Cecile Richards Tells Us How to Be More Confident and Find Our Voice

Sarah Yang

If there's someone out there who knows about being confident, speaking your truth, and standing in your power, it's Cecile Richards. The former president of Planned Parenthood and author of Make Trouble has been an outspoken champion of women's rights and social and economic justice and equality for almost her whole life. In fact, her book is all about how people can speak up for themselves and become leaders in their own communities.

About a year ago, Richards launched a new community, Supermajority, with other activists and leaders like Ai-Jen Poo and Alicia Garza. Supermajority's goal is to build an inclusive community of women across the country who are ready to mobilize and fight for gender equity.

We got the chance to chat with Richards about how she learned to be assertive, what advice she has for young women who want to find their voice, and, because we're a wellness site, what she does to unwind. Take a look at what she had to say.

Cecile Richards Make Trouble: Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead ($13)

Were you always so assertive and confident? When do you think you really started to come into your own and embrace your confidence?

I'm definitely not always assertive or confident, and in fact, for so many years, I was always worried about making a mistake. And I was the eldest child in a family of four, and I had a lot of expectations. I was always opinionated, though. Obviously that's not the same thing as being assertive and confident, but it was probably when I went to college and realized that I had a point of view about what was happening and wasn't happening in college. There were all kinds of issues that were being discussed on nuclear power, on divestment from South Africa, on the rights of janitors to a living wage, and I realized I had a strong point of view on all those things. And in some ways, it helped me just be able to begin to stand up for the things that I believed in.

I think there is a mistaken idea sometimes that people are just born confident. And one of the exciting things to me now is seeing so many women support other women, which is one of the ways I think we all grow our confidence, is having a community, often of women, around us to tell us that they believe in us, that they support us, they agree with us. And that's something that I love seeing in the world now.

Your mother was a strong and formidable woman herself. What are some things you learned from her about holding your own as a woman?

Well, again, I say some people think that Ann Richards—she was a governor of Texas—that she's run forth as this fully evolved, feminist freedom fighter, and that is absolutely not true. There were so many things that in her life she felt embarrassed about or not confident about. And so she evolved, so what I feel like I learned from her in many ways was you can always make a difference to have a different life. You can always make a decision to change your life or to be a leader or to make a difference, or to… I mean, for her, she got divorced, she ran for public office, she did things that were really kind of unthinkable when she was growing up. And so for me, the most important thing I guess I learned from her was one, yes, you can be the architect of your future and your destiny, and then, that it's never too late to have a wonderful life. And really that is what it ended up she did.

What are some of the most important lessons you taught your daughters about being strong and speaking up for yourself? And how is this the same or different than what you've taught your son?

My first daughter, Lily, was the first grandchild of Ann Richards. I think there were all these expectations of her. She really was thrust into both a public life and kind of an adult life so early. And in many ways, I always felt like her childhood wasn't a regular one, and sometimes she never got to be a child because all eyes were on her as the next generation.

And so to me, it was so important for Lily and for [my other daughter] Hannah to just feel confident in themselves and to do things that gave them their own self-confidence. For so much of my life, I felt like I was always seeking validation from other people, my parents, fitting in at school—so to me, that was the most important thing about them growing up was feeling good about themselves, no matter what. I just think for a lot of girls, we don't. We think we have to have the right clothes, or we have to have the right friends, or we have to have gone to the right schools, or to do everything perfectly. I just wanted the chance for them to be their own person. And they have become these amazing women.

And I feel that way for my son, Daniel, too, but I also always felt like it was going to be easier for him. It's just the expectation game for Hannah and Lily was always different, and I think they, like a lot of women, probably figured out they were going to need to work twice as hard and run twice as fast to get half as far. Fortunately, they each have.

Actually, a Princeton professor said this to me the other day. I was teaching a lot of women there, and she said, "It's still hard being a girl." And I think it is. There are so many different expectations of us and, frankly, mixed messages we get, whether it's from magazines, whether it's from the media, whether it's in our own families. So I think the most important thing we can do is to give young girls and women the confidence to be their best self, whatever shape that takes.

How do you set an example or teach the people you work with or mentor about building confidence?

Well, it's something I continue to try to get better at. I try to listen to what women say. A lot of young women come to me about trying to find a new job, or they're thinking about maybe making a switch in their career or education. Actually, just this week, I met with a young woman who I have such admiration for. She's been the editor in chief of a magazine, and they had a change in leadership, and she had to leave, and she was talking about a job. She'd applied for a job as the communications director for an organization. And I said, "Well, I can help you there. I could write to people there. You're amazing." Here's someone who's been doing a really big job incredibly successfully. And then I felt like she even had her own self-doubt, which made no sense to me. But for me, [it's about] listening to women and where they're coming from, and making sure that as women, whether it's older women or mentors or girlfriends, that we really reflect back on them how awesome they are.

The main thing that keeps women back is not a lack of skills or qualifications. It's our own confidence. I know there's a lot been written about imposter syndrome and how women suffer from it and feeling like they're not prepared for the next thing, and I myself dealt with that when I applied for my job at Planned Parenthood. [I thought] I wasn't really adequate for the job. That is a role that I think all of us can play with each other because I think men just sort of inherently imagine that they're qualified for the next thing and that for women sometimes we just need that confidence. Whether it's the Shine Theory, just really talking about how great other women are.

