As part of a new platform I helped launch, COVID Gendered, I recently had the opportunity to speak with Cecile Richards—former President of Planned Parenthood and co-founder of Supermajority—in the wake of this global pandemic.
Cecile shared her timely and important insights about a variety topics, including how she sees the impacts of COVID-19 affecting women, the many cracks in our systems the pandemic has exposed, how we can create change, why it’s so important to keep our focus on the upcoming election, how women are stepping up to lead, what gives her hope and more.
Marianne Schnall: How are you personally doing in all of this? What are your coping strategies, and how are you passing the time?
Cecile Richards: Well, I’m incredibly fortunate because I have a job, and I can continue to do my job. And I think for so many people that’s not possible. So I have been spending my time sort of moving Supermajority, this organization that I work with, to totally digital, with remote working spaces for all of our staff. And so that’s been an interesting journey, but, as I have found my entire life, women are incredibly resilient and adapt to change really quickly.
So that’s how I’m spending my time, I suppose. And I personally seem to be healthy. My family is healthy. Probably the hardest thing for me, which is not hard compared to what other people are facing, is being so distant from my children, and it looks like will be for a long time, one of whom is living in Africa. And I’ve never felt so far away.
And I guess we all have different coping skills. Unfortunately, one of mine is I’m a baker, so I’m really trying to resist baking every day. I mean, I’m used to making pies for many, and the last thing I need to be doing is eating an entire pie! I need to figure out some other coping skills.
MS: As you know, I decided to launch COVID Gendered to look at the intersection between gender and the pandemic. So just from the lens of your work, what are the ways that you think COVID-19 is having specific impact on women and girls?
CR: Well, I see it from a lot of different places, but I’ll just say two are so obvious. One is with our own staff, all of whom are women, many of whom are mothers of young children. And so you read the percentages, like 30 percent of people can now work at home, but there’s very little conversation of what that looks like, particularly for women who are now stuck at home. Their children no longer have childcare, are no longer in school, for the most part. They often have other family members at home all day with them.
And so what I have seen is these are women who are basically trying to take care of everybody, and then work until midnight and 1:00 a.m. So personally I have seen the disproportionate impact it’s had on women who tend to, as we know, pick up all the work.
But the issues that we are concerned about at Supermajority are really how do we get gender equity in this country, a lot of which is economic, and a lot of which is access to basic needs like healthcare. I’ve never experienced anything that has put a greater spotlight on the inherent inequity in the United States, and the fact that our economy and the business world and the working world was never built for women.
But women have somehow, just by hook or by crook, figured out a way to manage, even when they have no access to affordable childcare. They have unequal pay. They’re the first to lose employment. And that, under COVID, has been just so profound. I saw the numbers this week. I think now 18 percent of women report having lost their job, which is much higher than men. And of course for many of these women, since at least two-thirds of people that earn low wages in this country are women, these are women who lost jobs and who already were often living, as we say, paycheck to paycheck.
And so I believe what we are going to see, if we can sort of look ahead, as with every other economic downturn, women will be the hardest hit, and it will take the longest for them to recover. And thinking about just this inadequate access to healthcare, and of course the exposure of all of our frontline healthcare providers, three quarters of whom are women—I think it’s 86 percent of registered nurses in this country are women. So in every aspect of this pandemic, women are on the frontlines.
MS: Absolutely. And just in terms of addressing some of the problems that you just raised, what do you think is needed to make change, either immediately or just in general, to alleviate some of those issues that you just named?
CR: Well, they’re the same things we’ve been talking about at Supermajority for the last year. Women have managed, but they’ve done it one by one by one. And one of the things we’ve seen over this last year at Supermajority is when women get in a room together, they realize they’re not the only one who has had to somehow figure a way around not having maternity care, not having access to affordable childcare, etcetera.
So I think there are systemic things we need in this country. First and foremost, we need a commitment to equal pay—that regardless of your gender, you get paid for the work that you do. I mean, we all know the numbers, and of course it’s more profound for women of color, so much more profound in terms of unequal access to pay. We need maternity care and childcare that is available for everyone, regardless of where they work. And that’s something, as we know, businesses still consider maternity leave and maternity care as a nuisance rather than as fundamental to half of the workforce in the country.
