Cecile Richards

Address at Brown University - May 6, 2017

Cecile Richards
May 06, 2017— Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island
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Thank you.

Thank you, Shelley, for your bravery and your feistiness and for telling your story. It's been really incredible in my ten years at Planned Parenthood. If I said one thing has changed is that women are coming out of the shadows like never before.. And it's women like Shelley, it's young women who aren't embarrassed and aren't stigmatized about telling their own stories. It's women editors of Cosmo and Teen Vogue that are now putting stories about abortion and reproductive healthcare right on the front pages. It folks like Shonda Rhimes who are actually putting these stories in mainstream television. And it is to me…it is the tipping point now and a commitment that in this country women will never go back, and so thank you, Shelley, for your bravery and for being part of that resistance. It's so important.

I'm kind of overwhelmed. It's great to be back on campus and to celebrate 125 years of women at Brown.

And one of the things I was thinking about actually is when I came, when I was in school there wasn't even a medical school here and it's very exciting to think now that there is not only a medical school but that some of the Brown medical students are actually doing some of their trainings at Planned Parenthood here in Rhode Island. And so it's just wonderful to think how much has changed.

It's great to be here with President Paxson. I'm so honored that you're here and thank you for being a just bold, audacious leader and for building and having an entire career in public health and public service – never, obviously, more important. And I just want to say for those of us watching around the country for leaders, it's been so powerful to see you speaking up so forcefully against President Trump's executive actions targeting refugees and Muslims and immigrants, and really grateful that you are doing that, so thank you. [applause]

We at Planned Parenthood, we are proud to serve everyone. Our motto is "Care, no matter what," which is either a promise or a threat, kind of depending on where you sit. But we are very proud to serve folks regardless of their income, their sexual orientation, their gender identity and regardless of their immigration or refugee status, because we believe that health care is a human right and it belongs to everybody. It's not a privilege, not a privilege.

So just like all of you, I think it is our responsibility to continue to speak out, continue to speak out against the injustice that we see. And for me, of course, that actually was kind of what going to Brown was all about.

I'll never forget – I come from Texas as some of you may know and I'll never forget…

(Responding to audience) yeah, all right! Yeah, we live to fight another day.

But I will never forget actually loading up our station wagon with my mom in Austin and we had nothing but some Joni Mitchell cassettes and a bag of homemade granola, and we drove to Providence, Rhode Island, where we had never been before. I mean it was the 70s. I still – it's like etched my memory. She dropped me off at Wayland Arch with my enormous bags packed with some wildly inappropriate, A-line, woolen skirts that she was absolutely certain that was the kind of thing that girls wore back East and she didn't want me to be embarrassed. God love her.

But my life changed forever coming to Brown. I was exposed to the most extraordinary minds. I got to take classes on the Supreme Court that I will never forget and that are important to me, obviously, today and Russian history and all kinds of things. So I majored in history but I really minored in activism here at Brown because that was it was really approved of and encouraged. One of the more popular buttons of the day was "Question Authority" and I feel like we did that every single day and it absolutely set me on my path.

I actually didn't even walk at my graduation because I was otherwise occupied. At the time, students, we were organizing at Brown to get the university to divest holdings in South Africa and right… Well, it was really important and somebody had to, you know, unfurl the banner from the second floor during the graduation ceremony, so why not me? But I'm really proud to say, one, that Brown was one of the first universities to divest from South Africa and then, even better, it was so meaningful to come back for my 30th reunion when President Nelson Mandela was awarded an honorary degree from this institution by President Ruth Simmons.

And it's sort of a metaphor, I think, for most of the work that we do and I think it was a great lesson for me in that progress doesn't happen on its own and it doesn't always happen fast, and that's something I think we have to remember given what we're facing today. But it happens because folks are willing to challenge the status quo and challenge authority and increasingly challenge our own government.

And Brown instilled in me the belief that any one of us can change the world and that in fact, it's sort of what is expected of us. And you only get one life so you got to make the most of it.

