planned Parenthood. Women have been at the forefront of all of these organizing efforts. And I just think it's important that when we do have victories that we shout them out loud and proud, because we're not going to win everything. As we know, already a lot of damage is being done to people and to families under this administration, and some of these are things that we are not going to be able to stop.

Right. We still have to fight and do it for everyone. Something I think about a lot is how privileged I am, and how I want to extend that to as many people as possible. What are the best ways to do that, for me and for everyone who shares my privilege?

I think that the question I hear all around the country, regardless of what kind of state or community women live in, they're trying to figure out how can they support women in other places. You have a particular opportunity. I just think lifting up the stories of what's happening with women around the country is important. There are many, many folks in this country in a media desert in terms of the stories of women and their real lived experiences. And I love the fact that there's been this explosion and interest in women's storytelling. I've seen so many women coming out of the woodwork because they want to hear from other women and they want to figure out how to support them.

I think the other thing we can do is realize that there are women, whether they're working on issues or whether they're running for office, who need and are relying on the financial support and immediate support of other sisters around the country. One of the most fascinating things that I learned post the November election, was that women had actually contributed 100 million dollars more to the candidates and campaigns in the last two years [than men] and they didn't even do that in the year that Hillary Clinton was running for president. So increasingly, women are recognizing that they have, even as grassroots donors, the ability to impact elections and organizations and movements. We've seen women in states all over the country, they help phone bank, they help use Twitter and texting programs to support women who are on the ballot in other states.

Women were 54 percent of the voters in 2016 and 2018. And women are 54 percent of the voters in 2020. They're going to determine the political future of the country. So I think the ways in which we can also help women feel like whatever they're doing, whether it's in Dayton, Ohio, or Atlanta, Georgia, it's all adding up to, you know, a massive grassroots movement in this country. And that's how we're going to really change things. It's not going to come from Washington down or our political leadership in this country. It's not coming from Congress or from Washington. It's coming from women at the grassroots level.

That is so hopeful, but there's also the reality that a lot of white women still vote Republican. They're voting against their self-interests as women, and voting for their interests as white people. How do we make them care about how much harm they're doing?

Women, as you say, are not a monolith. Women are the overwhelming majority of this country, so clearly we're not a monolith. The first thing that's important is that we actually, collectively, tell the story and acknowledge the role that women of color have been playing in this country for a long, long time to vote for candidates that support women's rights, lift up women and progressive values. And then we need to do work among white women as well to go to educate them about that reality. And also, I think to lift up the values that I believe actually are shared by the vast majority of women, but aren't necessarily talked about in the news.

So I've just been on a listening tour from Iowa to Georgia, Arizona, all over the country. And there are some of the things that women hold in common but are absolutely not part of the national political conversation. Number one, even though women are almost half the workforce, there's no national child care policy for them. And now the second highest cost for most families with children is child care. The second is that women cannot believe that we still get paid less than men for the exact same kind of work and, of course, it's 80 cents for women, in general; for women of color, for African-American women, it's actually 63 cents on the dollar; and for Latinas, it's 54 cents on the dollar. So there's just no way that's okay. These are issues that we can raise.

And as we know, so many women are taking care of their parents or taking care of their kids. And yet, we're the only developed nation with no nationally mandated paid family leave program. And so to me, there are all kinds of issues that are absent in our organizing, and I think we should be demanding that they be talked about. They're not discussed in the political arena.

And so I think when some way women say "well, they're voting against our own self-interest," a lot of times, I'm not sure women actually have any idea where candidates are standing on issues that are basic to their own economic future, and we have to do a better job. And we have to demand that media and politicians do a better job as well. Trying to find common bond among women of different backgrounds is one of my major interests, and I think it's just something that I'm seeing everywhere that women want to do. But, you know, this doesn't happen overnight. This is what organizing is about. But I feel more hopeful today than I ever have that we can do that.

Make Trouble: Stand Up, Speak Out, and Find the Courage to Lead is now available in paperback, here.

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