Cecile Richards Won't Back Down

Lena interviews Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards about how she manages to remain resilient against the Republican lawmakers and misogynists trying to shut her down.

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Last week, Time magazine announced its person of the year: Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany. It's been 29 years since a woman has made the cut for this distinction. If we here at Lenny were to do the honors, the person of the year would always be a dame of one kind or another. And this year, we were particularly amazed by Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, who stood strong in the face of unprecedented attacks on reproductive freedom, including the unspeakable shooting in Colorado Springs in November. Just a few months prior, Cecile's epic testimony before a Congress intent on defunding Planned Parenthood was a study in intelligence and calm — I know I would have either fallen asleep or punched someone if I had come face to face with that much ignorance. I Skyped with Cecile last week to discuss Planned Parenthood's tumultuous year, the influence of her mother, former Texas governor Ann Richards, and why 2016 is going to be a banner year for women's health in America. 

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Lena Dunham: Hi! You look so glamorous and you're in front of a blackboard. This is my dream situation in which I would find Cecile Richards. You're exactly where I would have dreamed you would be [in front of a blackboard that appears to be covered in strategic brainstorming and diagrams]. 

CR: We're here in the nerve center of Washington, D.C. 

LD: Reader demand for this interview since the first day we launched has been so massive. So this is very exciting. I wanted to start out by saying how sorry we are about what happened in Colorado, and how painful that must be for Planned Parenthood. 

CR: Thanks. I appreciate it. 

LD: Planned Parenthood is always under some measure of scrutiny and attack in this country, but how is the Planned Parenthood family recovering from this latest attack in Colorado Springs? Have you had to take new measures to ensure your safety and your employees' safety? 

CR: Thanks for your expression of sympathy. Of course, the most important thing to us is the safety of our patients and our employees. We actually reopened at our health centers all across the country on Saturday morning. And women were waiting for us — outside the health centers, as they always are. And so I actually feel like … we just carry on. Our motto is "Our doors stay open." And they do. 

We'll move on from this. It's obviously really disturbing how much hateful rhetoric there is about women. About women who seek abortions, doctors who provide abortions, organizations that provide abortions. I hope people will take stock of what can happen sometimes when the rhetoric just gets so intense and really ugly. 

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LD: As a leader, how do you deal with these challenging and even tragic moments? So many of us have trouble just making a lunch order. What is it like for you to have had to lead Planned Parenthood through these historically challenging moments this year? Do you have any sort of tips or tricks that you use to galvanize your team and maintain the kind of workplace that you want to be in, even under that kind of pressure? 

CR: Well, I guess I'd say, first, we've always been under pressure. The two things that keep it going are one, the unbelievable team here at Planned Parenthood. Nobody just happened to come here to work. Everyone's here because they care about what we do, and so that helps people go through tough times. And then the other thing is just the overwhelming need and support of our patients who, like I said, Saturday morning, they were there at our clinics, and they were just saying, "Thank you so much for reopening this morning, because I really needed to come here." That's what keeps people going. 

I also think there's a spirit at Planned Parenthood: "Don't tell me I can't do something because that would just make me double down and do it even more." I think that's how people have kind of felt this fall. 

There's a spirit at Planned Parenthood: "Don't tell me I can't do something because that would just make me double down and do it even more."​

LD: Obviously, this year you dealt with something so wild in terms of the attacks on Planned Parenthood. This all resulted in your testifying before Congress in order to prevent the defunding of your essential programs. For so many of us, you went in a heroine and emerged a total goddess. What was your approach to handling that moment? How did you prepare and how did you relax? 

CR: Even as miserable as it might be to be before a group of really hostile folks in Congress, I'm so proud of what Planned Parenthood does every day. That really brings you a certain amount of peace going into the situation. There's nothing to be apologetic for, nothing to be ashamed of, so there's a little bit of serenity. I remember, as I was going in, a friend of mine who has been a lawyer for good-guy causes all her life texted me something like, "May the rage of women through the centuries center you as you go into this." So I think it was kind of bringing women in the room. It felt really good. 

