When Ivanka Trump asked Cecile Richards for a private meeting earlier this year, the Planned Parenthood president’s hopes won out over her deep differences
with the White House this First Daughter represented.
“Like her father, she knew Planned Parenthood did a lot of good. I felt she was incredibly sympathetic,” Richards recalls of that early-winter sit-down over coffee. “I hoped she would use her influence and her role to speak up for women in this country. But it’s not about talk. It’s about action.”
You might call that a life mantra for Richards, a marathon-running, passionately committed dynamo whose activism started in middle school and who’s now marshaling thousands in the battle with President Trump’s GOP over women’s health and the availability of abortion services.
“This White House has been worse for women than any administration in my lifetime,” Richards, 60, tells PEOPLE on a recent morning at her Manhattan apartment.
The President and his Republican-controlled Congress are moving to cancel $550 million in federal funds that Planned Parenthood receives for the nonabortion basic health services (including cancer screenings) it provides 2.5 million women and men each year. And now the 100-year-old nonprofit, its over 600 health centers and Richards herself have never been more under fire — or more energized.
Yes, there were tears on Election Night 2016. All three of Richards’s children with husband Kirk Adams — Lily, 30, and 26-year-old twins Daniel and Hannah — actively supported Hillary Clinton’s campaign. But any wallowing was brief.
Says Richards: “I told them, ‘Now we have work to do.’ ”
It’s in her genes. Richards’s father, David, is a civil rights lawyer, and her mother is the legendary Texas Governor Ann Richards, whose keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention famously skewered then-Vice President George H.W. Bush (“Poor George, he can’t help it — he was born with a silver foot in his mouth”) and made her a star.
The oldest of Ann’s four children, Cecile was in middle school when she organized her neighborhood’s first recycling program in Austin. Not long after, she was sent home from school for wearing an armband to protest the Vietnam War. After graduating from Brown University, she worked for 15 years as a labor organizer; she met her future husband while organizing hotel workers in New Orleans.
“It was love at first sight,” says Kirk, who was working under her. (He’s now executive director of the Health Education Project, an advocacy group.) The couple spent the morning after their 1985 wedding walking a picket line in Beaumont, Texas, and have been aligned ever since.
Adams is the “mellow” yin to Richards’s “super-energy” yang, says their longtime friend Annette LoVoi. “Cecile is always the epicenter of social activities,” says LoVoi, who grew close with Richards when they were young moms working on Ann Richards’s gubernatorial campaign. “Cecile would be the one to find the elf costumes at Christmas.”
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Today she rallies millions around a healthcare vote as smoothly as she recently organized a party for 100 — complete with Velveeta queso dip and margaritas — while vacationing in Maine.
That Velveeta shortcut aside, homemade is Richards’s other mantra — especially when it comes to pie. “Pie is the perfect food,” she says. “I wouldn’t let my kids go to college until they could make a pie crust, deep-fry and put up a tent. That’s just how we live.”
As her son Daniel, now a Ph.D. student in chemistry, recalls: “She sent me to college with a cast-iron skillet because you can take that camping and pretty much make anything you need. It definitely weirded my roommates out.”
It’s just one tradition handed down from Richards’s own mom, who loved to camp (and cook) in the Texas Hill Country.
“She was a recovering alcoholic long before people talked about it. Her marriage didn’t last. Her ability to weather public scrutiny and just keep going has made a huge difference in my life,” Richards says.
In 2014, hoping to lessen the stigma of abortion, Richards revealed in an Elle magazine essay that as a mom of three kids, she terminated a pregnancy.
“It was a decision my husband and I made,” she says. “And I’ll fight to the end of my days to make sure every woman has the ability to make that decision.”
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Still, she adds, “a woman shouldn’t have to tell their most private reproductive stories just to keep our rights.”
While Richards has no plans to run for office herself (“it’s not my best use”), she says women’s health issues depend on her sisters diving in.
“Until we have more people in office who can get pregnant, we will continue to have these fights,” she says. “It is very frustrating to talk to members of Congress who will never need maternity benefits, never have to deal with an unintended pregnancy or think about whether they can afford birth control. That’s a problem.”
For now she draws resolve from the mother she lost to esophageal cancer in 2006, six months after Richards took the helm at Planned Parenthood.
“I almost didn’t even go to the interview. I felt like, ‘I’ve never run anything that big. I don’t know how to do that,’ ” Richards confesses. “And Mom said that if women don’t start doing more than they ever thought they could, we’re never going to get anywhere.”