Make Trouble

by Cecile Richards

Clock Icon 28 minute read


“Little lady, you are just trying to make trouble.”

That was my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Powers, at University Park Elementary School in Dallas. She had spent the past fifteen minutes conducting an interrogation: Why was I refusing to recite the Lord’s Prayer with the rest of the class?

Mrs. Powers was a lifer at UPS, with permed helmet hair that was the fashion back then. She was a good old gal who probably smoked with the other teachers in the teachers’ lounge. Looking back, I’m not even sure I knew that it was unconstitutional to have us start each day with the Lord’s Prayer—but by God, we did, right after the Pledge of Allegiance. That morning, though, I just wasn’t having it. When Mrs. Powers asked me why I wasn’t participating, I said calmly, “We don’t read the Bible in my house.” Mrs. Powers’s eyes flew open. I could see from her stricken look that she had taken my candor for cheekiness. I suppose in a way it was.

We weren’t a religious family, not in a traditional sense, but we did go to the Unitarian church, which was sort of a home away from home for progressive families like ours in Dallas—our own little bunker in the middle of the crazy culture war of the ’60s, and the heart of the local anti–Vietnam War movement. Folks in our congregation were involved in everything from the United Farmworkers organizing to Notes from the Underground, Dallas’s radical newspaper, which my dad happened to be defending in court. Religion was cool with me; it just didn’t include the Lord’s Prayer. It was pretty obvious from Mrs. Powers’s reaction what she thought about that. There was no hope for me; clearly, I was headed for a life of crime.

Up until then I was the classic all-A’s first child. I lived to make my parents proud of me, which, given their relative youth and inexperience in child-rearing, meant adhering to certain rules. I was the kid who never got in trouble—a trait that annoyed my younger brother, Dan, to no end. I never forgot the shame and humiliation of being called out in front of my class at age eleven. But in that moment I realized something about myself: my parents weren’t the only ones who didn’t fit into the right-wing Dallas establishment. I too was an outlier.

It was the first time I remember having to decide: Do I accept things the way they are, or question authority? I chose the latter, and from that point forward I was branded a troublemaker. Once the initial shock wore off, it became a badge of honor. I’ve been making trouble ever since—which, to me, means taking on the powers that be, being a thorn in someone’s side, standing up to injustice, or just plain raising hell.

Sometimes being a troublemaker can be pretty damn awesome. After all, it was one of the great troublemakers of all time, Emma Goldman, who said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” Other times, it’s scary and carries big risks—the risk of losing your job, your friends, your reputation, or all of the above. Over the years I’ve had the good fortune to meet troublemakers from all walks of life: nursing home workers in East Texas, janitors in Los Angeles, members of Congress, organizers and activists of every age on the front lines of the struggle for justice. I’ve watched in awe as my mother, Ann Richards, went from frustrated housewife to governor of Texas, defying convention and the political establishment. That was one of the things that drew me to Planned Parenthood: its history is the history of brave, troublemaking women (and a few good men) who risked their reputations and even their lives to change things. We fellow travelers have a way of finding each other, whether we set out to or not.

This book is the story of the people who have taught me about courage and defiance and making change. It’s also my story, which has been somewhat daunting to write. Like a lot of rabble-rousers (particularly rabble-rousing women), I’m a lot more comfortable talking about my work than myself. But now almost every day people come up to me, usually with a look of distress, to ask, “How are you doing?” They seem to think working for progressive causes is unpleasant or burdensome. The truth is, anything worth doing has its challenges. And, yes, fighting for what you believe in can be discouraging, defeating, and sometimes downright depressing. But it can also be powerful, inspiring, fun, and funny—and it can introduce you to people who will change your life. That’s the message I want to spread far and wide. That’s why I wrote this book.

I started my career organizing women who were working for the minimum wage. There were women in New Orleans who cleaned hotel rooms or did the laundry because only white women got to work the front desk. Women in small-town Texas who used to joke that they’d stick around their job at the local nursing home until a Walmart opened nearby and they could move on to a better—or at least easier—job. Women who were earning a living and didn’t have much choice about the kind of work they did.