LD: So many of us were so shocked by the amount of misogyny that was displayed. We all knew that there was a tremendous amount of hostility toward women in the country. Not just in the country, but a tremendous amount of hostility toward women on Capitol Hill. And seeing that in action, seeing those men interrupt you, was shocking. And I wondered if that surprised you? Or whether having a mother who was so active in politics, who was a Democrat in a state where that wasn't the norm, was that kind of misogyny something you've been aware of for a long time? 

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CR: It is kind of shocking to me, particularly in Congress, the amount of hostility toward women, and just basic anger. I disagree with a lot of people, but I really don't operate from a place of anger. And these folks seemed really angry, and that did surprise me, and I think that's why they just can't help themselves from going too far. 

I'll tell you another thing, Lena. It made me have so much appreciation for the women who serve in Congress. Because I'm just dealing with this for five hours. You're dealing with this every single day when you come to work. That's pretty stout. 

LD: You managed to stay completely poised and even maintain a sense of humor, and they just dug themselves deeper and deeper. So many women I know were watching you and just cheering like crazy because they could not believe that you were handling that. 

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CR: Look, it wasn't about me. I think, really, I was just there as this placeholder for millions of women in the country who never get to testify before Congress. So I do feel like we had to bring that in the room. I think it really did expose the misogyny or the hostility toward women in Congress. And the total lack of regard. 

It doesn't surprise me that they don't know much about women's health or women's bodies or what a breast exam actually consists of. But it did stun me how little they cared. And how little empathy they have for women who basically don't have access to health care in this country. That is shocking. You shouldn't be able to be in Congress and not care about women at all.

LD: You have talked a lot, publicly, about your mother and what a role model she's been — clearly, you were raised by a very dynamic individual. I know you weren't a little kid when your mother became governor, but what was that like for you, watching your mother in this position? Were you aware of the hostility that existed toward her as a Democrat in Texas? 

CR: I kind of grew up in a family that was just into being against the status quo and making trouble. Long before she was in politics, [my mother] was in the women's movement and the farmworkers movement and you name it. I think we just grew up that way. 

I do think it was interesting to see [what happened] when she actually decided to no longer be what we called in those days "a housewife." The shock and awe of having a woman, a recovering alcoholic as she would say, a divorced woman, a single woman, and a liberal running for governor. The whole package was something that people were not used to dealing with. 

And I feel like for a lot of people she was either a lesbian or she was a slut or she couldn't hold a man. All of these things were said about her. I mean, at that point, she was a grandmother. But it didn't matter. You never got past the sort of totally sexist attitude and attributes that they put on women in office. And it's still true. It's still true. It helped that she had a really good sense of humor. She could really just turn that back on folks in a way that was really disarming and put them in their place. 

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I think she just encouraged so many women, not just me, but other women to go: "This is the only life you have, so just go for broke and do it." In fact, she was the one who always said: "Whatever the next chance is, the next opportunity, just do it. Quit thinking about it, quit worrying about it, just go for it." 

LD: Speaking of mothers, I wondered what it was like for you to explain to them as kids what it was you do, and also some of the risks you face as the public image of Planned Parenthood. How was it balancing that caregiving role with explaining to them realistically what you do and how you do it? 

CR: I was pregnant with twins when my mother was elected governor, so they haven't really ever known any other life other than just being in the middle of a complete mash-up in a political way. And they're totally activists themselves. For them, this is just the way we live. One of my proudest moments as a mother was when Lily, my eldest, was called out by Rush Limbaugh on his radio show, by name. I was like: "My job is done, as a parent." 

LD: She did it. She achieved it. 

CR: "You're on your own now." I'm kind of kidding, but kind of not. Now, my son, he's actually going to get his PhD in chemistry. He probably figured out somebody had better get a straight job in the family. He's probably the only kid in Allegheny College who was ever the head of the social club for the fraternity and the vice president of the reproductive-rights group. 

LD: That literally makes my heart sing. 

CR: That's the kind of boy you want to have. I'll never forget, when we first were getting defunded, he texted me from rural Pennsylvania, and he said: "Mom, I'm in a bus going with kids from college to Ohio to rally for Planned Parenthood. I love you." I was like, oh, Daniel!

