Make Trouble: Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead

I was always getting into trouble growing up. Nearly every dinner, I was sent to my room for something. One night, my butt only slightly brushed the cold bench where my sister and I sat every night for dinner, when I was asked to return to my bedroom. Oftentimes, I rolled my eyes and reluctantly stomped back up the stairs to my room and threw a pair of scissors at the wall. Okay, the scissors part only happened once, but it’s one of my proudest “badass” moves, because after realizing the gravity of damage done to my bedroom wall in that moment, I placed a pretty pink and brown flower sticker over the hole, and no one ever noticed. Now that my father has vowed to religiously read this blog, I’m sure he’ll walk upstairs to check it out.

My incessant making trouble and consequent getting-into-trouble, was what initially drew me to the book Make Trouble, by Cecile Richards. To be quite honest, I did not know who Cecile Richards was when I first picked up the novel in one of my favorite bookstores. Nowadays, she’s one of my biggest idols. Not only did she explain facets of Planned Parenthood that even I, as a publicized feminist, was unaware of, but she also revealed the most troubling and difficult aspects of her life as an activist and fighter for women’s rights, also known as human rights. Thus, all of us reading, regardless of race, sex, gender, ethnicity, or religion, can take a moment to thank Cecile for all that she has done and all that she continues to do for the betterment of humanity.

Living in Boston, Massachusetts, a notoriously liberal city, I will admit to being a tad sheltered. When Donald Trump was elected president, I could not believe it. I was surrounded by liberals at an abundant level, especially on a college campus. LGBTQ people, Women, Hispanics, Muslims; you name it. The Boston College community had a prevalent activist presence, and when there were racist or offensively conservative remarks, they received overflowing disgust, anger, and the perpetrators of the attacks were often suspended or expelled. Cecile Richard’s accounts of the sexism, misogyny and utter ignorance of men in positions of power throughout the United States was just as shocking as Donald Trump’s election (unironically).

One of the most disquieting sections of Make Trouble revealed a pro-life organization’s creation of false propaganda to make it appear as though Planned Parenthood had been committing illegalities in certain locations (you have to read this to believe it). In response, Cecile was asked to testify on behalf on Planned Parenthood. Cecile recounts of Congressman John Duncan from Tennessee, “I’m sure I have seen many male witnesses treated much tougher than you have today. And surely you don’t expect us to be easier on you because you’re a woman?” Cecile pointedly responded, “Absolutely not… That’s not how my mama raised me.” Finally, the elected congressman (we, as the voting constituents, have to accept responsibility for this as well) proceeded to ask, “I’m not clear on this: do you defend the sale of baby body parts?” Seriously?

As much as many of us readers (I hope) can laugh at the above statement, immediately recognizing its incredulity, others throughout the country honestly believe what the congressman had asked to be true. That brings me to the next fact Richards brought forward, substantiating all of my preconceived notions surrounding women’s rights: Men are still running the show. I vividly remember a headline appear in my WSJ alerts, shortly after the election of Donald Trump, surrounding the reimposition of the Gag rule. I quickly googled to understand what the Gag rule was, and saw a glaring picture that spoke louder than the words that followed. The new President was surrounded by six other white men, and the caption read, “Gathered around the most powerful man in the world – a man who has openly bragged of sexual assault, who refers to a vulva as a woman’s ‘wherever’ – as he signs away the reproductive rights of women in developing countries. In reimposing the global Gag rule, Donald Trump is removing US funding to any overseas organization that offers abortions, even if the organization provides those specific services with their own funds. It means that doctors, midwives, nurses and volunteers cannot so much as mention the word ‘abortion’ to their patients and service users without risking the loss of the US funding they receive for services including the supply of contraceptives.” Richards, speaking of her own experiences, notes the exact same revelation surrounding the magnitude of white men making some of the most pivotal decisions for women’s health. She says, “But the visual that I can’t get out of my head is the partisan divide in Congress. On my right, the Republican side of the hearing the committee members were, almost to a person, white men. In fact they were so desperate to have more diversity that they brought Republican congresswomen not on the committee into the hearing room so that the television coverage would look better (which it did not). On the left, the Democratic delegation was a diverse mix of gender, race, and ethnicity, more like our country in the twenty-first century. The image that day was so clearly the past on one side, and our future on the other.”

Cecile proceeds to recite something all women experience in male dominant environments, whether they recognize it or not. She says, “Most of all, my respect for women in office, which was pretty dang high already, grew by leaps and bounds after sitting through five hours with their colleagues. The sneers, interruptions, and plain rudeness are more than we would ever tolerate from our kids. But like so many women faced with mansplaining and ignorance, they channel their anger and stay focused on what they’re there to do.” As I personally think more about the number of times I’ve been interrupted, disregarded, a man doesn’t shake my hand or look me in the eye, or dumbs-down the questions he asks to the level at which he would question a first-grader, I type with so much frustration that I fear for the keys of this laptop, which I inherently need in order to finish this piece. Thus, I’ll take Richards’ advice, channel my anger, and focus on what I need to do.

Richards reveals that while in office, her mother, Ann Richards, encountered the same intolerable sexism that Cecile faced herself, by many of the nation’s most influential leaders and decision-makers. Surrounding Clayton Williams, a Texas oilman that Ann Richards had to campaign against, Cecile says, “He joked about going across the border to get ‘serviced’ by prostitutes, and once told reporters that rape was like bad weather: since you couldn’t do anything about it, you might as well lie back and enjoy it.” Ann Richards possessed a skill that we all need, especially as women. Oftentimes stereotyped as overly-emotional, while these types of comments would certainly spark anger in most, women would likely be double-dinged for overreacting, as they would fall directly into the stereotype. Clayton Williams would take every opportunity to intimidate Ann Richards during their campaign. When asked how she controlled her emotions in those situations, Richards responded, “You know… my blood pressure drops. I go into cool mode. Here he is, another guy who lives a privileged life and doesn’t give a damn about women. Now I get to expose that to the world.” Ann Richards went on to win the election, making history as a progressive woman being elected governor of Texas, pictured triumphantly holding a T-shirt reading, “A Woman’s Place is in the Dome!”

Today, we see history repeating itself in the regard of sexist and incredibly offensive behavior from our male politicians and leaders. As Richards says, “Of course, the struggle for equality has never been easy, and those who have power are not going to give it up without a fight.” Richards proceeds to delve into the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, which brought back stinging memories of Anita Hill’s hearing twenty-seven years earlier against (now a Supreme Court justice) Clarence Thomas. Richards says, “… I was amazed at the courage and brutal honesty of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who, with absolutely nothing to gain and so much to lose, recounted before the world her experience of abuse by a man who now sits on the highest court in the land.” She continues, “For me, it wasn’t only Justice Kavanaugh’s opposition to abortion rights and other basic civil liberties that unnerved me – that was awful, but not surprising. The worst of it all was the complete disregard that elected members of the Senate showed to Dr. Ford, treating her and other women as the suspects and guilty ones. Their actions cast a harsh light on so many women’s lived experience, where the risks of reporting harassment, or fighting back against men in power, feels futile.”

The level of violence surrounding Planned Parenthood was striking. Having lived in Boston, I sometimes walked past a Planned Parenthood site, and there would occasionally be protestors holding “Abortion is murder” signs, but I never imagined the magnitude of Planned Parenthood – related violence, until reading Cecile’s account of one of her Planned Parenthood employee’s murder in his own church. She writes, “The days surrounding George’s death were painfully sad, but they were also a reminder of the incredible power of working with a group of people who can support each other through the most difficult tragedies. There was nothing good to come of all this. A brave man had been shot in cold blood – a man who had cared for so many women, especially women in the most terrible medical circumstances. But George’s legacy and work inspired a renewed commitment among many of us.” It’s so incredibly devastating to read about the number of people who have lost their lives while trying to help others. Planned Parenthood is for women who need health care. Nothing about that cause involves politics. As Richards says, “In fact, if you’re a woman who finds a lump in your breast, politics is the furthest thing from your mind.”

When Cecile speaks of her days as an agitator, she says, “I may have majored in history, but I minored in agitating.” This quote truly resonated with me. In my Political Science courses, I was constantly looking at all of my assignments through a “make trouble” perspective. While I (somewhat) enjoyed learning about the United States constitution and the way in which government is arranged, I always took an extra step to challenge my learnings from a gendered perspective. Whether it was writing about the role of the Chadur or Burqa in the Middle East, or World War II’s euphemistic “Comfort Women” throughout Asia, I was always seeking a way to re-read history from a different perspective, leveraging the past to question the way things are done in the present. As Richards would say, “My time in college taught me a lesson I have carried through my life: Don’t sit around and wait for the perfect opportunity to come along – find something and make it an opportunity.” So I did, and so I have, and so I will.

Richards has an utterly invaluable yet simplistic message when it comes to leadership: The best leaders are the relatable ones. Barack Obama, for example, came from a very humble background, which is what the majority of the American people relate to, also commonly referred to as the middle or working class. When a leader hails from such a background, their policies and consequent societal changes usually benefit the vast majority of the people. Richards contends that what ultimately defines a leader is someone who has followers. In order to have followers, one typically has to relate to humanity at large. Obama was understandable and empathetic to people at large through his modest upbringing and first-hand experience with the blue-collar community, immigration, racism, and beyond. Richards corroborates, “The women we organized with didn’t have money or political influence, but everybody looked up to them. Jeril was raising her daughters on her minimum-wage salary from the nursing home in Bryan, and her apartment in the projects was the center of the community. Vicki in Texas City was constantly taking second jobs so she could finally buy a home of her own. She never missed a day’s work, and she was committed to her patients. And Georgia Landry in Beaumont was everyone’s grandmother, working the graveyard shift and encouraging the younger new employees to stick with the job. These were women who had earned the respect of their coworkers and, more often than not, the unspoken admiration of their employers.” 

