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Planned Parenthood's Cecile Richards Talks 'Finding The Courage To Lead'


As president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Cecile Richards has been at the center of the fight over abortion rights and women's health care for the last dozen years. She was born into that world. Her father was a civil rights attorney. Her mother was the trailblazer, Ann Richards, who served as governor of Texas in the 1990s. Cecile Richards kept up the tradition devoting her adult life to activism from union organizing to working closely with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi You'll find it all in her new memoir, "Make Trouble: Standing Up, Speaking Out, And Finding The Courage To Lead."

The book arrives as Cecile Richards has announced she will step down as president of Planned Parenthood after 12 years. In the middle of this big move, Cecile Richards joined us from our bureau in New York to talk about her career. And I started by asking her if she thinks her tenure as president of Planned Parenthood has been a success.

CECILE RICHARDS: During this last year of trying to defund Planned Parenthood, we've been at our highest approval rate ever. In fact, I just saw a poll from Fox News, of all places, saying that they had polled all the political entities in the country and Planned Parenthood was the most popular. So, I think that in an interesting way all of the controversy has actually led people to focus more on what we do and how important this work is. And, of course, abortion rights and the access to safe and legal abortion, the support for that in the country is stronger than ever before.

MARTIN: Why is this the time to step down?

RICHARDS: Well, it's always hard to leave. I'll be honest, I've been doing this for 12 years. But one of my commitments as a organizer is to always bring new people into the field and certainly into Planned Parenthood. And I have met, and we've hired, and have worked with some amazing leaders in the reproductive rights and justice movement, and one of the important things I think about a leader, is knowing when it's time to step aside and give over the reins to someone else. And so I decided to do that.

And I think that the organization is as strong as it's ever been, more support than we've ever had. And I'll never leave the field. Even if I'm not the president Planned Parenthood, this is my life - Is social justice and working for the rights of all people and I'll continue to do that in some way just not as the president of Planned Parenthood. And that's, OK.

MARTIN: One of the things you talk about in the book is your work with House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. Some Democrats, including the newly elected Conor Lamb, who was recently elected in Pennsylvania special election, are saying it's time for her to step down. I mean, as a person who's worked closely with her and has been another - I mean, you are, like her, another essential woman in public life. Do you think it might be time for her to step aside as well?

RICHARDS: I actually think that one of the interesting things about Nancy Pelosi - and I do talk about it in the book because so much is, I think, not known and she doesn't - she's not out there bragging about it is that, the reason why I think the Republican Party and the leadership goes after her so much is because she is the most powerful elected official in Washington D.C. And I say that having spent a lot of time up there.

You know, when I went to work for Ms. Pelosi when she just became a leader - or she was actually at that point the whip, she actually whipped the caucus against the Iraq War and got a majority of the Democrats to vote against the Iraq War. She was the lead sponsor of and the reason why we got the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare, and I was right there alongside with her in the final hours, in the final days to make sure that got passed. I just think she is really one of the most underestimated elected leaders in the country. And I don't think it's just by chance that she's a woman.

MARTIN: There's a record number of women running for office this year. And a lot of them are running in very difficult districts. I mean, that are not favorably inclined toward them. And as a person who not only grew up watching a woman run under very difficult circumstances I mean she is the last elected governor - Democratic governor of Texas, lest we forget. So I guess what I'm saying is you saw it up close from little, you know, how hard this life can be, and you've lived it. I mean, up to and including not just, you know, online death threats but real ones.

I'm wondering if you have advice for other women in public life? And I'm focusing on women in particular just because we know that a lot of women feel that they are running then exposes their children to things that they don't necessarily want them exposed to. You know, what I'm saying? It can be very personal in the way that women are attacked in a way that men are not necessarily. I mean, their appearance their clothing...

RICHARDS: Everything.

MARTIN: ...Everything, their hair, their health. So do you think you have some advice for women who are thinking about this and who are going through this, who are experiencing this now, whatever side of the political aisle they're on?

RICHARDS: Right. Well, I think, look, one of the things that we saw - and this was definitely true in mom's race for governor, and I write about this is that no one ever thought Ann Richards could be elected governor. Everything was going against her. You know, she was divorced. She was a recovering alcoholic. She was a Democrat. She was progressive. She was pro-choice. But actually, that campaign was just your classic example of defying all the odds. And it really was this enormous, sort of, outpouring of grassroots, activity, and energy that pushed her over the top. And so I think we're seeing a lot of that today. I'm sorry mom isn't around to experience this. We're now seeing women win races that no one thought they could win.

You know, I was in Virginia during the race where the first transgender woman ever won a state, you know, state assembly seat. Even in Texas, the first two Latina congresswomen, I believe, will go to Washington this year as a result of this. And the exciting thing to me is that women are not waiting their turn. They're not waiting for permission. They're not waiting to be asked. They're just running. And I as I say, like, start before you're ready. Even if you don't make it the first time, you will eventually.

And there's nothing that's going to be better for our democracy than to have a Congress and have legislatures and governors that actually represent the diversity of this country. As I say, I can't wait until Congress - half of Congress can get pregnant so we can quit fighting about birth control and Planned Parenthood. And I think those days are ahead of us.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, you know I have to ask - you running?

RICHARDS: (Laughter) You know what? Never say never. But that's not my plan. I'm really focused right now on, you know, finishing up at Planned Parenthood and then doing everything I can to get every single woman in this country to go to the polls and vote this November. If we do, we're going to change the direction of America.

MARTIN: That's Cecile Richards. She is the outgoing president of Planned Parenthood. We're talking about her new memoir, "Make Trouble: Standing Up, Speaking Out, And Finding The Courage To Lead." She was kind of to join us from our bureau in New York. Cecile Richards, thanks so much for speaking with us.

RICHARDS: Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.