LD: I can't imagine. That must have moved you beyond belief. 

CR: It was crazy. I was just so touched. Again, it was like: Daniel is getting on a bus to go to Ohio to rally for Planned Parenthood. This movement is taking off. We're going someplace. 

LD: That's amazing. You just touched on the horrors of the effort to defund Planned Parenthood. There's so much fear and anxiety right now about the way that the clock is turning back on reproductive rights and justice. 

Actually, today I was at a breakfast here in Hollywood, and Barbra Streisand was saying, "How is it that these things are only getting worse for women's health and rights?" And she was met with rousing applause. And I wondered if you felt like you had seen shifts in the politics around reproductive rights in your nine-year tenure as president of Planned Parenthood? Is it just an illusion that things are moving backward or is that the reality of what's happening in our country? 

CR: I think it's really important to separate the politics of what's happening and where the people are. I mean, the divide on everything in this country is so vast, and no place is that clearer than on women's rights, reproductive rights. 

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I think when they realigned all the legislatures in 2010 and Congress got taken over by the tea party, we just saw this enormous shift to the right on a whole host of issues, but really poignantly on women's rights, and that's why you're seeing record numbers of bills passed by Congress to not only defund Planned Parenthood but end safe and legal abortion. Every single presidential candidate running on the Republican side wants to overturn Roe v. Wade. I mean the whole thing. But if you look at the people in this country, they are supportive of safe and legal abortion. They support Planned Parenthood. I was just looking at the recent numbers. More than 60 percent of people in America support Planned Parenthood, and only 11 percent approve of Congress. I think that's a really good way of showing that, in fact, just because the politics are going one way, it's not because that's where the people are. 

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What encourages me is that not only are young people in this country with us, they're interested in sex. They believe in access to sexual-health services. They believe in LGBT rights. They believe in immigrant rights. They believe that the globe is, in fact, warming. They're on a whole different track than where I think the right wing is in this country. And we have to invest in more young men and women across the country to be the leaders. The guys who have been put in charge for all these many, many, many years, they're beginning to look up and go, "Wow, you know, our days are numbered in terms of being able to completely control the world." And Gloria Steinem always says, "No one gave up power without a fight." And I think that's what we're seeing. 

LD: So how can young women best use their power? The power of the word, the power of their time. How can they best lend themselves to being champions of choice?

CR: I think that one thing is, as unsexy as it may be, young women and young men: vote. That is going to make an enormous difference, and obviously we're in a year where that's going to be incredibly important. And I know sometimes people don't really see voting as directly related to the issues they care about. But it is really important. 

I think, too, and this is something you know a lot about, that the more that people can actually use creativity and art and culture to change the norms, it just has a profound effect. So whether it is people talking honestly on Girls about abortion, or Kerry Washington's character having an abortion on Scandal, those are the things that people begin to normalize. Normalize and get out in the open stories that have just been shut down for so long. 

Then, I think the last thing is just women telling their stories. And this is where young women in the reproductive-justice community have totally led and said, "We're not going to be ashamed anymore, about sex, about our own sexual history, about the decisions we've made." And that, to me, is a hugely liberating thing. 

LD: I know every year is a challenging one for Planned Parenthood, but this has been especially so. Looking ahead to 2016, how do you think we can best galvanize, and what do you hope to achieve? 

CR: I guess my hope and dream is that this country, and countries around the world, elect people who believe that women should have equal rights. That's no small deal. I think the thing I fear most is that my daughters will have fewer rights than I did. And in Texas, they already do. 

But even in this period of a very challenging political assault from politicians who want to end women's access to care, we gained something like more than 300,000 new activists this fall. Just from this fight. So my hope is that we just continue to grow. 

I do think we're at this really critical point of inflection in the U.S., and it's going to be decided a lot by politics. Are we going to make a big leap forward here, or are we going to go back 50 years and have to start fighting these battles over and over again? I think it's more important now than it's ever been. 

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Lena Dunham is a bleeding-heart liberal with a near-constant urinary-tract infection.

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