Cecile Richards, Activist


“I grew up in Dallas, Texas—and my parents were really progressive. They were against everything in Dallas. I mean, it was the middle of the civil rights movement, it was the women’s movement, it was the farm workers’ movement—I learned from an early age the importance of questioning things. Like a lot of kids my age, I got really involved in the environmental movement and recycling. And then I kind of kept going. I was an equal-opportunity movement person. Anything that came along that was interesting, I got into. I found out later that you could actually do that for a living, which was amazing. It’s one of the reasons why, when I worked at Planned Parenthood, we invested in a lot in young people. I found that, at least for myself, it was those early experiences of going against the grain and standing up for things that made such a huge difference in my life.

The thing I’ve found, and I’m seeing it today particularly with young women, is that every time you put up a Bat Signal, or call for an action or a meeting, women are turning out. When I got out of college, I started organizing with women who worked in hotels in New Orleans. They were making minimum wage, many of them working two jobs supporting their kids. They were women who, even though they were already doing everything, were willing to do something more. There wasn’t any training—this is what I want to demystify. When women say to me, ‘I don’t know what to do, I feel so overwhelmed,’ I channel those women [in New Orleans]. They had no privileges, no safety net, and yet they chose to fight for something fair.

New Orleans is still my favorite city, I go back there a lot. I met my husband in New Orleans, he was an organizer. I came back [to Texas] a couple times because my mom was running for office—that was kind of how it was in those days. Then my husband and I moved to east Texas, and we organized nursing home workers for years before moving to LA. I organized janitors and he organized homecare workers, and then we went back to Texas because mom ran for governor. We were kind of like itinerant organizers—although at that point we had a daughter in tow, and then we had two more. We became kind of like the Von Trapp family singers, but organizers.

Then we moved to Washington, D.C., and I worked for Ms. Pelosi as her Deputy Chief of Staff. That was amazing—I had never worked on Capitol Hill. But I didn’t last that long because I realized I was better at being an outside organizer. I loved working for her though, and I learned so much—it was sort of like taking a graduate course. I started another nonprofit after my first one called America Votes. And then that’s actually when Planned Parenthood called me, so we moved to New York.

Planned Parenthood was such a big job, I almost didn’t go to the interview. It was just one of those panic moments—what do I do with the kids, we just bought a house, all those things. I stopped in a coffee shop and I called my mom, and I was like, ‘Mom, I don’t think I can go to this, it’s so overwhelming.’ Of course it ended up being the job of a lifetime. One thing that you realize once you’re in there for a while is it’s mainly women working there, and women are really collaborative—no one accidentally goes to work at Planned Parenthood. The thing I’m most proud of was the day I got the call from President Obama that they were going to finally make sure that birth control got covered for all women in their insurance plans. That was a long fight—long before I came to Planned Parenthood—and it was a game-changing thing. The fact that 62 million women or more can get birth control for no cost in their insurance plans. That just means everything. When it first happened, women were in disbelief and started sending us copies of their CVS receipt that said zero co-pay. It really, really felt good.

Leaving was the right decision, but it was also tough. I had decided at Planned Parenthood that even though we had organized literally millions of people to work for reproductive rights, there were millions more women we weren’t reaching who could change what was happening in this country around economic issues, healthcare access, and around basic fairness. And now, of course, around voting rights. That’s what I’m working on now. I’m working with Alicia Garza, who was one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, and Ai-jen Poo who runs the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and some of my friends from Planned Parenthood, to see if we can provide more support for women across the country who are trying to make a difference. Nothing was better than seeing this last election, where a record number of women were elected to office. But yeah, organizing is my thing.

