Cecile Richards has dedicated her life to driving positive changes for women across the United States. The daughter of the late Ann Richards, the revered former governor of Texas and a longtime Aspen Institute trustee, Cecile Richards became president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund in 2006, heading the organization for 12 years. Under her leadership, Richards expanded Planned Parenthood’s advocacy for access to health care and played a pivotal role in shaping women’s health coverage under the Affordable Care Act. By the time she left the organization, in 2018, its membership had nearly quadrupled from 2.5 million supporters to more than 11 million. Now Richards is helping women bring about social change as a cofounder of Supermajority, a new political action group committed to promoting gender equity so that women are seen as the majority in this country and not a mere constituency. For her work advancing gender equity and women’s rights, she was honored at the end of 2019 with the Preston Robert Tisch Award in Civic Leadership—an annual Aspen Institute award funded by Laurie, Jonathan and Lizzie, and Steven Tisch to honor their father’s legacy of leadership, public service, and philanthropy. Richards accepted the award in New York City in December and spoke about her work with Emily Tisch Sussman, the host of the podcast Your Primary Playlist.
On women in power:
Women aren’t looking for power for the sake of power, and we’re not looking for power to be powerful over other people. We’re trying to model a new kind of power, a distributive power, and a lifting-other-folks-up power. One of the most fascinating things has been to see Speaker Nancy Pelosi over these last three years. She does not shy away from being powerful, but does it from such a principled point of view. Then all the diverse young women who were elected in 2018 completely changed what it looks like to be a powerful woman in politics. It’s exciting to think women of all different kinds of backgrounds and points of view can actually have political power. That’s revolution. Look at all the women who ran for president this cycle. It’s exciting, but it’s still very hard—whether it’s “shrill,” “disagreeable,” “too loud,” “too strong,” “not strong enough,” “doesn’t have a position,” “has too many positions.” It’s hard. Two-thirds of political commentators are still men. We just don’t have the cultural change yet.
On Supermajority, a new political action group:
Women in the United States are now almost half the workforce. We are more than half the voters and more than half the college students. We really are the majority, but still we battle institutions. Whether it’s the workplace, whether it’s government—these institutions were not built to have us. A perfect example is the way we treat pregnancy, maternity care, and maternity leave. The Affordable Care Act was one of the epic battles while I was at Planned Parenthood. Before that, only 19 percent of insurance plans covered maternity benefits. It was a huge fight. I actually remember in one of the Senate committee hearings, a senator from Arizona said, “Well, I don’t think we should cover maternity benefits because I am never going to need them.” Apparently he was past his childbearing age. This is why it makes a difference that women are in office. Debbie Stabenow turned right to him and said, “Well, I bet your mother needed them.” It was a fight, but now 100 percent of plans have maternity coverage. That’s just been for a few years in this country. Pregnancy is treated by many employers as a nuisance rather than the way we all got here.
Women have always been the ground troops in politics. A congresswoman who’s been in office for while said to me the other day that she attended a meeting of all the Democratic congresswomen. For the first time, they have enough women to have their own caucus. She said, “All the things we were talking about—affordable childcare, family leave, equal pay—these are issues that all of our male colleagues agree with us on. But somehow when it comes to appropriations, we’re not putting money into the issues that are fundamental to women and families.” So the idea of Supermajority is, if we are a majority—and we are—we have to actually be involved in the political process; we have to be more than just ground troops. Particularly in this next election where women just by the numbers will determine the next president, it’s important to say, “These are the things we would like to see done. These are issues that cross party lines, income, geography, experience, and generations.” What we’re finding at Supermajority is that 70 percent of the folks who have signed up with us have never been involved in advocacy politics before. Frankly, they’re raising their hands and saying, “Tell me what we can do.”
We have one modest goal: run the largest woman-to woman voter turnout program in the country. August will be the centennial of the 19th Amendment, the beginning of women’s suffrage. It’s incredibly important to know our history, because it wasn’t the beginning of suffrage for all women. It was only for white women. That’s important to remember and commit to never, never repeating the mistakes of the past. But how exciting would it be if a hundred years from the beginning of suffrage, women were the majority voting bloc in the country? What if we had a record number of women voting, and women really began to shift the tide on what’s happening in 2020 and what’s happening for this next century? Obviously, African American women have been the most reliable voters in this country, the most progressive voters in this country. If we can work across race about issues that affect us all, we could change things for this next century.
On the future of reproductive health:
The radical reshaping of the federal judiciary these last three years is going to have an impact for a long time. There are always going to be court battles. Unfortunately, the question usually is: what happens if Roe is overturned? Honestly, in some states, Roe is almost meaningless, because of punitive laws and the overwhelming barriers women face economically and geographically to access reproductive health care, including safe and legal abortion. New punitive laws most affect patients who have the least access to care. Wealthy women will always be able to access the care they need. That’s what’s so heartbreaking: no fight, no victory is ever permanent. Look at voting rights. You can’t rely on what’s happened in the past. You have to win these fights and then build on them.