Everything Cecile Richards Knows, She Learned From Other Women

March 8 is International Women’s Day. To celebrate, we asked women like Jackie Aina, Cecile Richards, Andrea Mitchell, and more to reflect on how other women have lifted them up—mentored them, advised them, represented them, and above all showed them what was possible. We’ll be sharing their stories here all week.

After I graduated from college, I wanted to be a union organizer. And the first real job I had on the ground was in New Orleans, organizing with hotel workers. These women were making minimum wage, living in housing projects. They were often single moms or responsible for taking care of other relatives. Their jobs were physically very hard, but also emotionally very hard—working in the hospitality industry in a city like New Orleans is not that easy. And on top of all that, these women were willing to go out and try to organize a union. I still remember them. I was right out of college, and I can remember their names now—Ella Curtis, Aubrey Carr. These are women whose lives were nothing like mine, and they were the bravest, most affirmative, most life-loving women I had ever met.

I have always been attracted to people who understand that power and prestige and notoriety aren’t really worth anything unless you can share with others. A lot of those people have been women. When I started working in the labor movement, men really ran things. But if you went out into the field, you’d find these pockets of women getting organized and changing the face of labor. When I later went to work for now-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, I found in her someone who never forgot why she was in office and who always remembered the people that she was there to represent. That was important to me. With Planned Parenthood, I tried to take the same approach.

I’ve had so many opportunities in my life, but the time I spent working with nursing home workers, janitors, and healthcare workers still stands out. I was so fortunate to work with them and to learn so much from them. It’s kept me honest, I think. Working in the non-profit space, or even sometimes in the political space, I think people talk a lot about how hard their jobs are. And when I started working in those spaces, I could tell people, “Listen, until you’ve cleaned 14 rooms on a shift in a hotel, you don’t know what hard work is.” Sometimes, that’s been to my detriment. But it has always helped me check my privilege. I remind the people that I work with that we have had choices in every career decision we have made, and most women do not. Working with those women for so many years who had very few options in terms of how they could make a living and still wanted to fight for better conditions for everyone—that has just carried me for my entire life.

I spent last week in South Carolina and heard a lot of people talking about national politics. But I learned when I was an organizer and at Planned Parenthood that so much change happens on the local level. One of the last things I got to do before I left Planned Parenthood was attend a ceremonial ribbon cutting on a health center in Charleston for Planned Parenthood, and that center is right now able to provide abortion services and transgender-care services. It’s a reminder that even when the focus is on a presidential race, there are still meaningful opportunities to make a difference, whether it’s volunteering at a shelter or volunteering on a local campaign or running for school board. That’s how big things start to change.

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