WHAT IS CECILE RICHARDS UP TO? The former president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood Action Fund resigned her position in January, and given her family’s ties to politics—her mother was Democratic Texas Governor Ann Richards; her children are savvy political activists—I can only speculate wildly. But I HAVE A THEORY. There are a few clues in her new book, co-written with Lauren Peterson, starting with the title: Make Trouble: Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead. The courage to LEAD, huh? LEAD ME TO THE POLLS, IF YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN.
In Make Trouble, Richards describes her career path from child activist to union organizer to the leader of one of the nation’s biggest reproductive rights advocacy groups. But the heart of Richards’ book is her mother, whose improbable rise to power her daughter recounts with a balance of nuance and outright admiration. The Ann Richards I know is the one whose bon mots—the Ginger Rogers one-liner, the silver foot joke, please Youtube her 1988 Democratic National Convention keynote immediately unless you hate feeling happy—are tailor-made for protest signs, and whose outspoken authenticity and enviable ladyswagger remain unmatched by any of her spiritual successors (to say nothing of her actual successor, the mediocre painter George W. Bush).
Gov. Richards is remembered as a fiery straight-talking anomaly, but the one Cecile Richards remembers is more complicated: an incredibly competent, but self-doubting woman, whose status as a divorcée and a recovering alcoholic was considered political kryptonite. (Dubya, you’ll recall, was also a recovering alcoholic, but here the Ginger Rogers quote applies all too well.) The Richardses were always a political family, working on Democratic campaigns in Texas and counting people like Molly Ivins among their friends. But after having four children, writes Richards, her mother “pursued her role as a housewife with purpose.” While the reach of that purpose—baking elaborate cakes, never doing holidays halfway, behaving “as if every [domestic] effort was a campaign”—suggests an underutilized genius, at the time, Richards was fulfilling a fairly ordinary role. There was little indication of her coming political ascendancy.
This humanizing glimpse into Ann Richards’ life is a rare deviation from the usual hagiography, all the more poignant because it comes from her daughter. It’s also a gentle reminder that for women—especially those with children—political careers sometimes don’t even begin until the second acts of their lives. In the wake of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential loss and ongoing gun violence, the arc of Ann Richards’ life (I’m waiting for the biopic starring Meryl Streep, btw) remains highly resonant: She was an iconoclast punished at many turns for her gender, and when she finally lost the governor’s office to George W. Bush, it was in part because she’d vetoed concealed-carry legislation. In response to arguments that concealed carry would help women defend themselves, Richards responded: “I don’t know a single woman who can find a hairbrush in her purse in an emergency, much less a handgun.” A woman after my own heart.
That was Ann Richards’ second act. I can’t wait to see what her daughter’s will look like.