Cecile Richards Is Not Afraid
As a leader of a new politically charged supergroup, women’s rights champion Cecile Richards is more energized than ever.
When Cecile Richards walks, or rather speed walks, into a room, people take notice. How could they not? With her signature cropped ice-white do, traffic-stopping dress, and breakneck pace, she knows how to command attention. Plus, the Texas-born former head of Planned Parenthood (she left last spring) recognizes that when it comes to protecting women’s rights, there is little time to waste. Now the 61-year-old is channeling her passion into a new political action group called Supermajority. Launched in April with Ai-jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Alicia Garza of Black Lives Matter, the nonprofit aims to teach two million women of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds how to become activists ahead of the presidential election in 2020 — patriarchy be damned.
“We’re in a moment in the U.S. when all the rights women have been begrudgingly granted or have earned over the years are slowly being stripped away,” says Richards. “But it feels like there’s a convergence of energy, excitement, and the desire to do more than resist — and we’d better take advantage of that.” With over 50,000 people signing up to join Supermajority within the first 24 hours of its début, and the number nearly doubling since then, the group is quickly becoming a formidable force before it’s even made its first major initiative.
The idea for Supermajority started percolating a little over a year ago out of a need to communally advocate for reproductive rights, families that have been separated, and public education. In January Richards, Poo, and Garza assembled a “small but mighty” staff motivated by the belief, Richards says, that “women, if organized together across race, generations, and geography, are the most powerful force in the world.”
The trio is currently focused on listening to women’s priorities based on the areas where they might be facing hardship or resistance. By the fall they hope to equip supporters with whatever tools are needed to move forward and to teach them various things like the basics of political engagement, how a bill becomes a law, and how to enforce legislation that’s already in place. Richards has high hopes. “I’ve been an organizer my whole life with women in different venues,” she says. “I’ve never seen anything as explosive as this.”
Poo agrees, saying that this “super squad” will most certainly make an impact. “I think everybody is really serious about winning, and I love being on a team of winners,” she says. “Women deserve nothing less, and this movement is going to be a powerhouse because of it.”
Richards, who has spent most of her life in the public eye, is as steady as they come. After graduating from Brown University in 1980, she ran union campaigns for garment workers, hotel workers, and janitors. In the early ’90s she helped her mother, the famously quick-witted Ann Richards, successfully campaign to become governor of Texas (only the second woman in the state to hold that role). Then, in 2003, Richards co-founded America Votes, a nonprofit geared toward advancing progressive issues and expanding voter turnout. During her 12-year tenure as the president of Planned Parenthood, she promoted women’s reproductive rights and increased the number of supporters of the nonprofit from two million to 12 million. As the backbone of the organization, she fought incessant attempts by the federal government to cut funding crucial to providing services such as abortions and cancer screenings.
When asked about restrictive anti-abortion laws passed in states like Alabama, Georgia, and Missouri, Richards doesn’t miss a beat. “These unconstitutional laws are a direct result of having governments that are not representative of the people,” she says. “Supermajority is organizing millions of women to demand that gender equality be the law of the land. There is no more fundamental issue of equality than the right to control your own body.”
Her steely resolve is mirrored by a keen fashion sense guided by rules from her late mother: “No plaids, no prints, no busy patterns, and don’t change your hairstyle!” While Ann Richards-approved navy pantsuits were once her go-to garments (“I wore them so much that people at the San Francisco airport thought I worked at Delta and gave me a discount on ice cream,” she says), Richards has since opted for “simpler” attire, such as dresses from designers like Cynthia Rowley, Gabriela Hearst, Lela Rose, and M.M. LaFleur. An ardent traveler, she has a secret wardrobe hack: a portable steamer. “It’s a lifesaver because you can actually steam your dress out in an airport bathroom if you really have to,” she says, laughing.
When Richards does get some downtime back home in New York, she spends it with her husband, Kirk Adams, who’s the executive director of the Health Education Project, and their dachshund, Ollie. She recharges by making her own pasta or baking pies, escaping occasionally to the theater, or walking in Central Park. But work is never far from her mind, a trait she’s passed on to her three kids: her elder daughter, Lily, and twins Hannah and Daniel. “I love working — a lot of women do, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” she says. “The truth is, your kids learn not from what you say but from what they see you do. And if you’re able to do something you love and try to do something important in the world, that’s all that really matters. It teaches them everything about what they should hold out for in their own lives.” She proudly notes that Lily serves as communications director for Senator Kamala Harris, Hannah is working for a nonprofit in Rwanda, and Daniel will be teaching chemistry this fall.
Though it surely is daunting trying to figure out how to take on the issues of millions of women, Richards is unfazed. “It’s actually energizing, as crazy as it sounds,” she says, adding that the best way to get involved right now is to simply sign up and get ready to vote. “We believe so strongly that if the world were equal for all people — women in particular, and especially women of color — then so many other things — our economy, education system, the health of our families and communities — would be better,” she says. “That is worth fighting for every single day until your last breath. Because if you fight for something that’s hard, you’re going to lose and lose and lose, and then you’re going to win. And then it’s going to be worth it.”
Photographed by Jennifer Livingston.
For more stories like this, pick up the July issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download June 14.