Cecile Richards

The Political Progress Women Have Made and What's Next - Nov. 30, 2018

Cecile Richards
November 30, 2018
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Nearly 100 years ago, almost today, most women in the United States finally won the right to vote. Now, it would take decades more for women of color to earn that right, and we've come a long way since, but I would argue not nearly far enough. I think what women want today, not just only in the United States but around the globe, is to no longer be an afterthought. We don't want to continue to try to, like, look at the next 100 years and be granted, grudgingly, small legal rights and accommodations. We simply want true and full equality. I think that women are tired of retrofitting ourselves into institutions and governments that were built by men, for men, and we'd rather reshape the future on our own terms. I believe --

I believe what we need is a women's political revolution for full equality across race, across class, across gender identity, across sexual orientation, and yes, across political labels, because I believe what binds us together as women is so much more profound than what keeps up apart. And so I've given some thought about how to build this women's political revolution and that's what I want to talk to you about today.

The good news is that one thing that hasn't changed in the last century is women's resilience and our commitment to build a better life not only for ourselves, but for generations to come, because I can't think of a single woman who wants her daughter to have fewer rights or opportunities than she's had.

So we know we all stand on the shoulders of the women who came before us, and as for myself, I come from a long line of tough Texas women. My grandparents lived outside of Waco, Texas, in the country. And when my grandmother got pregnant, of course she was not going to go to the hospital to deliver, she was going to have that baby at home. But when she went into labor, she called the neighbor woman over to cook dinner for my grandfather, because ... I mean, it was unthinkable that he was going to make supper for himself. Been there. The neighbor had no experience with killing a chicken, and that was what was planned for dinner that night. And so as the story goes, my grandmother, in the birthing bed, in labor, hoists herself up on one elbow and wrings that chicken's neck, right? And that is how my mother came into this world.

But the amazing thing is, even though my mother's own grandmother could not vote in Texas, because under Texas law, "idiots, imbeciles, the insane and women" were prevented the franchise -- just two generations later, my mother, Ann Richards, was elected the first woman governor in her own right in the state of Texas.

But you see, when Mom was coming up in Texas, there weren't a lot of opportunities for women, and frankly, she spent her entire life trying to change that. She used to like to say, "As women, if you just give us a chance, we can perform. After all, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but she did it backwards and in high heels." Right? And honestly, that's kind of what women have been doing for this last century: despite having very, very little political power, we have made enormous progress.

So today in the United States, 100 years after getting the right to vote, women are almost half the workforce. And in 40 percent of families with children, women are the major breadwinners. Economists even estimate that if every single paid working woman took just one day off of work, it would cost the United States 21 billion dollars in gross domestic product. Now, largely because of Title IX, which required educational equity, women are actually now half the college students in the United States. We're half the medical students, we're half the law students -- Exactly. And a fact I absolutely love: One of the most recent classes of graduating NASA astronauts was ... What? For the first time, 50 percent women.

The point is that women are really changing industries, they're changing business from the inside out. But when it comes to government, it's another story, and I actually think a picture is worth 1000 words. This is a photograph from 2017 at the White House when congressional leaders were called over to put the final details into the health-care reform bill that was to go to Congress. Now, one of the results of this meeting was that they got rid of maternity benefits, which may not be that surprising, since no one at that table actually would need maternity benefits. And unfortunately, that's what we've learned the hard way in the US for women. If we're not at the table, we're on the menu, right? And we're simply not at enough tables, because even though women are the vast majority of voters in the United States, we fall far behind the rest of the world in political representation.

Recent research is that when they ranked all the countries, the United States is 104th in women's representation in office. 104th ... Right behind Indonesia. So is it any big surprise, then, considering who's making decisions, we're the only developed country with no paid family leave? And despite all the research and improvements we've made in medical care -- and this is really horrifying to me -- the United States now leads the developed world in maternal mortality rates. Now, when it comes to equal pay, we're not doing a whole lot better. Women now, on average, in the United States, still only make 80 cents to the dollar that a man makes. Though if you're an African American woman, it's 63 cents to the dollar. And if you're Latina, it's 54 cents to the dollar. It's an outrage. Now, women in the UK, the United Kingdom, just came up with something I thought was rather ingenious, in order to illustrate the impact of the pay gap. So, starting November 10 and going through the end of the year, they simply put an out-of-office memo on their email to indicate all the weeks they were working without pay. Right? I think it's an idea that actually could catch on.

But imagine if women actually had political power. Imagine if we were at the table, making decisions. Imagine if we had our own women's political party that instead of putting our issues to the side as distractions, made them the top priority. Well, we know -- research shows that when women are in office, they actually act differently than men. They collaborate more with their colleagues, they work across party lines, and women are much more likely to support legislation that improves access to health care, education, civil rights. And what we've seen in our research in the United States Congress is that women sponsor more legislation and they cosponsor more legislation. So all the evidence is that when women actually have the chance to serve, they make a huge difference and they get the job done.

So how would it look in the United States if different people were making decisions? Well, I firmly believe if half of Congress could get pregnant, we would finally quit fighting about birth control and Planned Parenthood. That would be over.I also really believe that finally, businesses might quit treating pregnancy as a nuisance, and rather understand it as a primary medical issue for millions of American workers. And I think if more women were in office, our government would actually prioritize keeping families together rather than pulling them apart.But perhaps most importantly, I think all of these issues would no longer be seen as "women's issues." They would just be seen as basic issues of fairness and equality that everybody can get behind.

