June 6, 2019 — In this week’s podcast we’re sharing a special conversation between Cecile Richards, former president of Planned Parenthood and one of the co-founders of Supermajority, and Mary Bassett, director of the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights. Richards spoke about how Supermajority is working to empower women and organize them around key issues related to gender equity, including equal pay and child care. The two also spoke about the recent spate of anti-abortion laws across the United States and the need to protect reproductive rights.
Watch Cecile Richards’ speech to the Harvard Chan Class of 2019:
NOAH LEAVITT: Coming up on Harvard Chan: This Week in Health…
Putting issues of women’s health and gender equality at the top of America’s political agenda.
CECILE RICHARDS: I want to know. Where do the men who are running for president stand on these issues? Why is it always the women who have to raise issues that affect everyone?
NOAH LEAVITT: In this week’s episode, a conversation with Cecile Richards, the former president of Planned Parenthood and one the founders of the new organization Supermajority.
She’ll talk about her work to empower women during this unique moment in America—and why critical public health issues should be front and center during the 2020 presidential campaign.
Plus, Richards weighs in on a recent string of anti-abortion laws across the United States.
CECILE RICHARDS: The ultimate irony to me about all of this is, because of the great work out of the Affordable Care Act getting birth control access for millions and millions more people, we’re actually at a 30 year low for unintended pregnancy. We’re at a historic all time low for teenage pregnancy. And we’re actually at the lowest rate of abortion since Roe was decided. But all of that public health progress, if you will, is now at risk strictly for political reasons. And that is very disheartening, to put it mildly.
NOAH LEAVITT: Hello and welcome to Harvard Chan: This Week in Health…I’m Noah Leavitt.
In this week’s episode, we’re doing something a bit different.
Cecile Richards, the former president of Planned Parenthood, recently visited the Harvard Chan School to speak to graduates during our recent convocation.
So we paired up Richards with Mary Bassett, director of Harvard’s FXB Center for Health and Human Rights and the former commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
The result was a really fascinating conversation between two women who have been on the front lines of public health and gender equity issues for decades.
Richards spoke about her work with the new organization she Supermajority—which aims to empower women and organize them around key issues related to gender equity, including equal pay and child care.
The two also spoke about the recent spate of anti-abortion laws across the United States. This conversation actually happened on the same day that it was announced that the only remaining abortion clinic in Missouri would have to stop doing the procedure amid a regulatory dispute with the state’s governor.
That would have made Missouri the first state in the country without access to abortion services since 1974, the year after the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe versus Wade decision.
A state judge in Missouri ultimately ruled that the clinic can continue providing abortions—at least for now—but it was concerning news amid a string of laws restricting abortions in Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana.
Richards and Bassett will speak about the importance of protecting abortion rights later in their interview—but they began the conversation by talking about Richards’ current work with Supermajority. Take a listen.
MARY BASSETT: So, first of all, I wanted to start out by talking about what you’re doing now and about the launch of Supermajority, which was at the end of April– not that long ago.
CECILE RICHARDS: Right.
MARY BASSETT: So tell us what you’ve been doing. And tell us a little bit about Supermajority.
CECILE RICHARDS: Great, I’d love to. So I spent the last 12 years, more or less– a little bit more than that– at Planned Parenthood, as the president of Planned Parenthood, which was the job of a lifetime– amazing, an organization that provides health care to millions of people and just changes the opportunities for so many folks.
But I decided, too, it’s important that I move aside and make room for the next person and, in some ways, the next generation. But I wasn’t ready to quit being an activist or quit fighting for the issues I believe in.
And I had been speaking with a couple of friends– Ai-jen Poo, who runs the National Domestic Workers Alliance, an organization that tries to basically advance the opportunities for people who are caregivers in this country, of who we all depend on, and then Alicia Garza, who, again, was one of the co-founders of the global Black Lives Matter movement as well as someone who has been such an outspoken supporter and leader in the area of women of color and of gender equality.
Anyway, we talked about this moment that I think we’re all experiencing in the US, where there are literally millions of people marching, resisting, standing up on everything from family separation at the border to the importance of keeping Planned Parenthood’s doors open. And, as organizers, I think we all felt like, we can’t let this moment disappear.
And what I was experiencing– I was around the country this last year on book tour. Everywhere I went, I felt like they weren’t even book events. They were more like tent revivals. It was just women coming out of the woodwork saying, what can we do now? What more can we do?
And that is really what led to the formation of Supermajority, is this idea that women are asking for training. They’re asking for lessons about how to be more civically engaged and involved. And, frankly, in some ways, they’re looking for community.
I think women are feeling like they’ve been resisting so much. And, now, what would it look like if we actually began to build the country we want to live in and not just resist against policies that we don’t agree on? And that is how we started.
We started almost a month ago. We now have nearly 100,000 supporters and members from all 50 states and including folks outside of the US as well– very diverse, multigenerational, interracial. And we’re set about trying to change the world. So it’s pretty exciting.
MARY BASSETT: It really is. I was so pleased to see the trio emerge. And I think, in this time, it was an incredible statement of what a women’s movement should look like.
And it was intergenerational, as you’ve said, and also interracial and also radical. These are both– and both women who you joined up with are really outspoken advocates for women who’ve been in the shadows, as you’ve been. So I wonder whether people were surprised to see this kind of trio emerge.
CECILE RICHARDS: Well, I hope so. I mean, I think that’s– it is a different moment. And I feel like we’ve all learned so much as organizers. Also, we’ve learned from both, I think, the progress that women and the women’s movement has made and also some of the failures of the movement to really lift up particularly women of color who have been, as we all know, carrying an undue burden on every important social justice issue in this country as activists, as volunteers, as voters.
And so it seemed to me there was just a real opportunity to pull a lot of these threads together. And I think, also, a recognition that women will probably determine the next president of the United States– women are the vast majority of volunteers. They’re increasingly donors to political candidates and campaigns.
And yet I think Ai-jen and Alicia and I and some of our other colleagues felt like, in large part, women are doing a lot of their work in silos. They’re out just trying to keep the dam for breaking over us or dealing with all these different issues. And what if we actually pulled all this together so that women felt not so isolated, not so alone, and actually recognize that we are the supermajority? And what would it look like if women had real power in the US? So that’s what we’re trying to figure out.
MARY BASSETT: That’s great. And I understood that you’re going on a listening tour. Is that right?
CECILE RICHARDS: Yes. We did a little bit of that in the fall. And it was really amazing, actually. We went to 15 different cities. And we held convenings in four of those cities of about 100 women. And it was fascinating. I mean, Mary, you would have loved it because, again, these were women coming– some women who’ve been involved forever in certain issues, others who had just now woken up and said, oh my gosh, I guess I better be part of what’s happening in the world.
I remember being in Phoenix, Arizona, where we had teachers who’d been out on wildcat strikes to try to fight for public education. We had Dreamers. We had folks who’d been at the border. We had Planned Parenthood activists. And then we had folks who’d never been to any kind of organizing meeting.
I think that’s what’s so powerful here, is that, in some ways, women just want to be in the room together and talk about issues– not only what I think of as– people have always thought of– as a quote, unquote “women’s issues.” But they want to talk about race. They want to talk about gender. They want to talk about what they can learn from other women and how they’re being successful.
And that, to me, is one of the most powerful things, is women realizing their collective power. And I think it’s interesting. I’ve been an organizer my whole life. I started as a union organizer back in the day. And it used to be that, as a organizer, you had to create demand. You had to convince people that it was important to do something.
We are dealing with the absolute opposite right now in the United States, which is this tsunami of women, in particular– and many of them women of color– raising their hands and saying, I want to do more. And so, to me, it’s a really– it’s a specific organizing challenge and one that I feel like it’s really critical to try to meet.
MARY BASSETT: Ah, that’s really exciting. So we should tell people how they can find out more about Supermajority.
CECILE RICHARDS: Sure. Yeah. No, it’s very easy. Actually, you can just sign up at supermajority.com. And we’ll bring you in. We’ll invite you to participate.
One of the funniest things we– the first day we actually launched on the web and we put out a questionnaire that people could fill out, and the young women that are working on this project said, well, no one ever fills out surveys. So we’ll just do kind of, like, put up something.
Well, it was kind of a long survey. And we didn’t think anyone would fill it out. 58,000 people filled it out the first 24 hours, which also told me something else, which is women are so excited for someone to actually ask them what they’re concerned about, what they need, what more they want to do. And so, again, we’re going to learn a lot along the way.
One of the things you would probably love, Mary, is that we asked women, what’s your what’s your superpower? It could be everything from getting my kids ready for school to, I don’t know, inventing a cure for some important disease.
The number one superpower that was listed was empathy, which, to me, spoke to this time we’re in, where I think women– I know not only women– deeply concerned about this country and our government, frankly, and the lack of empathy we show for others. And that’s something I think women want to really plumb and talk about with others. So there’s some really powerful, interesting things coming out of this.
MARY BASSETT: That’s really interesting. When I became the health commissioner in New York City, the job I stepped down from to take my position here at the School of Public Health, I said that I wanted to lead with a commitment to equity. And people said, well, you can’t measure that. And it’s true. And, similarly, you can’t really measure empathy.
So what you’re talking about is a movement that embraces values, not just outcomes or indicators. And I think that says something about our time now, too, that people really want to elevate values. But they also want to know what they can do practically.
CECILE RICHARDS: Absolutely.
MARY BASSETT: And that’s always a challenge, is to figure out what action people can take, because they’re highlighting the values. And they’re saying, how do I act on those values?
CECILE RICHARDS: I agree. That’s such a perfect comparison, because, in a way, it’s true. You may not be able to always measure equity. But you know it when you see it. And the same way with empathy– you know what it looks like or how it feels when people are actually acting from that value proposition.
And I do think the hard thing right now, Mary– and actually, in Missouri, what happened in Missouri today is a perfect example in that some of these, the solutions, there isn’t always just an immediate action you can take that will make it all go away. In fact, in some ways, that’s why I wrote my book after the last election, just because, every day– I’m sure this happens you– I would get stopped on the street.
And someone, usually a woman, would say, what can I do– as if there were one thing, if they did that now, everything would get better. And the truth is this is going to be long-term work for change. Social change doesn’t happen overnight. And we didn’t get here overnight, either.
I think it’s a result of a lot of things that we haven’t addressed in this country– issues of race, class, gender, sexual assault, you name it. And so I think it’s not just winning an election. It’s actually changing the direction of America. And that really is the idea behind Supermajority.
MARY BASSETT: Right, right. I have one of the– some of the things that I understand you’re focusing on are things like equal pay for equal work, the whole problem of immigration and the rights of families to stay together and the absolutely chilling images that came from our southern border of children being separated from their families– actually, I can’t bear to think of it– and, of course, the whole general idea of gender equity.
But what’s in our face so increasingly since 2019 has been the assault on reproductive rights, something that you spent 12 years working to defend. There’s no question that it’s orchestrated and that it is dangerous for women, not only about their reproductive rights, but just about the idea of women having autonomy in their lives is really what underlies these attacks, I believe.
So we heard today that, in Missouri, the Planned Parenthood clinic, for reasons to do with regulatory issues, is no longer going to be offering abortion services, making it the first state– or at least they’re at risk of no longer offering abortion services. And they’d become the first state, Missouri, to have no such services. I think there were six states that only had one abortion provider.
CECILE RICHARDS: Correct.
MARY BASSETT: I imagine it was often a Planned Parenthood provider. Missouri had, I don’t know, like, 15 11 years ago. There’s been a constant restrictions, one after another, on providers, on coverage, on what facilities have to look like. But now that we may have one state that simply has no providers, do you want to just say something more about that? And what would Supermajority, which hasn’t really made this a centerpiece, what is your word for women who are watching this happen?
CECILE RICHARDS: I think it’s, as I actually think my successor, Dr. Wen, said, this is not a drill. And this is the time where, for all of us who’ve been working on abortion rights for most of our lives, I guess we all feared this day would come. But this is actually what Missouri means.
It’s interesting. Just to put a fine finer point on what’s happened in Missouri, you’re right. Over the last decade, the restrictions on both patients, on providers, on health care institutions have become so severe and onerous and burdensome and, frankly, impossible to comply with, that we were left with only one health center remaining. And that was a Planned Parenthood.
It is 100% not medical. It’s all about politics. And they’re obviously, now– the current governor who has said he wants to make this a completely pro-life state, which is extraordinary when you think of the state of women’s health care in the state, is basically using his power to refuse to grant a license or renew the license to provide abortion services to Planned Parenthood.
So, effectively, what they can’t do by overturning the right through the courts, they are doing by essentially almost executive fiat. And it’s incredibly chilling, because, of course, people– maybe they knew about Texas. They’ve heard about Alabama. The fact that Missouri, a state in the middle of the country, a state that is– we have more than a million women of childbearing age in that state– as of this weekend, will lose, likely, access to services that have been legal for more than 40 years in the United States of America.
And it’s so chilling, because, as you say, there are many other states lined up right behind Missouri. Elections have consequences. And the solution to this is a political solution.
And it really means that, for every person in this country– and it’s not just women. And so one of my, I guess– I think it’s really important that, of course, women have been telling their stories. Since Alabama, since Georgia, since Texas, a lot of us have shared our own abortion stories to make people realize that this is, like, everyone knows some other.
MARY BASSETT: It’s like an order of women.
CECILE RICHARDS: Exactly.
MARY BASSETT: [INAUDIBLE] abortion.
CECILE RICHARDS: Everyone you know, everyone knows someone who’s had an abortion. They may just not have felt free to talk about it publicly, nor should they have to. This is a time not just for women to be up in arms, this is a time for every person in this country.
So I’d like to see– as we know, men have something to do with pregnancy. And, in fact, it’s very hard to imagine that many abortions were not the result of– with male involvement. And so I’d like to hear men raising a ruckus. I think it’s time for women to quit carrying the burden of this on their own.
And so I’m hoping what we see out of Missouri is a flood of activism and an engagement that we’ve been needing to see for a long, long time. And I think, frankly, it is setting up this next presidential election to be a very stark decision about where this country’s going to go. President Trump said, before he was elected, that he would only appoint justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade.
And I think we have to believe him. And now, in fact, this is going to become a state by state issue, in all likelihood. So voting, being involved, speaking up, marching, writing to Congress, calling your legislature– all of these things become increasingly important.
MARY BASSETT: Well, there are some glimmers of hope. There are states that have put into their state laws or constitutions the right of women to have the choice of having an abortion. And there are also, so far, the federal courts have been holding up. But it seems clear that this is going to come to the Supreme Court.
CECILE RICHARDS: Yes, I think that’s right. I mean, there’s so many cases in line to go up to the court. And even under previous law, as we know under Casey, the restrictions on access are so severe. And what states have been able to do under that standard have gotten us to the place where, as you said, in six states, there’s only one abortion provider left.
And, of course, in Texas, we almost lost dozens of providers. Won that Supreme Court case, but under a very different court. I think that, ultimately, this is going to be something that people in this country are going to have to rise up and demand that this is a right that we are not going to give up. Listen, a lot of women are going to suffer in the meantime.
MARY BASSETT: I think a point that bears repeating is that it’s legal abortion that is being banned–
CECILE RICHARDS: Exactly.
MARY BASSETT: –that the demand for abortion is not going to change. And so the result is also what’s always been true– that women who have access, women who have wealth, have always had access to safe abortion, even when it wasn’t legal.
CECILE RICHARDS: Correct.
MARY BASSETT: But for poor women, many of them women of color, even the burden of going out of state may mean it’s completely unavailable to many women.
CECILE RICHARDS: Absolutely. No. And you know that. You’ve been such an eloquent leader in this arena. You know, you can have a right under the law. But if you actually don’t have equal access, it is pretty meaningless.
And if you live in Missouri, if you’re working two jobs or supporting a family and you somehow got to get time off from work, find transportation, get to another state. And, frankly, some of the states bordering Missouri aren’t a whole lot better. That means that women will make other decisions. And what we saw in Texas was, of course, women started going across the border to Mexico.
And I think it’s really important to document what happens in Missouri, because it’s exactly as you said. Abortion wasn’t created with Roe v. Wade. Abortion existed long before. It’s just that young, healthy women died in emergency rooms all across this country. And you and I know. You can still talk to doctors who did their residencies and who will tell you the stories.
So the question is not will abortion exist in Missouri. The question is whether safe and legal abortion will exist. And, of course, the ultimate irony to me about all of this is, because of the great work out of the Affordable Care Act getting birth control access for millions and millions more people, better methods, we’re actually at a 30 year low for unintended pregnancy.
We’re at a historic all time low for teenage pregnancy. And we’re actually at the lowest rate of abortion since Roe was decided. But all of that public health progress, if you will, is now at risk strictly for political reasons. And that is very disheartening, to put it mildly.
MARY BASSETT: So I guess you’re really convinced that we can stand and fight and change this.
CECILE RICHARDS: There isn’t really another option.
MARY BASSETT: No. There isn’t another option.
CECILE RICHARDS: Exactly. And, look, I think that’s what and is part of the reason Supermajority was created, is I think women and others, not just women, are raising their hand and saying, we’ve got to change the situation in this country. And maybe it took this administration for people to finally– or at least some new people– to wake up and say, I’ve got to be about creating the future, not just wait for it to happen to me.
And I do find signs of hope. And I’d really be curious, actually, of your experience. But I feel like many men in this country now have such high expectations for their daughters, really believe they can do anything. I’m sure we’ll see many of them graduating, young women graduating tomorrow from the School of Public Health here, at Harvard.
And I hope they are beginning to recognize that, if people do not have the ability to control their bodies, make their own decisions about pregnancy, then they really don’t have equal opportunity. And I think that, again, I think it’s important that we recognize this is not a women’s issue. This is a basic issue of human rights. And we just need to engage everybody in this, because, frankly, women aren’t going to be able to win on our own. Yeah.
MARY BASSETT: And I think the other part of it is that we’re always going to need access to safe and legal abortion. There’s never going to be a perfect way of avoiding an unwanted and unintended pregnancy. Of course, we want women to have access to contraceptives technologies. We want them to get better. The methods still could be better than they are.
CECILE RICHARDS: Absolutely.
MARY BASSETT: I have young women as daughters. And I’m relearning, again, how unsatisfactory many of the options available for young women are. But, that aside, there’s always going to be a need for this.
Another part of what’s striking about what’s going on with abortion rights is that the various states that are curtailing these access to a full range of services are ones where the outcomes for women and for children are not good. So there’s a focus on spending huge amounts of money on defending litigation against reversing these laws.
And yet maternal mortality is going up in the United States, the only wealthy country that has that distinction. And our child health outcomes still remain terrible. We’re in the midst, right now, of a totally preventable measles epidemic, for example.
CECILE RICHARDS: Exactly. No. And, look, I know you’ve been on the forefront of both working on these issues directly and speaking on these issues. But it is incredible, when you look at the– let’s take the state of Alabama, where we know that 25 men voted to basically ban all abortion in the state. 25 people who will not–
MARY BASSETT: And a woman signed it.
CECILE RICHARDS: And a woman signed it. No, that’s right. That’s right. But no, absolutely. No. And, obviously, women are not a monolith. So I think that we have to acknowledge that.
But it’s incredible. If you really look at what the real health care problems are in Alabama, some of the counties in Alabama have the highest rates of infant mortality in the country. Now, that’s a health care crisis. That’s actually something where you’d say, maybe we should really think about addressing something that is a serious problem.
I know also Alabama has the nation’s highest rate of cervical cancer deaths. And black women are twice as likely to die from it as white women. Those are real health crises in this country.
And then you think about Georgia, as well– obviously, another state that is trying to ban access to safe and legal abortion. Both Alabama and Georgia, about half of their counties don’t even have an OB/GYN. So in terms of access to basic gynecological care, that’s a crisis.
But instead, as you say, the focus by legislatures that are predominantly men– not all, but predominantly men– are focused, instead, on taking away a right that folks have had in this country for more than 40 years and I think, frankly, avoiding public health care crises that we, as a nation, should be addressing.
And that’s something I believe, at Supermajority, we can do as well, is actually educate people to where the real public health care problems are and demand that people– I mean, I think this is– to me, the important thing is not just what are the people in office doing now. But what do we expect other folks to be doing about these?
I’ve been very excited that we have six women now, I think, declared running for president of the United States. And we have Elizabeth Warren out there, leading on equal pay. And we have Kamala Harris leading on teacher pay. And we have Kirsten Gillibrand talking about the importance of reproductive health care access.
Well, I want to know. Where do the men who are running for president stand on these issues? Why is it always the women who have to raise issues that affect everyone? And I think this is a real opportunity for us, in this election cycle, to say, what would it look like if we actually had full gender equality in this country? What were the things that we would need for that to become true? And what’s your plan, Candidate X, to do something about that?
Again, I’m so grateful to the women. And I may have misspoke. I know Elizabeth Warren has been not only good on equal pay, but she’s been good on a whole host of issues, of economic issues that women care about. But I think it’s time we hear from everybody. And I think that’s something that we can do.
MARY BASSETT: Well, I think you make a really good point. And Supermajority has been making this point. Even the name, Supermajority, tells us that these are not just special interest issues. These are issues for most of us. And they’re issues for all of us.
So we’re going to have a graduation here tomorrow. And we’ll have a whole flock of young professionals going out into the world as public health workers. And I know you going to be talking to them tomorrow. But do you want to give us any preview on how you’re going to send them out? One of our jobs always, as commencement speakers, is to send people out with inspiration and a sense of the future that is theirs to make.
CECILE RICHARDS: Right. It is inspiration. But it’s also marching orders, right? I feel like this is a moment where– I was thinking about it today, of course, driving into Boston with this Missouri announcement.
And I don’t know what the students thought when they enrolled and began their program. But, boy, they’re going to be the change makers in this country. I really do think we’re at this tipping point of defining, what is public health? Is it a value in America? And, if it is, how would we realize it?
And so these students, who already have done extraordinary work in their studies, they really are going to shape the future in America– and not only in a policy sense, but obviously for millions of people who are counting on them. The burden, it’s big. I think their job just got a lot more important and significant.
So, for me, I’m excited to get to meet them, because they are the most inspiring people. They could have done anything else. They could have gone into a lot of other lines of work that I’m sure would be more lucrative and less controversial. But, boy, they’re going to change the world. And I’m grateful to them.
MARY BASSETT: Well, you’ve certainly done your bit to change the world.
CECILE RICHARDS: We’re just beginning. Right, Mary?
MARY BASSETT: Yes.
CECILE RICHARDS: I think it’s exciting, though, to see– I’ll just say one thing about women. Because we are the supermajority, as we know, in terms of the majority of the workforce and almost now– well, I shouldn’t say– women are almost now half the workforce. We’re the majority of college students.
MARY BASSETT: There’s people who vote, apparently.
CECILE RICHARDS: And now, yes, in this last election, 54% of the voters were women. And, of course, the most reliable group of women that vote are women of color, which is, I think, something we have to always remind everyone of.
MARY BASSETT: Thank you.
CECILE RICHARDS: And now it’s time for the rest of us to do our part. And that, to me, is the opportunity. You mentioned earlier that I went with some of my colleagues, and we went around and did a listening tour. And I kind of expected women to just say, I’m just done. I’m just fed up. I’m burned out.
And it was just the opposite. I feel like women are feeling now. They’re seeing the success of some of their work. They’re seeing a record number of women and women of color elected to Congress and women who aren’t waiting around to be told what to do. They are just taking the ball and going with it. There is something that is– it’s invigorating. It’s inspiring. And I just think we’re going to see more and more of that.
MARY BASSETT: Yeah. I left New York. So I’m not there for AOC time. We have Ayanna Pressley here.
CECILE RICHARDS: But you have Ayanna Pressley.
MARY BASSETT: And she’s killing it.
CECILE RICHARDS: Lauren Underwood, a fantastic young woman from Illinois. That’s the cool thing, is it’s not just one woman you can go wow. It is an entire platoon. And the way they are supporting each other is really exciting. And women notice that.
MARY BASSETT: I lived in Southern Africa for many years in Zimbabwe. And many people who lived in Harare in the years that I was there were people who were members of the ANC in exile. So I got to know a lot of South Africans and a lot about that movement. And they had a saying. I’m not sure I’ll get it quite right. But it went something like, you have touched the women. You have struck a rock. You will be crushed.
CECILE RICHARDS: Yes. No, it’s right. That is exactly right. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. Women are tough. And I think that, again, I think it’s exciting to see that what brings women joy now is the success of other women. And maybe there just never were enough of us for that to be. That was a luxury we didn’t have. But that’s what I– that’s the spirit I feel everywhere.
MARY BASSETT: And I think for me, and I’m certain for you, I feel like I’m not finished. I’m willing and able. But it’s such a heartening thing to see young people stepping up of both genders or all genders or whatever the right word is, because we need more help.
As you say, the data are– there’s no way around it. US life expectancy last year declined for the third year in a row. This is really unusual. It happened in the Soviet Union before its collapse. It happened in Africa with the AIDS epidemic.
But it is unusual to see a wealthy country experience stagnating and now declining life expectancy. So this is a problem. It’s a problem for everyone. And if women are the first to recognize it–
CECILE RICHARDS: The first responders.
MARY BASSETT: –that’s OK with me. But our whole planet is going to need to recognize it.
CECILE RICHARDS: And I think that disparity– as we know, growing inequality, the disparity of access is a real problem. I was encouraged. I just read it, this weekend, that in Milwaukee County in Wisconsin, that the county executive had now basically issued a requirement that racism be considered a health–
MARY BASSETT: I saw that. Somebody sent that to me. As a public health–
CECILE RICHARDS: A public health crisis.
MARY BASSETT: Crisis.
CECILE RICHARDS: He said, we can’t just keep looking– to your point– we can’t just keep looking at data and not actually saying, well, we have to change the way we think about this and what our approach is. And, look, that’s coming from an Anglo man elected official. We need to see more of that.
We can’t have African-American women exclusively leading the fight to reduce maternal mortality rates since it’s three to four times higher for them than white women. We can’t have, as I said earlier, we can’t just have women leading the fight for reproductive access. That affects every man in this country as well. So I just think it’s time we actually quit identifying the problem, the disparities, but actually really fight now forward for equity, as you’ve been doing your whole life.
MARY BASSETT: And I think something, if we can just go a little out of sequence here, that one thing that’s really important about the work that Supermajority is doing is that it’s naming racism, because, for a long time, when I joined the health department, everybody was talking about poverty. And they were talking about poverty is though all of the disadvantages attributable to race in this country, particularly people of African descent, were just explained by poverty alone, as though racism didn’t exist.
And that, of course, is not true. The fact is that white supremacy is rearing its head all over the place. We’re seeing it in Europe, in fact– people speaking openly about wanting Europe to be a white, Christian place. And so it’s very important, I think. And I really want to applaud you for being very explicit, you and Ai-jen Poo and Alicia.
CECILE RICHARDS: And Alicia. No. And we’re so long overdue. So a couple of thoughts– one, Alicia Garza, she actually has a really great piece in the New York Times today talking about a survey she has done of black Americans and probably the largest survey about how they view their lives, their world. It’s so revealing.
One of my colleagues, Bryan Stevenson, wrote something. Or he said something the other day. I know he’s said it before. It’s so important. He said, we can’t even, in the US, have a truth and reconciliation process around race, because we actually have never wanted to talk about the truth.
And I think this is something that– what I have been really heartened to see is that women want to have a conversation about race. For the first time in my lifetime, women, white women, beginning to peel back their privilege in a way to say, wow, I didn’t even get it.
And I think that we all have to be able to not only do that work ourselves, but lift up our sisters of color who have been doing this work for a long, long time, because it’s not, as we know, it shouldn’t be on people of color to address racism. That’s on white people. And just like it shouldn’t be on women to deal with sexism, that’s where we need our male allies to be part of this.
But it has been, to me, getting into rooms that are multiracial, intergenerational. Women talking about their shared issues and aspirations is one of the most powerful organizing opportunities I’ve ever had. And I hope that’s the spirit of Supermajority.
MARY BASSETT: Well, it certainly is off to a really wonderful start.
CECILE RICHARDS: It’s exciting. Yeah.
MARY BASSETT: And the good thing is that it makes the work better for everyone and that these elephants in the room, that they’ve been limiting our ability to be effective in all kinds of ways.
CECILE RICHARDS: I agree.
MARY BASSETT: I saw that happen at the health department, where we had permission, finally, for people to start having conversations. Things happened that were very unpleasant. And, also, things happened that were really better public health practice. And I think that what we get started, in the end, will make our work not just more just, but more powerful and more impactful.
CECILE RICHARDS: No, I think that’s right. And that’s what I think women are beginning to feel. There are just so many of these conversations haven’t been– there hasn’t been a safe place, in some ways, for women.
I think not only do a lot of us need to do more work, we don’t need to just do the work. We need to amplify the work that is already happening. You look at the work that black women in Alabama have been doing to try to really change outcomes. We could lift up the stories of folks that no one even knows about that have been doing this work a long, long time.
So I also want to dispel any idea that Supermajority is here to somehow, like, rush in and save the world. I think, in many ways, what we can do is amplify the already extraordinary work that women have been doing and connect it together and tell a bigger story– at least that’s my hope.
MARY BASSETT: Well, I’m really excited.
CECILE RICHARDS: Good.
MARY BASSETT: And I joined.
CECILE RICHARDS: Great. Thank you. And it’s so exciting to see you again. I’m so thrilled for your work and excited to meet all these new change agents that are going to graduate tomorrow and see what they do to change the world.
MARY BASSETT: Thank you.
CECILE RICHARDS: Thank you.
MARY BASSETT: Cecile Richards, what a pleasure.
CECILE RICHARDS: Thank you, Mary.