So of course when the chance came to go work for Planned Parenthood, I jumped at it because it's an organization that for now 100 years – we just celebrated our 100th anniversary this year, pretty awesome – but for a hundred years Planned Parenthood has been on the forefront of trying to open opportunities for women. And our history is just chock-full of extraordinarily brave, troublemaking women who refused to stand down or to stand back.

So actually, when Planned Parenthood was founded, of course women didn't even have the right to vote and forget about planning our families. The first woman was admitted to this university in 1892 – does that sound right, President Paxson?

So for a girl who was born that year, the average life expectancy was 44 years old. And so do you know what the leading cause of death was for women? Complications from pregnancy and childbirth.

So Planned Parenthood was founded by a young nurse named Margaret Sanger because she had seen in her own lifetime her mother die after a pregnancy and childbirth – eleven children and seven miscarriages in her lifetime. And her experiences inspired her declare that no woman can call herself free who does not own and control her own body. And by God that statement is as true today as it was a hundred years ago, that's for sure.

So in October 1916, along with her sister Ethel and a volunteer named Fania Mindell, they opened the very first birth control clinic in America. It was a tiny storefront in Brooklyn, New York. And for 10 cents apiece women could get a pamphlet that explained how to prevent pregnancy. It was information that was completely illegal at the time and would remain so for another 50 years.

But from the very first day – and of course we have photographs of the time – women in long dresses pushing those old-fashioned baby strollers with babies on their shoulders were lined up down the block desperate for the information that they were providing. Ten days later an undercover cop posing as a mother busted Margaret and threw her in jail where she promptly taught all of her fellow inmates about birth control and a movement was born. And then of course it spread like wildfire across the country.

One of my favorite stories is from my back in my home state of Texas at the Ripley Shirt factory. I just love the idea of this. In Dallas, Katie Ripley – with the full knowledge of her husband and the owner, George Ripley – would send empty shirt boxes, mail them to New York City and women would fill them with diaphragms and mark the box "Returns" and ship it back to Dallas where women would gleefully get one of the earliest methods of birth control in Texas.

I mean it's just wonderful to think of the ingenuity and sort of the audacity of folks at the time, and that is how our history is – just full of brave women and some very good men who risk their own safety and their reputations to change women's lives.

So Planned Parenthood has grown from that little storefront to 650 health centers across the United States. We're the largest provider of reproductive health care in America. Planned Parenthood Global now partners with partners in 12 countries in Africa and Latin America, providing care and information around the world. We're the largest sex education organization in America, and one in five women in this country has been to Planned Parenthood, including me and probably a lot of you at some point in your lifetime.

And other good things have happened. I mean women come to us – and men – folks come for a lot of services: birth control, breast exams, cancer screens and yes, safe and legal abortion. And we will never give up on women and we'll never turn our backs on women's right to access safe and legal abortion in America. Right?

Some folks have made us some offers, let's just put it that way, to turn back on women, so I want to make sure you know that.

It's interesting because today not only is abortion its common – in fact, one in three women will have an abortion at some point in our lifetime – it's one of the safest medical procedures in the country. And I'm inspired every day by the courage of abortion providers across the country and so proud that future clinicians are being trained right here at the Alpert Medical School.

And now even better than the pamphlets you could get from Margaret for 10 cents, you can actually go to Planned Parenthood on line and get really good information about all kinds of reproductive health care services. Birth control – you can get it 24/7, in English and in Spanish, and six million people a month actually do that, so we're proud of that.

And as for birth control, it is finally legal. Although, you know, we got to keep working on that. And we're always working to make it better.

And this is one of the things that I think is, of course, completely misunderstood by members of Congress, but it's very exciting. There's actually now 18 different kinds of birth control approved by the FDA. We provide them all. And in fact, we just did these clinical trials which are incredibly exciting to me of a new home-use Depo-Provera shot that lasts for three months.