As for me, I know full well what a privilege it is to work for social justice. I’ve had the chance to work on historic political campaigns, go toe-to-toe with the Far Right in Texas, and come back years later to occupy the capitol in Austin as part of the fight for abortion rights. I’ve served the first woman to lead her party in the US House of Representatives and the 2.4 million people who count on Planned Parenthood for health care each year. I’ve seen generational progress through the eyes of my three incredible kids. Sure, there have been some brutal moments along the way—appearing before a certain belligerent congressional committee comes to mind, not to mention a couple of awful election nights—but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Maybe activism is your avocation, not your vocation. You might even be wondering if it’s worth it—especially now, when nothing seems certain. For the first time in my life, I’m wondering whether my own daughters will have fewer rights than I’ve had. That alone is enough motivation for me to keep making trouble. Maybe you’re thinking that any job that might involve sitting in front of a hostile congressional committee for the better part of a day just isn’t your thing. Well, this book is for you too. You don’t have to be a professional troublemaker to take a stand (though it’s a terrific career path I highly recommend).

This is a once-in-a-lifetime moment to decide who we are—as individuals and as a country. Unless we want to be defined by a stream of divisive late-night tweets (not to name any names), we’re all going to have to be brave. Everywhere I look I see people who are stepping up to do things they never could have imagined. Showing up in a town hall meeting with a US senator, wearing a pink pussy hat. Publicly sharing a personal, intimate story about how Planned Parenthood made a difference in their life. Marching with their kids, grandkids, mothers, sisters, and brothers. Risking arrest to stand up for the rights of immigrants and refugees. Or turning their life upside down to run for office or become a grassroots organizer. If you’re not scaring yourself, you’re probably not doing enough.

Maybe there’s some injustice that’s bothering you; maybe you see something in your community or at work that you want to change; maybe you’re trying to get up the courage to share your beliefs with friends or family who see things differently; maybe you’re worried about the world your kids will inherit. I hope this book will inspire you to get out there and do something about it. Just don’t forget: to make a difference, you have to make a little trouble.

Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down

The congressional hearing room on Capitol Hill was packed with Planned Parenthood staff and supporters and with anti-abortion activists. Some of the activists had black tape over their mouths or huge buttons that said simply, “Life.” They looked like the same people who stood outside our health centers on Saturday mornings, trying to intimidate patients with graphic pictures on huge poster boards and signs with gruesome, threatening slogans. The kinds of people who wrote me letters that said, “I wish your mother had aborted you.” Taking my seat at a large table at the front of the hearing room, I could feel them behind me in the gallery, their hostility radiating through the room.

On the other side of the table were dozens of members of the press corps, nearly all men, with blank expressions and their cameras pointing at me. I was used to the crazy opposition; the rest, not so much.

I poured myself a glass of water and looked around the room, trying to focus on the people and not the bright TV lights or the constant click of cameras. It helped to know that my team was there, along with throngs of supporters in pink T-shirts in the hearing room and lining the hallways outside. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney had waved to me as I sat down, and Sheila Jackson Lee, a congresswoman from my home state of Texas who wasn’t even on the committee, was sitting there in solidarity. I reminded myself that across the country, hundreds of “Stand with Planned Parenthood” rallies were happening. I was by myself at the table, but I definitely wasn’t alone in the fight.

Besides, I had a mission to accomplish that was bigger than me.

The purpose of the hearing was, at least in theory, to examine whether Planned Parenthood had committed any wrongdoing. That question was being hotly debated across America since anti-abortion activists released a series of misleadingly and sensationally edited videos claiming that our organization sold fetal tissue—which, of course, was not true. Congressional Republicans were leveraging the attack to launch their latest assault on Planned Parenthood. Some had even threatened to shut down the government unless our funding was cut. I was keenly aware that Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz and his House Republican allies were spoiling for a fight.

I had prepared well—the stakes were too high not to. My secret weapon? Taped on the inside flap of my massive binder was a photograph of my three kids taken years ago, when they were toddlers. If the hearing got heated—as I assumed it would—I could sneak a peek and remember my support system. I hoped they would help get me through anything headed my way, as they had more than once before.

At 10:00 a.m. Congressman Chaffetz rapped his gavel on the table in front of him and called the committee to order. He warned the audience that anyone being disruptive would be asked to leave and added with a smirk, “We hope to have a good, lively debate. This is what Congress is intended to do, and we need everybody’s participation along the way.”

Chaffetz launched into an emotional opening statement, talking about women in his life and their experiences with cancer, and the fact that his wife was working for a plastic surgeon whose patients were breast cancer survivors. Then the mudslinging began.

