Q&A with Cecile Richards

Scott Butki, a regular contributor to our MysteryPeople blog, interviewed Cecile Richards about her newly released memoir, Make Trouble. Check out their conversation below! 

make trouble

I was looking forward to reading Cecile Richards’ memoir, Make Trouble, even before I was given the generous offer to interview her about it. The book has something for everyone. Want to know what it’s like to be the daughter of former Texas Governor Ann Richards? Check. Want to know what it was like for Cecile to testify before a Congress panel over those bogus fetal tissue videos? Check. Want to know what Cecile is going to do next, now that she’s stepping down as leader of Planned Parenthood so that someone else can step into that role? Well, that’s one thing that’s not in the book, but it’s a question you can expect authors, including me, to interview her about. (See below, first question).

Near the book’s start, Cecile shares some great stories about her early experiences making trouble, such as when she shocked a teacher by refusing to say the Lord’s Prayer and announcing her family did not read the Bible in their home. “It was the first time I remember having to decide: Do I accept things the way they are, or question authority? I chose the latter, and from that point forward was branded a troublemaker,” she writes. “Once the initial shock wore, it became a badge of honor. I’ve been making trouble ever since – which, to me, means taking on the powers that be, being a thorn in someone’s side, standing up to injustice, or just plain raising hell.”

Some of my favorite parts from the first half of the book talk about Cecile’s early work organizing unions to help nursing home and garment workers in East Texas and working with other activists. She writes something I suspect all activists can relate to: “Fighting for what you believe in can be discouraging, defeating and sometimes downright depressing. But it can also be powerful, inspiring, fun, and funny – and it can introduce you to people who will change your life. That’s the message I want to spread far and wide. That’s why I wrote this book”

As someone long fascinated by Ann Richards, I especially enjoyed Cecile talking about what it is like having your mother run for and win state elections all the way up to the governor’s race. Cecile is frank about all the sexism Ann put up with everywhere while running — from other politicians, the media, etc. I love Ann’s approach and attitude. “My brother once asked how she managed to stay when dealing with Clayton Williams (who had joked about women and rape). ‘You know,’ she said, ‘my blood pressure drops. I go into cool mode. Here he is, another guy who lives a privileged life and doesn’t give a damn about women. Now I get to expose that to the world. He doesn’t get under my skin any more than the rest of the people I’ve dealt with all my life.” On that page, there’s a photo of Williams pointing his finger in Ann’s face with the caption: “Ann Richards versus Clayton Williams. He was a classic good old boy who wanted to put women in their place. It didn’t work.”

But while Ann is often mentioned, this is Cecile’s book and she’s obviously the focus. Some parts hit close to home for me, someone who is a Unitarian Universalist. “We weren’t a religious family, not in the traditional sense, but we did go to the Unitarian Church, which was sort of a home away from home for progressive families like ours in Dallas,” Cecile writes in one part. Later she writes, “As they had done in Dallas, my parents hung out at the Unitarian church, less for the religion than for finding a community of other liberals.”

Cecile describes in detail a story many in Texas know: Wendy Davis’ filibuster. She details her own experiences while in the rotunda of the capitol. Then she tosses off this gem: “At one point even Barack Obama tweeted to a cool 41 million followers, ‘Something special is happening in Austin tonight.’ Someone read the tweet out loud in the rotunda; it was a real morale boost, and possibly the one time in recorded history a president’s late-night tweet actually did some good.”

The news release for the book includes compliments from Hillary Clinton, Gloria Steinem, and Ann Pratchett, but my two favorite quotes were these. From Dr. Willie Parker: “Cecile Richards has always been willing to act up, if need be, to make a difference. Make Trouble is more than a memoir, it’s a how-to manual for affecting change.” And from Sheryl Sandberg: “Cecile Richards is my kind of troublemaker. When she sees equality and injustice anywhere, she does something about it – with wit, wisdom, and courage. Especially at this moment, there’s a lot we can learn from her career spent fighting for women’s rights. Make Trouble is exactly the book our country needs.”