And so just imagine this. If you're a woman in a rural part of America or don't have the time to go back every three months that you would get a year's supply of birth control that you can self-inject at home. I mean that to me is progress and that's what we need to be investing in in America. It's incredible.

And then of course after lots of organizing, thousands of phone calls going into Washington, D.C., into the White House, young people probably on Brown campus dressed up in the gigantic birth control packs running around and advocating, we actually finally under the Affordable Care Act got birth control coverage for every single woman that insured in America. Fifty-five million women now get their birth control covered at no copay. It's revolutionary. It's completely a game changer. And believe you me, we're not giving that up without a fight.

And it matters because, it's not just that there's, oh this is great policy, but it actually is changing opportunities for folks. We're now at a historic all-time low for teenage pregnancy in the United States of America and a 30-year low for unintended pregnancies. That matters.

And the reason all that matters is because this, all of this health care and access and rights, has opened up a whole new world of opportunities for women today. The number of women who graduate from college is six times what it was before they had access to birth control. Women are now more than half of undergraduate students, including here at Brown. Half of law school students, medical students. Women now earned the majority of master's and doctoral degrees. And my favorite new fact is that the most recent class of NASA astronauts is 50% women for the first time in history. So, thank you for that.

And look I think it's, you know, as you look around this room, women are leading in every single area of the American economy and every industry. We're entrepreneurs, CEOs, computer scientists, doctors, lawyers, United States senators and mothers.

And I also believe that Hillary Clinton proved this year for all time that it's not a question of if, it's only a question of when, because a woman will be president of the United States, I believe in our lifetime.

What is absolutely lost, I believe, on folks in Washington is that for this generation of women, the idea that pregnancy alone would determine your education or your career or your future is absolutely unthinkable, right, as it ought to be.

But we also know that women have never gotten anything that we didn't fight for and so much of the progress that we have made over this last century is now hanging in the balance, with not only a U.S. Congress but also a White House that has put women in the crosshairs of one disastrous policy after another. From the very moment they took office, this administration wasted no time at all expanding the Global Gag Rule, which will slash family planning funding around the world and jeopardize life-saving global health programs addressing everything from HIV and AIDS to maternal and child health. It's a disgrace.

So I was grateful to hear so many of you took part in the 125th Conference Community Service Project, which is sending safe birth kits to Kenya. So thank you for that work, thank you. I mean, it's important but it's absolutely outrageous that these kind of efforts are now needed. They're more timely than ever since the White House just ended all U.S. funding for the United Nations Population Fund. It is the leading force in the world that prevents maternal mortality and unintended pregnancy around the world.

But now, of course, they've turn their sights on women domestically. On Thursday we witnessed the U.S. House of Representatives vote to rip away health care from 24 million people in this country and block millions of patients from coming to Planned Parenthood for birth control and cancer screenings and other preventive services.

It's been extraordinary to be in Washington, D.C. I'm sure some of you all live there. But I'll never forget, it was on one of the crucial days that I was there on Capitol Hill when they tried to pass it the first time, and we were literally a day away from the vote and I got the news with the Freedom Caucus had been invited to go over the White House to just sort of get the final touches on this bill. And of course I thought, as an organizer, I thought, oh my god I wish I could get a photograph because all the Freedom Caucus there with Vice President Mike Pence and Donald Trump – that's going to be a lot of white men. And of course Vice President Pence tweets out the photograph just a few minutes later, so, which was perfect.

And again, they were meeting to make the decision about what the final content of the bill would, and one of their signature accomplishments was to end maternity benefit coverage for women in this country. It's incredible. And as has been widely reported now, and thank God for social media on this, this bill would allow insurance companies to charge more for patients who have been pregnant, who had a c-section, who are survivors of rape and sexual assault – in short, being a woman is now going to be a pre-existing condition again in America, you know, and we can't let it happen.

So our fight isn't over yet. This bill now goes to the United States Senate, and we've got to do everything we can to stop it in its tracks, and that includes work by all of you.