I am definitely a minimalist. I grew up in this counterculture world where wearing makeup was not how we spent our time. It was ironic because I come from Texas, where makeup and big hair was everything. Now I wear makeup every day, but it’s still not something I want to spend a lot of time on. It already takes me an hour to get ready, between drying my hair, getting dressed, and all that. I’m trying to keep it as compact as I possibly can. I have my little area where I sit every morning to do my makeup—I try to keep it semi-organized. I don’t put on heavy makeup—this Laura Mercier is the only foundation I use and I’ve had it for a thousand years. It’s very light, it doesn’t have any bad stuff. Padma gave me her collection with MAC—I totally love it [ed note: discontinued]. I used all of this one, Indian Moon. She also gave me an eye pencil that’s fantastic. This Burt’s Bees is a good nude, which is so strange—Niagara Nude. And then I use Laura Mercier blush, Rose Petal, all the time, and the Laura Mercier eye pencil. I have been using the Bobbi Brown eye pencil in Chocolate Truffle, and I just bought this one from Lune + Aster, but I’m not sure how I feel about it yet. It’s more like the one Padma made, like a very wet gel. And I have like 19 different mascaras because they run out and get dry so quickly.

I’m always traveling, but I have never checked a bag in my life. Everything for me is how I can get it on the plane. It just makes things easier. I got an atomizer from Zitomer, and filled it with the one thing I wear all the time, Jo Malone’s Nectarine Blossom and Honey. I spend most of my time trying to figure out how to get things into three-ounce bottles. That’s like my entire life.

Beth has been cutting my hair forever. She works in a salon in Washington called Fiddleheads. I love her, but now that I don’t get to go to Washington that much I think I have to find someone to cut my hair here. My life is full, I have a lot of things to do, so I try to keep my hair as simple as I can. I always use a product to give it some kind of body. I use the Paul Mitchell Extra Body—I’ll spray it in my hair, and then I’ll blow dry it. I hate to wash my hair every single day, so sometimes I use dry shampoo, or some other kind of texturizing something. I love Living Proof—I like their hairspray. That’s what I usually travel with, because they make a little one. Anything, again, that comes in three ounces—that’s kind of defining.

This is my favorite product in the world, Klorane's makeup remover. I buy this for everybody. It feels really good, and it’s not at all astringent-y. I use that constantly, because I’m constantly taking off my makeup. When it comes to cleasnsers, someone gave me Milky Jelly, and I love it—I keep telling everyone it’s the best, it doesn’t feel soapy. I really use it all the time, morning and night. I use this Aveda lotion for my face, and I have the Kiehl’s Youth Dose Eye Treatment for around my eyes. I don’t even know what a serum is. Someone gave me this ZO Skin Exfoliating Polish, and I use it like once a week—it feels like, wow, now I’ve taken a whole layer off. If I’ve done TV and I come home and have that horrible makeup on, I use that, for sure. I feel like I have to spend a lot more time thinking about my skin in the wintertime. My face gets really dry, and peel-y, and I spend most of my time putting on hand cream. I use that silver one from L’Occitaine. It’s even better if you buy it in France, it’s a different formulation.

Sometimes I get a facial. Actually, I just took my daughter for the first time—it’s great, if you can do it. I go to Mario Badescu. Frankly, it’s affordable, they can always get you in, there’s no up-selling. I just like it. There are a lot of places I’ve gone where I feel like they get you trapped, but there it’s super reasonable and positive.

If I could make an homage to one person in my life, it would be Alexis, my trainer. I’ve been working with him for probably 10 years, and he puts up with my crazy schedule, and he’s super encouraging. He does core, and we do weights. He’s always positive. It’s very rare for me to actually be home—but I try to see him twice a week. [Working out] is the one thing I do that’s just for me. That sounds very selfish, but I finally realized that is what self-care is. When I’m just working on me and getting stronger, it’s the best. Then I come home and shower. It’s usually Molton Brown soap—someone once gave me one, and I was like, ‘Ooh, I wish I had never found out about this.’ That’s what I usually get people for presents, because I think it’s great.

We just redid this bathroom, and I insisted on putting a bathtub in, even though it, like a lot of things in New York, wasn’t really possible. But we got it in. It’s amazing. This little room—I know it’s very small—is the one place in the house that’s completely mine. I can close the door, read my book, lay in the bathtub, not think about anything. I think it’s pretty awesome. I’ve got three kids, I’ve got a dog, I’ve got a husband, but this is my little sanctuary.”

—as told to ITG

Cecile Richards photographed by Tom Newton in New York on November 20, 2018.