And with that, let’s get to the interview …

Scott Butki: I feel I would not be doing this interview justice if I did not ask the question so many asked when you announced you were stepping down as leader of Planned Parenthood, namely what are you doing next and is it possible you will run for office?

Cecile Richards: I’ve been so privileged my entire life to be in the fight for justice, so though I don’t know exactly what is next, I hope it will be making trouble for social change! Even though I’m stepping aside from my position at Planned Parenthood, I’m not stepping away. I will always be the biggest champion of reproductive rights and justice. I know the difference having access to Planned Parenthood made in my own life, and we have to protect that for the next 100 years.

Right now, women are shaking the foundation of America, refusing to wait their turn, resisting, organizing, and running for office like never before. Women are the most powerful political force in America, and if we turn out this November, we can change the direction of this country. I’ll be focused on doing everything I can to spread the word that marching is great, calling your members of Congress is great, but voting is the whole ball game.

Scott: What are some lessons you’ve learned in life from having such a famous woman, one who never seemed to avoid “trouble” when there was an important cause, as your mother? What did she learn from you?

Cecile: My mother, Ann Richards, taught me so much that all the lessons I learned from her could fill their own book, and a lot of them are in Make Trouble. One big thing she taught me early on is that politics isn’t boring or a chore – it’s where the action is!

She also taught me that it’s never too early and never too late to make a difference. People have this idea that Ann Richards sprung fully formed as a feminist icon – that’s not true. She grew up at a time when, as she used to say, men made the decisions and women made the coffee. It wasn’t until after all four of us kids were somewhat grown, when a young lawyer named Sarah Weddington asked Mom to run her campaign, that she really jumped in with both feet and never looked back.

What did Mom learn from me? For starters, that it may sound like a nice idea to try to take a picture of her young grandchildren in perfectly coordinated matching outfits at the governor’s residence with a pony, but the logistics are pretty much a nightmare …

Scott: How did having to give testimony to Congress in that infamous hearing, over the bogus fetal tissue videos, change your life?

Cecile: That hearing taught me something women learn all the time: that we can do even more than we imagine we’re ready for. That hearing was set up to intimidate and humiliate me, but instead, wound up giving me an opening to talk for five hours about Planned Parenthood and the lifesaving care we provide. It also cast a spotlight on the sexism and mansplaining women in Congress face every day from some of their male colleagues.

Scott: You reference spending time at Unitarian Universalist congregations while growing up in Dallas and Austin, and I’m wondering if you or your family also spent time at First UU in Austin, where I am an activist and board member and “make trouble.” Can you talk about how your time at a UU church affected and inspired you?

Cecile: I love that! Growing up in Dallas and Austin, the Unitarian Church was – and still is – where people could come together for social change. In fact, it was at the Unitarian Church in Austin that I learned about the moratorium against the Vietnam War, and how I decided in 7th grade to wear a black armband to school. As I tell in the book, that got me called to the principal’s office which really kicked off the rest of my life of making trouble!

Scott: You speak in the book about victories such as Wendy Davis’ filibuster in Texas and fighting Obamacare until it included parts important to you and Planned Parenthood. I wonder if you can speak to the consequences, since every win also comes with losses, and how do you balance that out?

Cecile: In progressive politics, you lose, you lose, you lose, and then you win – and when you do, it’s huge! But that doesn’t mean the losses aren’t devastating. The fight over HB2 in Texas is a great example. Even after Wendy’s historic, marathon filibuster, when every balcony and hearing room in the Capitol were packed with people who had come to make their voices heard, we knew we didn’t have the votes to block the bill. When it passed, folks were crushed. But they kept fighting. Organizers kept organizing. Planned Parenthood health centers in Texas kept doing everything they could to be there for women who needed care. Because Texans refused to quit fighting, two years later, the Supreme Court found HB2 to be unconstitutional. The way I see it, if you’re winning every battle, you probably need to set your sights higher.

(In addition to interviewing about 20 authors a year every year for ten years, former reporter Scott Butki works with, and advocates for, teenagers with mental health needs and does social justice work. Find an index of his interviews here.)  

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