As the president of the at once embattled and triumphant Planned Parenthood, Cecile Richards isn’t the kind of woman to pass the buck. And yet the very first words out of her mouth when we meet on Sunday are: “It’s important that you know that this wasn’t my decision.”
The “this” is the fact that Planned Parenthood has backed a presidential candidate before the general election for the first time ever. The organization announced last week that it would support Hillary Clinton in her bid for the White House. On Sunday, they joined together at Southern New Hampshire University for a formal endorsement event. Volunteers and patients streamed in, holding posters and wearing buttons. Planned Parenthood staffers have seen to the installation of a wall-to-wall hot pink carpet for the occasion. Hillary Clinton and Cecile Richards are wearing matching pantsuits.
Even under the fluorescent bulbs, the room is aglow. The media relations specialist for Planned Parenthood who loops an ID band around my wrist at the door quips, “We would have made them glittery and sparkly if we could.” Elsewhere, a staffer slips a birth-control costume over her head. She is a human pill pack and a conservative nightmare and a damn dream to everyone in this auditorium. Richards and Clinton have been pals for decades, but this endorsement was not a friendly favor. It went to vote.
“There was an interview process,” Richards explains. “We looked at the records of the candidates and we had meetings all across the country with grassroots supporters of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, and this is the decision they made.” No less intrepid, Richards was happy to follow suit.
“THESE ARE CANDIDATES WHO WANT TO TAKE WOMEN BACK IN TIME, AND WE AREN’T GOING BACK.”
“This is a woman who, first, has not only been a solid voice and a solid vote, but has also been a champion for women and families,” Richards says. “And second, as has been covered pretty extensively in the press, the extremism that we’ve seen from the Republican frontrunners for President of the United States is really alarming and especially alarming to anyone who is part of Planned Parenthood. These are candidates who want to take women back in time, and we aren’t going back.”
Richards turns a small, red-white-and-blue “H” pin over in her hands. She tries a few times to affix it to her immaculate navy pantsuit, blind. “Never mind,” she says, setting it aside. “I’ll do it later. I don’t want to waste your time on pins.” We both smile, though. (ELLE.com writers do not believe accessories to be a waste of time.)
Cecile Richards knows the balance of style and substance. She mastered it at home, watching the late and great Texas governor Ann Richards run for elected office and win—even in a blood-red conservative state. And she has demonstrated a leadership all her own this election season, which has already tested Planned Parenthood in new and tragic ways. The release of a series of videos edited to make it seem as though the organization had sold fetal tissue for profit renewed petitions to defund Planned Parenthood. Richards testified about the videos for the House Oversight Committee in September, enduring five hours of examination. When it was all over, the media reamed committee members like Rep. John Duncan and Rep. Jim Jordan for their at once sexist and impudent conduct. Through it all, Richards never flinched. This is the luxury of the crusader—when you believe in your cause, you never give up.
“WE HAVE A LOT OF REPUBLICAN MEMBERS AND REPUBLICAN PATIENTS. WE HAVE REPUBLICAN STAFF.”
ADVERTISEMENT – CONTINUE READING BELOW
As a national organization, Planned Parenthood operates at 700 sites across the U.S. and administers more than 10 million medical services each year. For all the chatter about choice and unwanted pregnancies, abortion services make up only 3 percent of the care it provides women who often have nowhere else to go for medical attention. And while conservatives wring their hands and preach abstinence-only sex education, Planned Parenthood is a welcome resource for fact-based sex education in K-12 schools and universities.
“All kinds of people count on us for care,” Richard says. One in five women has visited a Planned Parenthood. 10 percent of patients are men, who depend on the organization for STD testing and routine checkups. She would rather not politicize healthcare. Too bad our current elected representatives have forced her to. “We have a lot of Republican members and Republican patients,” she says. “We have Republican staff. I hope I live to see the day when access to women’s healthcare and women’s rights are no longer partisan issues.” Until then, she is all in for Clinton. At the event over the weekend, she recounts the forums that Planned Parenthood assembled to give advocates and activists a space to let the organization know what they want from the next presidential administration.