He didn’t mention the 320,000 breast exams Planned Parenthood provides to women each year, or the fact that if Planned Parenthood were defunded, many of those women would have nowhere else to go. He did talk about supposedly “massive” staff salaries, “first-class” plane tickets (Who was he kidding?), and political contributions. It was clear from the get-go that this “hearing” was all for the television cameras and the constituents watching on Fox News. There wasn’t going to be any fact-finding; he already had the “facts” he wanted.

The reams of documentation we provided to Congress ahead of the hearing had already made it clear that Planned Parenthood had not done anything wrong. So if I was going to go through this exercise, I was going to use my time in front of the committee to talk about the incredible health care women get at Planned Parenthood centers across the country every day and to be a voice for our doctors, staff, and patients. I was not about to let them down.

•  •  •

Two months earlier, on July 14, 2015, I woke up to an email from Planned Parenthood’s vice president of communications, Eric Ferrero. Whenever a story in the news had the potential to become a problem, Eric made sure I found out about it first thing. In my nearly ten years as president of the organization, I had learned that an early-morning email from the communications director usually wasn’t a good sign.

Sure enough, he wanted to let me know about a new “undercover” video that had been released by a group calling itself the Center for Medical Progress and showed Planned Parenthood doctors and staff purportedly talking callously about selling fetal tissue. Despite the name of the group, they were not a center, and they definitely weren’t for medical progress; they were just another offshoot of the same anti-abortion leaders who had been trying to tear down the organization for years. The heavily edited video showed physicians and staff in conversations about fetal tissue donation, implying that they were cavalier when talking about the topic and had broken the law or at least acted unethically (which they had not).

This wasn’t our first rodeo with video scams, but this was much more elaborate than anything we’d seen before. It would later become clear—after the damage had already been done—that these videos had come from the same people responsible for ten separate video smear campaigns over the last eight years. This time around, they had spent tens of thousands of dollars creating a fake website and building a fake organization. Posing as representatives of a biotechnology company, they infiltrated medical conferences with sophisticated spy cameras and asked leading questions of Planned Parenthood doctors and staff while they secretly recorded them. We had become the victims of fake news before anyone had ever coined the phrase. We just didn’t know it yet.

The videos were on every news channel. The next day’s headline in the New York Times read, “Video Accuses Planned Parenthood of Crime.” Politicians seized the opportunity to pile on. Louisiana’s governor Bobby Jindal, who was seeking the Republican presidential nomination, called for an investigation into “this alleged evil and illegal activity.” One of his primary opponents, Governor Rick Perry of Texas, called the videos “a disturbing reminder of the organization’s penchant for profiting off the tragedy of a destroyed human life.” We were under siege.

My first concern was for our patients and for our staff on the front lines who had been the unknowing victims of the video campaign. If what was happening was awful for the rest of us, it was even more excruciating for them.

I will never forget the people who called me in solidarity—and there were many. To balance out the calls from reporters and the anger I felt about what had happened, I tore off a sheet from a gigantic roll of paper and taped it to the wall of my office in Washington. Every time someone called to offer help, I wrote down their name. The early calls came from across the board. My friend Will Robinson in Maine sent a donation right away, writing, “I am 100 percent behind you and Planned Parenthood!” I heard from Senator Cory Booker in New Jersey, who had been a champion of our work since his first day in office. Author and Planned Parenthood board member Anna Quindlen called. By the end of the first week, there were so many names on the list I had to add more sheets, until the wall was completely covered. It was an important way to remind my staff and myself of the outpouring of love and support for Planned Parenthood at such a terrifying time.

Of course not all the calls were helpful. Plenty of folks offered unsolicited advice about how to make it all go away. If you’d just do this or that, they suggested, everything would be okay again. It was hard to make it clear even to some of our strongest supporters that we had been the victim of a scam. Several of our progressive allies called asking what they could do to protect themselves and their work from similar attacks. We were all on high alert. We would get to the other side of this, but it would be painful and take time.

For the rest of the summer and into the fall we were living in a state of fear and uncertainty; it was almost like dealing with kidnappers. I’d wake up every morning not knowing what was coming, while the group continued releasing more doctored footage. Each video unleashed a new frenzy of harassment and threats that were worse than anything we’d ever seen. Our clinicians, doctors, volunteers, and patients were facing an even more insidious kind of assault: the outrageous rhetoric from politicians and others who painted them as coldhearted conspirators in an illicit business, rather than the caring, compassionate, and deeply committed people I knew them to be.

