Why Cecile Richards Thinks Work-Life Balance Is a Myth

A Q&A With the Soon-To-Be Former Planned Parenthood Leader

Cecile Richards.
Cecile Richards. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

This year, Cecile Richards is stepping down after her 12-year tenure as the president of Planned Parenthood. She has a new book out about her history as an organizer and women’s rights advocate—Making Trouble. We sat down to discuss her work, life, the messiness in between, and the overlap between reproductive rights and the many other issues facing women in the workplace.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Alieza Durana: So you mention in your book that work-life balance is not possible.

Cecile Richards: [Laughs.] Sorry.

What are some the structures you think need to be changed to make that possible? Why did you want to add the value of your experience to the conversation about work-life balance? Why is it a myth, and is it a myth for everyone?

We’ve read umpteen magazine articles about how to balance all of this. But unless we get serious in this country about recognizing that women are half the workforce and a critical part of our economy, it’s just not going to change. It’s been really heartbreaking, even on this book tour, to see distraught young women who’ve just given birth and have to go back to work and don’t know how to do it. I can’t believe that we’re repeating this pattern for a whole new generation.

If you look at the workforce and the way our laws work around so many issues, it’s as if women are supposed to retrofit themselves into a workplace that was never created for them. I would be excited if we could reimagine workplaces that start from a premise that women are going to be a central part: Women are going to bear children, people are going to raise those children, and it’s not going to be a nuisance—it’s actually going to be understood as part of the deal. It seems barbaric that a quarter of women return to work within two weeks of giving birth. Obviously women are doing it out of economic necessity in a society where affordable child care is almost impossible to get for so many women. And many of these women are working at jobs where they’re not getting paid enough even if they could find affordable child care. We need, of course, paid family leave like every other developed country in the world, to support people having families, and not make people rearrange their entire life to fit into our economy.

I always joke that writing about maternal health and child care—and seeing what women in this country have to juggle and endure—is a great form of birth control. But speaking of parenthood, what did you learn from your mom—Ann Richards—about work-life balance? How did she influence you and your children?

Even though my mom was talented and had a college degree, she lived in the era when the conventional wisdom in Dallas was that my dad worked, she was supposed to stay home and take care of the kids, and that was that. There really weren’t other opportunities for her, and most of them were volunteer opportunities. So even though she was interested in politics, “Women made the coffee and men made the decisions,” she said. It wasn’t until later that she got to liberate herself, run for office, and then eventually be elected governor [of Texas]. I think she spent the last half of her life trying to make up for many lost years.

I know that she felt so passionately that no other woman should ever be limited by cultural norms or what was expected of us. And she spent a long time certainly infusing that into my life and the lives of all the other women around her, certainly her granddaughters.

I do think things have changed. Women are now half the undergraduates, half the graduate students, and half the workforce. And yet our policies haven’t changed. She was a big advocate for that [policy change]. Even just getting women [to] not have to pay more for health insurance than men under Obamacare was a radical, revolutionary idea. But it wouldn’t have changed if folks hadn’t fought so hard. So even though we now have greater “opportunity”, there are still so many economic barriers to women, mainly related to childbearing, that haven’t been addressed and that we have to address in policy. Mom was a big believer that women should start before they’re ready. Don’t wait for someone to ask you—whether it’s for a promotion or to run for office. And she really just spent most of her life pushing women out in the front to do things that they might have never thought they were capable of doing before.

In terms of the leadership of reproductive justice organizations going forward—we’ve recently seen shifts to support the work of women of color. What do you think the leadership of these organizations should tackle internally and externally going forward, in terms of how they run the organizations themselves and then how they interact with the communities they work with?

It’s interesting to have worked at Planned Parenthood now for 12 years. I think I have become really spoiled because I work for an organization that is all about women’s empowerment and I think it’s going to maybe be a rude awakening to go out in real life and realize that not every place is like Planned Parenthood. It has been exciting to be a place where promoting women and women’s opportunity is sort of core to what we do every single day. I hope over the last 12 years my work has lifted up women and women of color to be in all parts of the organization. Not only in our medical services but also on our board in positions of leadership. I’m really proud of the many women of color who now lead in our national office.

