‘The Calm in This Storm’: Reproductive Rights Leaders Reflect on Cecile Richards’ Legacy

Richards has become synonymous with Planned Parenthood and all its services.

[Photo: A close-up of Cecile Richards.]
Composure became necessary as Richards made Planned Parenthood into a political powerhouse alongside its health-care clinics. Alex Wong/Getty Images

At the end of January, Cecile Richards announced that she planned to leave her position after 12 years as the president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the organization’s advocacy arm.

Richards joined Planned Parenthood in 2006, at the tail end of the second Bush administration that had seen an explicit anti-choice embodiment in the White House and a reinstated global gag rule. For better or worse, she has become synonymous with Planned Parenthood and all its services.

“I don’t quite know where to start,” Jodi Magee, president and CEO of Physicians for Reproductive Health, told Rewire. “I think Cecile has been completely fearless and a fierce fighter on behalf not just of Planned Parenthood but of all women’s autonomy and the ability to access the reproductive health care and generally the health care we need to live healthy lives of dignity, so hearing that she was stepping down made me sad.”

“Planned Parenthood has always had a huge name recognition, but Cecile has really skyrocketed their name,” Magee continued. “Their public exposure, their reputation, their integrity of service, the kinds of things that she’s had to fight against … she’s just spoken with such great integrity.”

“Every single step of the way it’s been very, very impressive,” Magee said.

Magee noted Richards’ testimony in front of the U.S. House Oversight Committee in September 2015 as one reason to celebrate her tenure. Richards, who was defending the organization in the wake of deceptively edited attack videos, ended up defending to the committee her own salary, how the organization does mammograms, and even its political work.

Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC) asked Richards to pick one—lobbying or providing health services—as the most important part of Planned Parenthood’s work. Richards replied, “I think the two things go hand in hand. What we have learned over the years is that in order to be able to provide health-care services to women, you have to also be able to advocate, particularly for women who are underserved.”

Yamani Hernandez, executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF), also cited that appearance as an important part of Richards’ legacy when speaking with Rewire.

“When I watched the congressional hearings a couple years back when the totally deceptive videos came out and know how hateful they were towards her … I’ve always admired her composure,” she told Rewire.

Composure became necessary as Richards made Planned Parenthood into a political powerhouse alongside its health-care clinics. During her time, she grew the donor base from three to 11 million supporters—its largest ever. Planned Parenthood also made its first presidential primary endorsement, of Hillary Clinton, in 2016. “Let’s be clear: Reproductive rights and health are on the ballot in 2016,” Richards said in a statement at the time. “It is unthinkable that our daughters and granddaughters would have fewer rights than my generation did.”

Despite the outcome of the last presidential election—or perhaps in spite of it—Richards and Planned Parenthood continued in 2018 to forcefully advocate for the right to birth control, abortion, and other facets of reproductive care. In the month and a half after the election, Planned Parenthood received more than 300,000 donations, according to the Guardian. Seventy percent of donors had never given before. But even before 2016, Richards’ fundraising skills had been evident: In the most recent data available, PPFA reported $252.9 million in revenue in 2015, up from $195.7 million in 2014 and $176.6 million in 2013.

“You know, leading an organization that [is] synonymous with abortion, [among] anti-choice people in particular. I’ve just been amazed at how calm how composed she always is,” Hernandez told Rewire. “And for that reason she has really been a symbol, I think, for many people of the calm in this storm.”

Hernandez, who joined NNAF in 2015, says she is also grateful for the advice Richards offered when she took the helm at the organization. “I did get to sit down with her at a Congressional Black Caucus event about a year into my tenure and she gave me some really good advice about supports that I needed as a new leader, which were really helpful,” she said.

Planned Parenthood has more than 600 health centers across the country and says they see 2.4 million people each year. That was one thing that particularly annoyed Magee about the congressional hearings: They completely ignored the size and scope of Planned Parenthood’s services in favor of a partisan agenda. “It was just such a blatant political assault,” she said. “It had nothing to do with the integrity of services or with the quality of the service.”

“Planned Parenthood is a huge organization, so that’s a big responsibility in and of itself,” Magee said. “But to have led during this particular period of turmoil, not just since the election, but prior to the election with Congress going after Planned Parenthood in the myriad number of ways, and with the people who oppose women’s access to abortion services and to contraception [who] have been going after Planned Parenthood for decades. This is not a task for a wallflower.

And while there has been little word about who will take over for Richards later this year, it certainly must be someone ready for battle. “This is definitely a task for somebody with bold leadership skills and Cecile certainly [has] those in spades,” Magee said.

After Richards announced her resignation, many within the reproductive rights and justice communities said it was critical that a woman of color take over—the first one that would do so since Faye Wattleton, who originally established the Action Fund, stepped down in 1992.

It’s notable that Planned Parenthood under Richards took deliberate steps in recent years to improve its engagement with Black women and other women of color as an organization. But, as activist and author Loretta Ross wrote in HuffPost, there is still work to be done: Yes, the next leader must be someone with the skills of managing a large multi-state organization, but they also need to be a leader who understands white supremacy and the role race plays in reproductive care.

“An incoming president of any race who lacks experience analyzing the white supremacist movement is not qualified to counter its attacks, even if she knitted a pink pussy hat to avoid ever wearing red handmaid’s robes,” Ross wrote.

Richards has been mum on her plans for after Planned Parenthood. She has a memoir coming out in April, and she has politics in her blood. (Her mother is famed former Texas Gov. Ann Richards.) With Kirsten Gillibrand, a senator for New York, potentially eyeing a presidential run, some have speculated we’ll see Richards campaigning herself. And maybe by the end of 2018, we’ll have an answer for what comes next for a woman who often acted as a calming presence in the stormy fight for reproductive rights.