Everyone at Planned Parenthood felt incredibly vulnerable, knowing our opponents were trying to infiltrate the organization. There were people out there with hidden cameras, trying to entrap our staff, “befriend” them, or even get a job at Planned Parenthood—all for the purpose of shutting us down. Still, we banded together and didn’t lose a single national staff member during that time. I’m really proud of that.

Folks dug deep to find ways to stay focused and sane, and I was no exception. I had a hard time sleeping, and felt even worse knowing how worried my kids were about me. I could understand; I had felt the same way years earlier watching my own mother, Ann Richards, endure withering political attacks as governor of Texas. My friend Laurie Rubiner, who was working as a chief of staff on Capitol Hill and was one of our staunchest allies, had been through plenty of tough battles before. One night over dinner she asked, “Have you ever tried meditation?” She had downloaded Headspace on her phone and said it was a lifesaver. So I tried it. It was a bewildering sight for my husband: me, the frenetic organizer, sitting quietly every morning, listening to meditation exercises. Thank goodness for friends with practical advice.

It quickly became clear to us that the creators of these videos had been coordinating with other anti-abortion activists and were colluding with members of Congress who were trying to defund Planned Parenthood. Many Republicans in Congress were licking their chops. They thought they finally had their chance to get rid of us. As we dealt with the constant attacks, they held vote after vote to try to block Medicaid patients from being able to come to Planned Parenthood for preventive care.

Their actions prompted many impassioned speeches on the Senate floor. One night I was sitting in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office, watching the television monitor as one senator after another stood up and voiced support for Planned Parenthood. Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Democrat from Massachusetts, began: “I come to the Senate floor today to ask my Republican colleagues a question: Do you have any idea what year it is? Did you fall down, hit your head, and think you woke up in the 1950s or the 1890s? Should we call for a doctor? Because I simply cannot believe that in the year 2015, the United States would be spending its time trying to defund women’s health care centers.” Despite the heroic efforts of allies like Senator Warren, congressional Republican leadership managed to pass a bill defunding Planned Parenthood. If not for President Obama’s veto pen, it would have become law.

At that point four congressional committees were investigating Planned Parenthood. To put that in perspective, that’s more congressional committees than were assigned to investigate Enron or the 2008 global financial crisis. We were asked to provide thousands of pages of confidential documents to Congress, which we knew full well could show up in the newspaper the next day. We knew that our attackers had direct communication with our opponents in Congress—some members even acknowledged that they had seen the videos before they became public. We felt like we were dealing with a well-financed, well-organized conspiracy. The intent of our opponents on Capitol Hill was to destroy Planned Parenthood. And leading the opposition was the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and its politically ambitious leader, Jason Chaffetz. This was the same highly partisan committee that spent months hounding Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over events related to the attack on US personnel in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012. They were taking the lead, and they were determined to have my head.

Dana Singiser, Planned Parenthood’s director of government relations, who was doing daily combat, warned us that we should be prepared for a no-holds-barred public hearing on Planned Parenthood. The committee was going to use the videos as a chance to hold a fishing expedition, going after us for anything they could get. I had two choices: I could either appear voluntarily or have them subpoena me to testify. I knew there was nothing to hide and I believed it would be better to participate and tell our own story.

Along with members of our senior staff, I spent the weeks leading up to the September 29 hearing delving into any topic the committee might raise. In addition to Eric and Dana, our team consisted of Dawn Laguens, Planned Parenthood’s executive vice president, and my strategic partner through several years of improbable victories; Roger Evans, our director of litigation; chief medical officer Dr. Raegan McDonald-Mosley; and Amanda Harrington, an eagle-eyed member of the communications team and a veteran of past video smear campaigns. And of course there was our legal firm, O’Melveny and Myers, along with two advisers who were absolutely invaluable, Phil Schiliro and Phil Barnett.

Though my home was in New York, I had pretty much moved to Washington while we prepared for the hearing, staying in a temporary apartment. The days and nights were long, and my husband, Kirk, stayed with me. A big night for us was watching Law & Order reruns and eating take-out Thai food or frozen enchiladas. Kirk is a rock, and I could never have gotten through this without him. He has seen me through many nerve-racking moments: union campaigns, political elections, births, deaths, victories, and defeats. As I prepared for the hearing, he would remind me that I’m the quintessential “grace under pressure” performer: nervous and full of doubt beforehand, but when the bell rings, I somehow manage to pull it off.