It’s also been an important part of the time I’ve been at Planned Parenthood to invest in new up-and-coming folks and see some of our young leaders now run for office. I’m incredibly proud of Nikema Williams who became a state senator in Georgia, who for years had worked for Planned Parenthood as a policy and political advocate, and Anna Eskamani who is now running for the state Legislature in Florida. So I think there’s a lot of ways within the organization but also on the outside that we can do to support the growth and leadership of women of color.

There’s always more to do. I’m really proud of some of the partnerships and relationships that we’ve built and need to continue to strengthen with reproductive justice communities who have been hard at work  for a very long time. And the more work that we can do at Planned Parenthood to partner on the glaring inadequacy of reproductive health care access for women of color in America is really important.

And I think it’s important that Planned Parenthood lift up those stories as well because even though we are so proud of the fact that you know for example teenage pregnancy is at the lowest rate it’s ever [been] in the United States, abortion rates are the lowest since Roe, and unintended pregnancy at a 30 year low, that progress is incredibly uneven depending on where you live, your income, your race or ethnicity. I think the second century of Planned Parenthood should focus on actually creating equity in opportunity. We as a organization and this country have a long way to go.

What are some underrated things—maybe two or three—you’d like to see on political platforms, big and small in 2018?

One, we have to get serious about prenatal care and maternity care for women—we are backsliding. It’s an outrage to me that we are moving backwards in terms of maternal health in America. And again, it’s disproportionately impacting women of color.

We have to get really serious about equal pay and so we all talk about it. And as we know, women of color when you really—when you measure up they are so much further behind economically. And that is you know that’s just something that we have to change. And I applaud the companies that are finally beginning to take this seriously. But this is something that’s not only going to have to be a platform issue, policy issues, we’re going to have the business community you know do their own internal work to ensure that they are doing everything possible to begin to get wage equity and parity.  

The thing that everyone talks about, but we’ve seen so little progress on, is paid family leave. Having had three kids, raised them as a working mom, I know firsthand. And even though as a woman with enormous privilege and opportunity, the challenge of having a child, being able to even spend the time and those first months or first year is just almost impossible economically. And that’s something that we should make a highest priority in this country. It requires not only policy difference and a retrofitting of the workforce. It’s not going to happen until some people get out in front and show it’s not only good for families—it’s also good for women, good for parents, and good for our economy.

What’s your reaction to #MeToo and the ways it’s highlighted certain experiences? And how do we take advantage of this moment? 

It’s so prevalent and so common. Having spent many years organizing women who were working for the minimum wage, these are issues that are so prevalent all across America. I think we have to do more to expose how difficult it is for women who can’t tell their stories, who put up with sexual harassment and sexual assault because they have to have their job—women in the service industry, women in minimum wage jobs.

I hope that we can talk about this not only as a sexual harassment issue but as a fundamental economic issue that holds women back across the country. I’m grateful to women who have the privilege and ability to tell their stories and applaud them for doing that. And also recognize that there are many, many women in this country who will never have that opportunity. We have to be mindful of that and change the culture and the experience of women not only in Hollywood, not only in media, but on the shop floor, working in health care, and everywhere else in America.  

What’s next for you?

I don’t know exactly, but I’m excited about the future. I’ve been so privileged to be at Planned Parenthood for 12 years and think it’s important to make space for someone else to do this job. I’m really excited about the next generation of young leaders that have come into the movement and hope this gives them an opportunity. But I will never give up the fight for reproductive rights and reproductive justice. I’m a lifelong agitator, troublemaker, and organizer. It seems to me that women are shaking the foundation of this country. They are questioning everything—cultural norms, political norms—and it’s an exciting time to be in the movement. I’ll be very focused between now and November on doing everything I can to get women to register to vote, agitate, and make sure that they show up in November at the polls.