“Here is what we heard: They want a president who believes access to healthcare isn’t a luxury—it’s a human right. They want a president who understand that being pro-choice also means being able to choose to have a child—and a president who will fight for prenatal care, Head Start, health care for kids, and first-class public schools, because it takes a village! They want a president who will demand nobody is paid less just because they are a woman. We deserve 100 cents on the dollar. And they demand a president who will protect access to safe and legal abortion, who is tough enough to stand up to anyone who would deny women the right to make their own health decisions. This year, we have that candidate.”
She is beaming. Her pin, I take a millisecond to note, stands at perfect attention.
“THIS ELECTION IS A SHOWDOWN BETWEEN THOSE WHO WANT TO BUILD ON THE INCREDIBLE PROGRESS WE’VE MADE AND THOSE WHO WANT TO RIP IT ALL AWAY”
She continues, outlining the crossroads at which the American people now stand. “This election is a showdown between those who want to build on the incredible progress we’ve made and those who want to rip it all away,” she says. And she’s ready for it. Because despite the very real tragedies and the almost theatrical trials with which Planned Parenthood has contended, Richards is optimistic. Women have burst into those chambers that men once commanded. However unwelcome, they are in boardrooms and on the Supreme Court. Richards and Clinton have together zeroed in on a last and ultimate target: They just need to get to the White House. “Women and families need that advocate,” Richards tells me. And yet she is the first to celebrate the smaller ways that women have asserted themselves in public spaces.
“It has been hard, historically, to hear women’s voices and women’s stories,” Richards says. “Over the past five years and because of social media, we’ve seen an explosion of women’s stories get out there and break through that silence. To me, it’s really been a democratizing force, and that’s very exciting.” She applauds a new generation of role models like Jennifer Lawrence and Amandla Stenberg and lesser known heroes like the 113 attorneys who shared stories of their own abortions in an amicus brief to the Supreme Court last week.
“Women’s magazines have played a crucial role in this,” Richard maintains. “And ELLE is a perfect example, being willing to get out there and talk honestly and openly about subjects that have been taboo for way too long. Whether it’s stories about access to abortion or stories about pregnancy and sex and sexuality, this is a very healthy development. It’s tremendous.” She cites once more the statistic about just how many women have been to Planned Parenthood. “There are a lot of stories,” she says. “And because of social media and because of a combination of other factors, what I’ve seen not only from young women, but also from young men and all young activists is a willingness to talk about shame and stigma and judgment and say, ‘That’s just not who we are and who we want to be.’”
Richard deems the trend “refreshing.” But it’s more than that, she adds. “For too long, folks have been afraid of what people would say about them. I grew up in an era [in which] people didn’t speak out a lot about those personal issues. I hope that for young people now in their teens and their twenties it’s just getting easier to have conversations about issues that just frankly were taboo for way too long. The rise of social media and digital and mobile means that even in states like Texas, where I grew up and where sex education is very hard to get, you can now get almost anything on your cell phone. To me, it’s such a liberation.”
It is, of course, a precarious progress, which Clinton is quick to point out when she stands in front of the podium in New Hampshire. Republicans candidates, she says, have been “telling you exactly what they’ll do if they get elected. And you know what? We should believe them. We should believe them because they are so far out in saying what they will do. They will be held to it and some of them even believe it. So that’s why we have to know where we stand and I want you to know where I stand.” Clinton raises her voice. “I will always defend Planned Parenthood,” she thunders. “And I will say, consistently and proudly, Planned Parenthood should be funded, supported, and celebrated—not undermined, misrepresented, and demonized.”
While Richards cheers the declaration, the truth, she says, is that she needs no public commendation for her work. And I believe her. “There are a lot of jobs you can do in your life, and I’m sure there are places where you can be very financially successful,” she says. “But there is nothing like having a job where people you’ve never met tell you, ‘Thanks for making my life better.’ I tell young people all the time, ‘If you are fortunate enough to find something where you can make a difference in the world and it brings you joy, go for it, and never look back.’”
Richards can hardly fathom it. Backward is not a direction she’s interested in going.
Source : www.Elle.com