If you don’t want to hear Cecile Richards’s opinion, don’t ask. After a lifetime of working to protect the rights of the downtrodden and disenfranchised, she has earned the platform to speak her mind. And in her new memoir, Make Trouble, the departing president of Planned Parenthood wants to send a clear message to a younger generation of activists: go for it, but don’t expect it to be easy.
All over the country young women are confronting senators at town halls, building networks through shared stories, marching for change, even, Richards writes, “risking arrest to stand up for the rights of immigrants” and “turning their life upside down to run for office.” She is heartened by their work, though she knows that taking such risks entails fear. “If you’re not scaring yourself,” Richards writes, “you’re probably not doing enough.”
For Richards, politics is the family business. Long before her mother, Ann Richards, rose through the Texas Democratic Party to become governor, Richards and her siblings were immersed in politics. Her father worked for John F. Kennedy’s Justice Department and devoted his law career to labor and civil rights. When Richards was sixteen, her mother joined the campaign of Sarah Weddington, an Austin lawyer who parlayed her successful Supreme Court arguments in Roe v. Wade into a seat in the Texas Legislature. Ann, a novice to electoral politics, dragged her children to headquarters in the evenings, enabling them to “refine” their grass-roots campaign skills.
Among the most quotable politicians in Texas history, Ann taught her daughter the value of politics through her own actions: “Children learn not from what you tell them,” Richards writes, “but from what they see you do, how you spend your days and what you do with your life.”
In seventh grade, Richards became a firebrand herself when she wore an armband to protest the war in Vietnam. In the five decades since, she has remained committed to questioning authority and organizing like-minded people to push for change. Readers who know Richards exclusively from her tenure at Planned Parenthood will be fascinated by her account of her college years at Brown University, where she helped coordinate support for striking janitors and librarians, and her early years spent organizing unions for workers at New Orleans hotels and East Texas garment factories. The victories in these campaigns brought slightly higher wages, but, for the women who toiled in the shadows, “respect and recognition” was the real triumph. “Their boss had to sit across the table from them as equals and talk about wages and working conditions,” Richards recalls, “and that had never happened before.”
Throughout Make Trouble, Richards pays homage to the “troublemakers” who came before her, women who challenged the good-ol’-boy lock on political power. “If there’s one common theme that runs throughout my life, it’s strong, kick-ass women,” she writes.
She devotes a long episode to Nancy Pelosi, the California congresswoman whose staff Richards joined in 2002. When Pelosi was elected speaker of the House of Representatives, President George W. Bush invited her, along with the other top-ranking Congressional leaders, to a meeting at the White House. “I realized that it was the very first time a woman had ever been at this table,” Pelosi told Richards. “It was as if women from throughout history … were there with me. And all around me, I felt their presence.”
Ann Richards died in 2006, but Richards continued to recall her mother’s wisdom in times of trouble, notably Ann Richards’s famous response to a question about what she would have done differently if she had known she was going to be a one-term governor. “Oh, I probably would have raised more hell.” In Make Trouble, as in her long career as an activist, Cecile Richards makes the case that raising hell to stop injustice is a glorious way to live a life.
Sean Kinch grew up in Austin and attended Stanford. He earned a Ph.D. from the University of Texas. He now teaches English at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville.