March 8 is International Women’s Day. To celebrate, we asked women like Jackie Aina, Cecile Richards, Andrea Mitchell, and more to reflect on how other women have lifted them up—mentored them, advised them, represented them, and above all showed them what was possible. We’ll be sharing their stories here all week.
After I graduated from college, I wanted to be a union organizer. And the first real job I had on the ground was in New Orleans, organizing with hotel workers. These women were making minimum wage, living in housing projects. They were often single moms or responsible for taking care of other relatives. Their jobs were physically very hard, but also emotionally very hard—working in the hospitality industry in a city like New Orleans is not that easy. And on top of all that, these women were willing to go out and try to organize a union. I still remember them. I was right out of college, and I can remember their names now—Ella Curtis, Aubrey Carr. These are women whose lives were nothing like mine, and they were the bravest, most affirmative, most life-loving women I had ever met.
I have always been attracted to people who understand that power and prestige and notoriety aren’t really worth anything unless you can share with others. A lot of those people have been women. When I started working in the labor movement, men really ran things. But if you went out into the field, you’d find these pockets of women getting organized and changing the face of labor. When I later went to work for now-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, I found in her someone who never forgot why she was in office and who always remembered the people that she was there to represent. That was important to me. With Planned Parenthood, I tried to take the same approach.
I’ve had so many opportunities in my life, but the time I spent working with nursing home workers, janitors, and healthcare workers still stands out. I was so fortunate to work with them and to learn so much from them. It’s kept me honest, I think. Working in the non-profit space, or even sometimes in the political space, I think people talk a lot about how hard their jobs are. And when I started working in those spaces, I could tell people, “Listen, until you've cleaned 14 rooms on a shift in a hotel, you don't know what hard work is.” Sometimes, that’s been to my detriment. But it has always helped me check my privilege. I remind the people that I work with that we have had choices in every career decision we have made, and most women do not. Working with those women for so many years who had very few options in terms of how they could make a living and still wanted to fight for better conditions for everyone—that has just carried me for my entire life.
I spent last week in South Carolina and heard a lot of people talking about national politics. But I learned when I was an organizer and at Planned Parenthood that so much change happens on the local level. One of the last things I got to do before I left Planned Parenthood was attend a ceremonial ribbon cutting on a health center in Charleston for Planned Parenthood, and that center is right now able to provide abortion services and transgender-care services. It’s a reminder that even when the focus is on a presidential race, there are still meaningful opportunities to make a difference, whether it’s volunteering at a shelter or volunteering on a local campaign or running for school board. That’s how big things start to change.
With Supermajority, I’ve spent the last year and a half traveling around the country, just meeting extraordinary people who are making a difference. In Detroit, I met Brooke Solomon, who’s 17. We did a bus tour and she came. She’s a senior in high school this year, and she's already organized the Detroit March for Our Lives. She has her own youth group called DAYUM—Detroit Area Youth United Michigan. She was probably the youngest woman at the gathering we held, and someone asked why she came that day. She said, “Because I want to be at the table where decisions are being made. Because I think it’s important that young women, and young women of color, and young women in the urban cities have a voice. Because I want to be sitting here with all of you.” What Brooke got out of that day was nothing compared to what the older women who were sitting near her got out of it. That gave them life.
When I was in eighth grade, there were some strikers at a plant outside of my hometown in Austin. I had read about it in the paper, and I told my dad I wanted to go out and support the strikers. So I collected some cans of food and some supplies, and he drove me down there, and we went to the picket line. I’m sure it didn’t make a huge difference to them, but it made a huge difference for me. Instead of just reading about something—or now just tweeting about something—I figured, “If everybody just does something, things will get better.”
I hope that right now every woman in this country who wants better opportunities for herself or her community or her family recognizes that you can actually make a difference. Women are doing it every day in ways big and small. Whether it’s the women who stood up to Harvey Weinstein or the women who talked about their “imperfect” abortions or Brooke Solomon, that 17-year old in Detroit, who was mobilizing her senior class to vote next fall—the name of the game is organizing. It’s doing your part, even when you don’t know whether it will make a difference. It’s not waiting for instructions, starting before you’re ready, and speaking up.
Believe me: Every time you tell your story, there are women all over the world who read it and see themselves in it. That is how we build power in this country. We help women realize they aren’t alone. The system has been built to keep us out. It was built to look impossible to dismantle, but we can do it.
I worry sometimes that women feel like, “I can’t do anything until I know everything.” And even I don’t know everything. I am still always learning from other women. One of those women is Alicia Garza, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter and of Supermajority. She and I have traveled the country together, and we’ve been in some of the most unlikely rooms and meetings and panels, and I’ve learned so much from her. Our organizing backgrounds couldn’t be more different, but her generosity towards me, and her ability and willingness to overlook my faults and really reach out to me has been one of the most extraordinary things that’s happened to me in a long, long time. She has taught me a lot more about the millions of women out there that I didn’t know.
We all think there’s some secret manual out there that everyone has, except for us. It’s not true. The only way to reach the truth is to reach out to women who are unlike you and just take that risk. That’s how change happens in this country. It starts with women building relationships across race, across income, across background. When women all get together, I really do think we’re unstoppable.
Cecile Richards is the co-founder of Supermajority and the former president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
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