We need paid family leave, like every other industrialized country, and we need paid sick leave. These are fundamental policy changes, and they can’t happen in a piecemeal way, which is what has happened. I think we’ve all kind of just pasted this together. And what we want from the next administration and what we want from the next Congress is to put these issues at the top of the list, not at the bottom of the list. Because they’re not only good for women. They’re good for families. They’re good for the economy. They have majoritarian support in this country. And again, I just believe this pandemic has exposed all of the weaknesses and the really systemic barriers that women face to make it economically.
MS: As we’ve seen, some states are using the pandemic as an opportunity to further limit abortions and reproductive rights. What are your thoughts on that?
CR: Well, it’s so hypocritical, of course. And my home state of Texas, where this has gone back and forth and back and forth, but to think that you would use a pandemic, instead of focusing on actually getting people access to healthcare, which is what the state should be doing, instead denying women access to healthcare and denying pregnant people access to healthcare is outrageous. The politicization of what is a global healthcare crisis is extraordinary.
I don’t think it’s going unnoticed. I know even prior to this, months ago, as many states have tried to now ban access to safe and legal abortion, this issue is very high up in the minds of not only women but men in this country who never thought it was really ever going to become illegal or impossible to get access to a legal abortion.
What has been interesting to me is I feel like the overreach, which is such an understatement, by politicians to insert abortion issues into the pandemic has only served to sort of reignite the concern in this country, and frankly, I think, show women why it matters who’s in office.
And I just happen to know because it was in the stimulus package, of course, one of the big fights, even though I’m not at Planned Parenthood anymore, was to make sure that Planned Parenthood as a nonprofit healthcare provider to more than 2 million people in this country, could get no economic relief for providing basic preventive care. I mean, the politicization of women’s health just continues. And I think it’s going to be a voting issue in November.
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MS: Right now, understandably, the focus is on the pandemic. But since we do have an all-important election coming up, how do we all stay informed and mobilized and civically and politically engaged?
CR: I would say that’s a major focus that we have at Supermajority. Certainly Wisconsin yesterday is such a perfect example of what happens when you have a government that has tried to prevent people from voting. And all the restrictions on voting, they hit women the hardest, certainly working mothers the hardest.
So one of our main areas of focus in the next few months is building a system where any woman in the country can find out her voting status, her registration status, can get up-to-date information about how the rules are changing in her community because, as we saw in Wisconsin, they literally changed overnight whether the election was going to be held or not.
Can you imagine being an average person in Wisconsin trying to understand whether the voting is happening or not? It’s just outrageous. And the president, obviously, and now, frankly, the United States Supreme Court, has made this a political issue. He has no interest in furthering the ability of people to vote in this country. We know that women will be the majority of voters, and it is really important that we make sure they can all vote.
I think that’s an important thing that we can do is to make sure that women feel not only empowered by having the information they need and understanding where candidates stand on the issues, but literally having the ability to vote. At Supermajority, we are strongly in favor of not only mail-in balloting, which is important, but there are all kinds of other opportunities to make voting easier. We should have drop-off voting. We should have weekend voting. And we should have no-excuses absentee voting. And that’s what we’ll be pushing for in these next few months, in addition to making sure we have the tools to help every woman understand how and when she can vote, and make sure that she’s registered.
MS: This pandemic has revealed so many cracks in so many systems. And the world as we know it is no longer, and we’re going to need to rebuild. How do you think our society and systems will transform? What do you see as the opportunities for positive change to come out of this?
CR: Well, some things will change that are not really my bailiwick. I think work will change. I think the number of people who work at home or work virtually is going to change. But I do believe if I look at fundamental societal change that needs to happen and has needed to happen: access to affordable childcare and taking care of caregivers, who we all need, either for the elderly or for our children, I think is going to be front and center.
The lack of paid family leave and federally guaranteed paid sick days—this is going to become more and more something that people can understand is vital. And then all the efforts that the president has made to dismantle access to health insurance and healthcare coverage in this country, and you could even see the scrambling that they’re doing, I believe that people are going to, I hope, understand that healthcare has to be a human right for everyone, that everyone benefits when everyone has access to healthcare.
I think it will likely be the voting issue in this election. And I think it’s time for all of us to push for these changes because anyone who wants to be elected to office really needs to commit to what I think is a pretty simple and smart agenda. Can you imagine right now if we actually had paid healthcare, everyone had health insurance coverage? These are things that would have changed the arc, not obviously of the pandemic, but certainly of the unequal access to healthcare that we’re seeing every day.
MS: Already we were seeing that women were rising up in all kinds of ways—running for office and #MeToo and sharing their stories and running for president. Do you think women will be a driving force in terms of leading this global reset?
CR: One hundred percent. I mean, interestingly, we saw it—this has been building. This isn’t just as a result of the pandemic. Clearly, in 2018 in the U.S., women dominated as voters, as candidates, as activists, as volunteers. We saw then certainly in 2019 what happened in the State of Virginia, which is a state where now they have for the first time in I don’t know how many hundred years, a woman leader of the assembly. They have an African American woman majority leader. And that was all driven by turnout by women.
And again, the more that women understand the power of actually participating in the voting process, the more it ignites them. So we saw in all the primaries that we’ve been following this year with Supermajority, women were the overwhelming majority in almost every single primary, including states like South Carolina where, I can’t even remember what the percentage was, but women are absolutely outvoting men. Although I worry about the barriers that women are going to face to vote, and that’s what we really have to turn our attention to because the enthusiasm is there.
I think, not in a partisan way, in a way that women are recognizing that we’re the ones we’ve been waiting for. No one is going to change this but us. And I think the exciting thing right now, Marianne, and the opportunity for women across race, across economic experience, across geography to actually band together and say, “We believe in the same things, and that’s what we expect from our government.” I think there’s never been a more powerful opportunity.
MS: What are really concrete things that women can do right now to be part of creating change and using this time to shape the world that we want to see?
CR: Well, one very specific great thing we’re doing is every week we’re doing text banking to women in states where they’re voting. And you can do that no matter what state you live in. It’s literally texting women to make sure they know that voting is going to be happening, or if the rules are changed, and we’re doing that through Supermajority. And it’s actually very positive. You get to do it with women all over the country and feel like you’re actually making a difference.
And then the second thing is—it seems so simple—but right now women need to be building their pods and making sure every woman they know is registered to vote. And there is no more important time. I know that people right now, there’s so much on their mind. Obviously people should—and we’ve been encouraging people to contribute to causes that are directly supporting folks from the frontline of the pandemic, affected families. I know that women all over the country are now crafting masks, and I’m all for all of that. I guess I’m just saying, in addition, it is really important that we realize people in office are the ones that are making decisions about all of the issues that we’re facing right now.
And so we can’t lose sight of the fact that when this pandemic is over, we need to have a government that represents us and that takes care of the people that, frankly, right now are not being taken care of in a way that they should be. And so I think it’s important just to make sure that we don’t lose sight of our own power collectively to change this country and to change public policy for the good.
MS: Right now is a very scary time, and people are dealing with stress and anxiety. But what gives you hope? What keeps you energized and positive?
CR: Honestly, even though I think we’re all going to sort of look back at Zoom calls as being an era we may never want to go back to again, but being able to get on the phone or the Zoom yesterday with 30 women across the country who are doing work with Supermajority to change the world just gives me life. And the fact that we can support each other, and that the response from women across the country who are really simply saying, “What can I do to make things better?”—that feels like it’s all worth it.
But I do also really believe we have to take care of each other right now. And no one really knows what anyone is facing, whether it’s someone in your family, whether it’s just your own situation. And so I hope that we’re all being kind and patient and supportive. Collectively, we will get through this, but it’s going to take a long time for us all to recover.
MS: Absolutely. It’s leaders like you that are doing this work that give me hope. So thank you so much, you know, Cecile for everything that you’re doing.
CR: You too. I think it’s so important to really put a lens on this pandemic and understand the disproportionate impact it’s having, obviously not only on women but on people of color, people of low income, people with lack of access to healthcare. And so I appreciate that in all of this, we don’t lose sight of the systemic factors that are driving a lot of the outcomes.
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