So the day after the inauguration, millions of people in this country and around the world marched, not only in the U.S. but in all seven continents. They were marching in Antarctica, for God's sake. Yeah, exactly – let's hear it for the scientists. I was in Washington, D.C. I don't know if any of you all got to go to the March in Washington. I mean it was extraordinary. I've been a marcher all my life. I've never seen anything like this. And as folks know, you couldn't even march because there were so many people. You just had to kind of like, rock in one place. But we marched it because we knew there would be a time when we'd have to fight like hell to protect our rights and that time has come.

And since the election I don't know a single person – certainly not a single woman – who hasn't been questioning everything about her life and her future and her role in what we need to do. And the good news is, women are leading the resistance all across America. It's phenomenal. And it's everything from….

You know, I raced to my local knitting store to get my pink yarn so I could knit my pussy hat and my god, you couldn't even get in the store. It was full of women knitting pussy pink has and sending them around the country for women of all ages who are now showing up at townhall meetings all across America in their hats with their signs and telling their stories.

In fact, a recent poll of folks that are calling Congress – because you probably know, I mean the day actually that Paul Ryan said he was going to defund Planned Parenthood, you literally could not get a phone call into his office. The switchboard was overwhelmed and shut down and that has been happening over and over again. So if anyone ever wonder does it matter – it absolutely matters. They take notice.

In one recent study by Daily Action – it's a popular tool used to make calls to Congress – found that 86 percent of the people who are calling Congress are women – right? That's the resistance, right?

But I want to say it's not only women, and one of the things that was so amazing at the march was to see so many men, to see brothers and fathers and husbands and partners and sons who were showing up for the women in their life. I mean I was thrilled to get to march with my daughter Lily but also my son, Daniel, who is as fierce a feminist as his two sisters. And I'm sure some of you had the experience as well.

I especially loved a story from one Brown alum who described seeing a guy who was at least six foot ten inches tall wearing a sign that said "I am a giant feminist" – right? So at least people have a sense of humor.

And I meet women everywhere who are taking on themselves to now change the world in whatever way they can. And it's all over the place. Organizing, speaking out and doing things that they never imagined they were going to do in their lives.

Not long ago I went to Kenosha, Wisconsin – that's Paul Ryan's district – because we have three health centers there, all three of which would be at risk. They all provide preventive health care primarily to folks on Medicaid.

And I met a woman named Laurie Hawkins who had gone to Planned Parenthood years ago when she was under insured, she was a Catholic school teacher, and at Planned Parenthood we were able to detect benign tumors on her ovaries and help her get the care that she needed. Now today the good news is Laurie is happy and she's healthy and she credits Planned Parenthood for the fact that she now has a thirteen-year-old daughter.

And she recently flew to Washington, D.C., with her daughter to take her to visit Paul Ryan to let him know how important Planned Parenthood was to her. And as Laurie said to me that day, she said, "You know, I used to be a passive supporter of Planned Parenthood but I can't be passive anymore."

And so now she's organizing with a new group called Forward Kenosha, which was started by some former Planned Parenthood patients, and just a few weeks ago she emailed to ask me if I would recommend her for a candidate training program because she's thinking about running for office. And that's just…. I feel like Laurie is just part of an incredible trend, an overwhelming trend that we're seeing, of women who are stepping up as leaders in all kinds of new ways.

And then there was one of my one good buddies now, Deja Foxx, she's 17 years old. She's a young woman from Tucson, Arizona, who recently stood up at a town hall meeting and shared her story. She's a person of color, she's a youth on her own, and she depends on affordable birth control at Planned Parenthood. And right there in front of hundreds of people, she demanded from her United States senator to know why if he can choose to go to any health care provider he wants to, why in the world does she not have the same right to go to Planned Parenthood? And she was amazing, she was amazing. And before the town hall meeting was over, the video was already making it around on social media, and today it's been seen by more than ten million people and counting, right. I mean, that is speaking truth to power. That's building the resistance.