So I think the question is, what would it take, actually, to build this women's political revolution? The good news is, actually, it's already started. Because women around the globe are demanding workplaces, they're demanding educational institutions, they're demanding governments where sexism and sexual harassment and sexual assault are neither accepted nor tolerated. Women around the world, as we know, are raising their hands and saying, "Me Too," and it's a movement that's made so much more powerful by the fact that women are standing together across industries, from domestic workers to celebrities in Hollywood. Women are marching, we're sitting in, we're speaking up. Women are challenging the status quo, we're busting old taboos and yes, we are proudly making trouble. So, women in Saudi Arabia are driving for the very first time.

Women in Iraq are standing in solidarity with survivors of human trafficking. And women from El Salvador to Ireland are fighting for reproductive rights. And women in Myanmar are standing up for human rights. In short, I think the most profound leadership in the world isn't coming from halls of government. It's coming from women at the grassroots all across the globe. And here in the United States, women are on fire. So a recent Kaiser poll reported that since our last presidential election in 2016, one in five Americans have either marched or taken part in a protest, and the number one issue has been women's rights. Women are starting new organizations, they are volunteering on campaigns, and they're taking on every issue from gun-safety reform to public education. And women are running for office in record numbers, and they are winning.

So -- Women like Lucy McBath from Georgia. Lucy lost her son to gun violence, and it was because of her experience with the criminal justice system that she realized just how broken it is, and she decided to do something about that. So she ran for office, and this January, she's going to Congress. OK? Or -- Angie Craig from Minnesota. So her congressman had made such hateful comments about LGBTQ people that she decided to challenge him. And you know what? She did, and she won, and when she goes to Congress in January, she'll be the first lesbian mother serving in the House of Representatives. Or Lauren Underwood from Illinois. She's a registered nurse, and she sees every day the impact that lack of health care access has on the community where she lives, and so she decided to run. She took on six men in her primary, she beat them all, she won the general election, and when she goes to Congress in January, she's going to be the first African-American woman ever to serve her district in Washington, D.C.

So women are recognizing -- this is our moment. Don't wait for permission, don't wait for your turn. As the late, great Shirley Chisholm said -- Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman ever to go to Congress and the first woman to run for president in the Democratic party -- but Shirley Chisholm said, "If there's no room for you at the table, just pull up a folding chair." And that's what women are doing, all across the country. I believe women are now the most important and powerful political force in the world, but how do we make sure that this is not just a moment? What we need is actually a global movement for women's full equality that is intersectional and it's intergenerational, where no one gets left behind. And so I have a few ideas about how we could do that.

Number one: it's not enough to resist. It's not enough to say what we're against. It's time to be loud and proud about what we are for, because being for full equality is a mainstream value and something that we can get behind. Because actually, men support equal pay for women. Millennials, they support gender equality. And businesses are increasingly adopting family-friendly policies, not just because it's the right thing to do, but because it's good for their workers. It's good for their business.

Number two: We have to remember, in the words of Fannie Lou Hamer, that "nobody's free 'til everybody's free." So as I mentioned earlier, women of color in this country didn't even get the right to vote until much further along than the rest of us. But since they did, they are the most reliable voters, and women of color are the most reliable voters for candidates who support women's rights, and we need to follow their lead -- Because their issues are our issues. And as white women, we have to do more, because racism and sexism and homophobia, these are issues that affect all of us.

Number three: we've got to vote in every single election. Every election. And we've got to make it easier for folks to vote, and we've got to make sure that every single vote is counted, OK? Because the barriers that exist to voting in the United States, they fall disproportionately on women -- women of color, women with low incomes, women who are working and trying to raise a family. So we need to make it easier for everyone to vote, and we can start by making Election Day a federal holiday in the United States of America.

Number four: don't wait for instructions. If you see a problem that needs fixing, I think you're the one to do it, OK? So start a new organization, run for office. Or maybe it's as simple as standing up on the job in support of yourself or your coworkers. This is up to all of us. And number five: invest in women, all right? Invest in women as candidates, as changemakers, as leaders. Just as an example, in this last election cycle in the United States, women donated 100 million dollars more to candidates and campaigns than they had just two years ago, and a record number of women won. So just think about that.

So look, sometimes I think that the challenges we face, they seem overwhelming and they seem like they almost can never be solved, but I think the problems that seem the most intractable are the ones that are most important to work on. And just because it hasn't been figured out yet doesn't mean you won't. After all, if women's work were easy, someone else would have already been doing it, right?

But women around the globe, they're on the move, and they are taking strengths and inspiration from each other. They are doing things they never could have imagined. So if we could just take the progress we have made in joining the workforce, in joining business, in joining the educational system, and actually channel that into building true political power, we will reshape this century, because one of us can be ignored, two of us can be dismissed, but together, we're a movement, and we're unstoppable.

Thank you. Thank you.

Richards, Cecile. 2018. "The political progress women have made -- and what's next." (video) TED, Nov. 2018. https://www.ted.com/talks/cecile_richards_the_political_progress_women_have_made_and_what_s_next

TED. "The political progress women have made — and what's next | Cecile Richards." YouTube video, 17:04. Fe. 22, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Swj-8DrVT2M