As Richards unravels her mother’s political campaign, she raises an incredibly important point: Women are rarely inclined to apply for something or shoot for a goal that they are not 105% qualified for. Richards writes, “Of course, it was not lost on me that men take these chances all the time. They say, ‘I work for an advertising firm and have never been in public office, but I’m going to run for Congress.’ Women, on the other hand, say, ‘I was thinking about applying for that job, but I haven’t finished my PhD yet.’” As Cecile recounts her mother’s decision to run for congress, she recalls her saying, “‘The women are on fire,’ she continued. ‘But I’m going to have a tough democratic primary. Really tough. They are going to say I’m a drug addict and hassle me about being divorced. But if I don’t do it, I will always wonder, What if? I just can’t live with that.’” Richards went on to say that with every political race her mother had gotten into, she never waited until she had the perfect background or was guaranteed success. It was because she knew she was qualified and could do a better job than the incumbent, even if she was the only one who thought so. When her mother won, Richards says, coinciding with Maya Angelou, “What people remembered when it was time to vote wasn’t so much policy or a position statement; it was how Mom made them feel. She wasn’t afraid to be who she was, warts and all.” This is it – your only life – so whatever the question, the answer is yes. Don’t look back. Don’t hesitate. Don’t doubt. Just do it.

Reflecting on how Cecile found her path to Planned Parenthood and the role models in her life, she said something that truly stuck with me: “If there’s one common theme that runs throughout my life, it’s strong, kick-ass women. My grandmothers, each in their own very different ways, were tough and pioneering. My mother broke the mold. And at every job I’ve ever had, I’ve tried to work for someone who could teach me something – and more often than not, that someone has been a woman. For all those inspiring women, it wasn’t as if the world just threw open the door and invited them in. Each one has been a disrupter in one way or another. They’ve made trouble, broken the rules, and challenged authority…” As women, hoping to effect change in this world, we have a multitude of other obstacles to overcome, and simply cannot waste an ounce of energy on being liked, when we are up against way more than that. As Cecile recalls, her mother often said, “Life isn’t fair, but government should be.” Richards continues, “Women aren’t usually in it for the glory; they’re in it to get something done. And it’s a good thing they are because Congress on the whole is a macho, ‘guys hanging out with guys’ kind of place. When Barbara Boxer was elected to the US Senate, there wasn’t even a women’s bathroom near the Senate floor – and that was 1993!” As soon as we are able to focus less on approval from others, and instead reinvest our energy on accomplishing things that really matter, we will break more rules and by default, reach greater heights than ever before. Richards writes, “There are a ton of great ideas floating around the universe, but the ones that end up becoming reality are those someone commits to doing no matter what.”

Richards says, “There is a takeaway here for aspiring hell-raisers: We get only what we’re willing to fight for – nothing more and, I hope, nothing less.” Any time you’re trying to change the way things are or challenge the powers that be, it’s going to be controversial. Richards recalls a prime example of precisely that: “Since my first weeks at Planned Parenthood, there have been people who have said, ‘Why don’t you just change the name, or split the organization in two, so people don’t associate you with abortion?’ Sometimes these are well-intentioned people; they just want the controversy to go away. But what is important is that we quit apologizing for abortion and do everything we can to support people who need one.” This mentality has proven to be successful for not only Cecile Richards, but also for generations of women. Stepping on stage at one of Hillary Clinton’s conventions, Richards exclaimed, “When my great-grandmother was growing up, women couldn’t vote under Texas law. Two generations later her granddaughter, Ann Richards, was elected governor. Tonight we are closer than ever to putting a woman in the White House. And I can almost hear mom saying, ‘Well, it sure took y’all long enough!’” From the various women’s marches in the past few years, we’ve witnessed women of all ages, backgrounds, immigration statuses, ethnicities and religions, stand together and fight for equality. As Cecile says, it will take all of us, and especially the trailblazers, leaders of tomorrow, and everywhere in-between, to light the way forward.

In closing, Cecile says, “Right now our country has some major soul-searching to do.” From the rights of women and immigrants to LGBTQ people and people of color, it’s important to separate the human things from the political things. My favorite passage from the entire book reads: “Now the floodgates are open. Women are talking publicly about subjects that were once off-limits, and refusing to tolerate the sexual assault and harassment that have been accepted for far too long and there’s no going back… It shouldn’t be up to women to dismantle the patriarchy, but we can’t sit around and hope someone else does it either. Feminist is not a passive label; it means speaking out and standing up for women everywhere, and also for yourself. One woman calling out an injustice is powerful enough; when we raise our voices together, we can shake the status quo to its foundation.” As women, we must choose to be the heroines of our own lives. To be bold and audacious, continuously taking risks. One of the key places we must take greater risks is in the political arena. More women need to run for office. Richards says, “To continue and accelerate this slow process toward equality, women will need to attain the one thing that has eluded us for more than a century: real political power. Because even though women are well more than half of voters in the United States, our political representation ranks 103rd – right below Indonesia. This imbalance is perhaps responsible for the fact that the United States is the only industrialized country in the world without nationally mandated paid family leave. And still, in 2019, women on average earn just 80 cents for every dollar a man earns. For black women, it’s 61 cents. For Latinas, it’s only 53 cents.” After writing a self-thought Women’s Declaration of Independence, Richards gives her readers an official invitation to make trouble, because as her audience is well aware upon reading the final pages of her book, we don’t have time to waste.

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