Day after day our team pored over the thousands of documents we’d already submitted to Congress because I insisted on being up to speed on everything they requested. I knew that in a congressional hearing the members of the committee could call me on any obscure thing. Judging from the scope of the documents they’d asked for, the questions were certain to center on issues of character and morality, as well as every dollar we’d ever spent—for every hire, every trip, every one of our more than six hundred health centers, and the programs we worked with around the world. Every piece of information in every public document was fair game. As was I. I suspected that some of the committee members, rather than ask questions, would use their time to make statements intended to put me on edge. How can we make this woman squirm? How can we embarrass her, or trick her, and make her and Planned Parenthood look bad?

Tensions ran high as we got ready for the big day. I drove the team crazy, trying to memorize every relevant piece of paper and every fact. In my spare time I was researching everything from which forms of birth control a patient could get at a clinic in Oregon to how many young people use Planned Parenthood’s text/chat helpline each month. By the time I was finished, I had a gigantic binder of background information, easily six inches thick.

Throughout the preparation process, I asked the team over and over, Where are our patients in this? Where are their stories? I called Dayna Farris-Fisher, a woman from Texas whose experience with Planned Parenthood had stuck in my mind, and asked her, “Is it okay if I talk about you?” She bravely agreed and wished me luck.

A couple of days before the hearing, we did a run-through so our team could explain how the room would be set up and demonstrate how things would work. There was a row of chairs, raised on a platform, like a judge’s bench, and then a place for me in the front of the room.

“Who sits with me at the table during the hearing, so I can ask questions or get help?” I asked.

Lee Blalack, one of our lawyers whom I grew to admire greatly, said, “I think it’s better if you are up there by yourself. You don’t need anyone.”

I had a brief moment of panic. “Wait a minute,” I said. “I’ve seen these hearings on TV. Everyone always has a lawyer!” I was madly racking my brain, recalling every TV courtroom drama I’d ever seen, from Perry Mason to Matlock. People on trial were always represented by lawyers sitting at their side.

“You can do it. You’ll be ready,” Lee replied. Though I wanted to strangle him at the time, his confidence in me went a long way.

For our last run-through, the lawyers said I had to come in the clothes I would wear on the day of the hearing. A kind of dress rehearsal, I guess. I picked out a basic blue suit and a pin of my mom’s that had always reminded me of a sheriff’s badge. Whenever I’m up against something really tough, I bring Ann Richards with me.

One of the young women associates looked me up and down. “If that’s what you’re going to wear, you should change your shoes,” she said.

“My shoes?”

She pointed out that the pair I had chosen had a designer decal on the sole: ammunition for the opposition.

I hadn’t even noticed. I don’t think I actually bought the shoes. I’m pretty sure I got them from Mom, who was much more fashion conscious than I. It was hard to imagine having such a serious conversation with a male witness about what he was wearing.

The mention of my shoes was when I understood that I was going to be scrutinized from head to toe. That realization was later confirmed when the right-wing blogs went into a frenzy over the fact that I had not worn panty hose to the hearing. You have to look pretty close to see a detail like that.

At day’s end there wasn’t much more to do. I’d reread the facts and packed my binder. I’d steamed my suit again and set out a different pair of shoes. Kirk made us dinner. “Just remember,” he said, “you know more about Planned Parenthood than anyone in that hearing room.” I stopped to consider that, but was loath to admit that he just might be right.

I called the kids. Lily was in Iowa, where she had moved for the Clinton campaign; Hannah was in Indiana, working on a campaign of her own; and Daniel was in school in Maryland. They each wished me luck, and I went to bed early.

When I woke up the next morning I tried to meditate. It didn’t work. The team packed into a car and we headed to Capitol Hill. There were protesters standing outside the hearing, which was nothing new. It reminded me of a Planned Parenthood luncheon we’d had years earlier on rural Long Island. The place was difficult to find, and at the turnoff we’d had to drive past a group of protesters with ugly signs. Once we made it inside, one of our elderly donors, neatly dressed in her “ladies who lunch” suit and pearls, approached me. “I saw those protesters outside,” she said, and before I could say anything, she went on: “I was so glad they were there—otherwise I never would have known where to turn!” Remembering her made me smile.

Walking into the hearing room, I checked my phone one last time. I had an incoming text from my friend Terry McGovern, who works in global and maternal health. Her message read, “Just remember to carry the rage of women through the centuries with you this morning!”

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