And then actually last week I was just in Indianapolis, actually last Saturday, and there are two women I met – Rabbi Sandy Sasso and Jennifer Williams. And the day after the election they got up and felt like they had to do something to bring Hoosiers together, they were so despondent about the results, and so they organize a little event in Zionsville, Indiana, just north of Indianapolis, and they were planning for a hundred people but nearly a thousand women showed up. And since then their group has now grown to 13,000 members and counting, okay. And that's in Indianapolis. Yeah, so let's give it up for them, because that's where it really matters.

But that is what's happening everywhere and I believe more fiercely than ever – progress and change: it's not going to come out of Washington, D.C. It's going to come out of Indiana and Arizona and Nevada and Rhode Island.

I often get asked, folks go, "God, you know, does it matter if I call or if I write a letter or I speak out?" And I have to say it does, not only in the immediate fights but in the long haul, in the organizing we have to do. Because I know at Planned Parenthood, while we have seen our fair share of painful setbacks and despite the very real challenges that we face, the ideas that we stand for have taken hold like never before.

And last year I traveled the country for Secretary Clinton's campaign, just as I had done for President Obama's campaigns, and in fact I got to make a quick stop here at Brown, and it's interesting because in 2008 and 2012, every time I went to a phone bank or a little gathering, a woman would come up and kind of pull me aside and whisper her story, a story about that she'd gone to Planned Parenthood or a decision that she'd made about ending a pregnancy, stories of mothers and grandmothers who had either died or known folks who had of an illegal abortion, and that was a reason they cared so passionately about these issues today.

But this time around I saw a different phenomenon, and this time women weren't whispering. They were speaking out loudly and openly on social media and standing up at rallies and taking on shame and stigma like never before.

And it's what is growing this movement, I believe. it is sort of the final frontier and what been stunning to me about all the marches and all the events, is we're seeing, is that women, you know, in their 80s carrying signs that say "I can't believe I have to protest this…" fill in the blank "again" to 16 and 17-year olds like Deja Foxx and all marching alongside. I think it just goes to show in the words of Michelle Obama, our fabulous former first lady who we miss enormously in the White House, that courage is contagious.

Brown alumni have had the privilege, as had I, of attending one of the finest academic institutions in this country and being taught by some of the most brilliant minds in the world. And so we all actually have a special responsibility now to use the opportunities that have been given us.

And everywhere I go I meet women who are doing just that. They're speaking truth to power like Tracee Ellis Ross or going to the mat to protect women's reproductive rights like my friend Nancy Northup, the president of the Center for Reproductive Rights. They're transforming whose stories are told, like Lynn Nottage, or making a statement on and off the runway like Diane Von Furstenburg, who is leading in the fashion industry for women's rights, and they're serving in office like folks like my friend Senator Maggie Hassan, who was in my class at Brown, and Rhode Island's Governor Gina Raimondo.

Brown women are changing the world every day, and if there was ever a time to believe in our own ability to create the change we so desperately need, it's now.

My first interaction with this organization was as a student here in Providence. I had no idea where to go for birth control, so of course I went to Planned Parenthood. And that's not just my story – that's the story of one in five women in this country. And every single day Planned Parenthood's doors stay open. That's 8,118 people who get health care, and for many of them it's the only place they can turn to.

Some folks are under the misconception that working for social justice or an organization like Planned Parenthood is always a struggle. People get this stricken look when they see me. It's like, "How are you doing? Are you okay?" And I just have to say it's anything but that, because who could have known when I left Brown that I would have the privilege of working for an organization that literally makes a difference in thousands of people's lives every single day?

So that's really my charge to all of you. Use your platform to make a difference, to take a stand, and yes, to challenge authority. We've got some real fights ahead of us and a long road, but in the words of the great Sojourner Truth: If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back and get it right side up again.

So thank you for being here. Thank you for living a legacy for 125 years. Thanks for changing the world.

Brown University (2018, July 26). 125 Years of Women at Brown - Closing Reception with Cecile Richards '80 LHD'10 hon. [Video]. Retrieved on April 17, 2020, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MvandhcO8lA