I think what is happening is more taking joy in the success of other women, realizing there's enough room for more than one of us in each of these endeavors. In fact, the more of us there are, the better it's going to be for everybody. Whether it's representative government, whether it's representation on the job, whether it's in culture and media and communication. So I just think trying to reflect back to people the confidence you have in them and specifically the things you have seen them do and excel is really, really powerful for women. We need that.

In turn, what have you learned from your daughters and other millennial or Gen Z women?

I feel like I learn stuff from younger women all the time. One of the things that was most important for my daughters—it was so different than my growing up—was when I grew up in Texas, girls really didn't get to compete in sports. We had a drill team, so if you were a certain height and weight and body type, you could cheer for the football team. And we had basketball, but you could only run half-court because they didn't think we could run the entire length of the court. When I was growing up, girls only had certain ways to compete. You could compete academically if you had the chance or compete to be most popular or things like that. So I just think it's exciting to think that now we have a whole generation of young women who've gotten to do things and compete in a really healthy way and learn how to do that. That's a big thing that I got to see my daughters do that had never been true for a generation of women, except for the most exceptional women who did all these things despite their restrictions.

And then I think the other thing I've learned so much from my daughters and other millennial and Gen Z women is something I really saw happen at Planned Parenthood—bringing in a whole new generation of young women as activists and leaders and employees, and that is the hope that at some point we really can move beyond gender and labels and how exciting that is that everybody can just be seen in the beauty of them as an individual, regardless of their background, how they identify, who they love, who their parents were. And I really do believe, if there is one thing that gives me hope, is that there's a generational difference and that we will move at some point to a place where gender is no longer a barrier to participation, to success, to living your best life.

What advice do you have for women who are just starting to find their voice or wanting to find their voice? I think a lot of women feel moved to start building their confidence and be assertive when they see other strong women. I know that I definitely think about it all the time. I know you can't just say, "Oh, today I am going to do it," because sometimes things get in the way, and you have good days and bad days. But I was wondering, how can one start?

Well, I think it's a great way you framed that because I do hear from a lot of women who are just raising their hand and saying, "What should I do next?" There is a little bit of a pathology out there that somehow there is one true path. This is how you go from X to Y to Z. And I believe so strongly in you just have to actually do what seems like the next right thing to do. That may not necessarily be great career advice for everyone, but I feel like for me, it was so important to be able to be someplace and be doing something that felt like it was making a difference.

There are so many examples in my life that oftentimes when you as a woman say something, just speak your truth, there are so many people who maybe for the first time feel like, "Oh, I can identify with that, and now I know I'm not the only one." We still live in very isolated lives that for women, whether they're experiencing everything from not being paid equally on the job and never having someone say, "Can we just get transparency here about who's making what?"—believe me, there will be other women around you who say, "I'm with her. I agree. We need to be figuring this out together." Or whether it's the issues of sexual assault and harassment that are part of women's absolute daily lives. Getting to see what it means when just one woman speaks up and then two more and then five more, and that's how it begins to ripple. And so I hope women will no longer feel this need to wait until everybody's in formation, if you will, and ready to go, but actually just speak your own truth. Because there were other women who feel exactly the way you do. And I think it's easy if you can start small.

The only other thing, which is just a super-tactical piece of advice, is I was really lucky. When I was in high school, I was in drama, and I had the experience of learning my lines, putting on a play before a bunch of strangers. I was definitely shy and I was definitely always worried about making a mistake, and in a way, drama and acting gave me a confidence because it was sort of like this other fake person that could just be out there saying what they believed, and it helped me. So I think there are also things that women can do, whether it's acting, whether it's debate, whether it's just beginning to work with another group of women and beginning to learn how to speak in front of others. It's enormously important because it builds your confidence and then it makes it easier to go before the city council or go testify before Congress or start your own organization or go on TV. It's a path. Looking for those opportunities, for a place to have your voice out there, is important. I guess the last piece on that is now, because of the explosion of podcasts, blogs, and social media, there are ways for you to begin to find your voice and express your voice, even if it's simply writing down the things that you believe, and that helps sometimes with women. So there are just a multiplicity of ways and opportunities.

And it's just about finding what's right for the person individually.

Yeah. I think it's, in many ways for women, speak your truth. Don't wait till you feel like you've studied up on everything, but just say, "Hey, this is…" Because I think as women, when we trust our gut, it's almost always right.

Yeah, 100%. It's just that there's also the part in your head that's like, "But is it?"

Well, you know what? What's the worst thing that could happen? Maybe you'd say something and, I don't know, maybe it doesn't come out exactly right. Or maybe sometimes you say something or do something, and you go later, "You know what? That was wrong, and I have to apologize." But why is it better to just sit there and have it all going on in your head? That was one piece of good advice my mother gave me. What's the worst thing that could happen? I think there are so many ways women second-guess. Whether it's quitting a job, taking a risk, writing a blog post, whatever it is, and then if you can just imagine what the worst thing is that could happen and that you could live with that, then you could just go do it.

And if you spend your whole time second-guessing or third-guessing or fourth-guessing or whatever-guessing, then you could miss your moment.

Exactly. You only get one life. This is it.

When you started Supermajority with other organizers and leaders, what were you envisioning in terms of helping women feel empowered?

I feel like we're in a fascinating moment in the United States where women are now actually more than half the college students. We are now more than half the payroll in America, and in all these fields, you look at graduate schools, law schools, medical schools, and yet we still really don't have power to change structural things that are holding us back. To me, the idea of Supermajority is what if women across race, across generations, across experience, actually came together? We could take on big, structural problems, like why is pregnancy still considered a liability and a problem by employers in this country as opposed to something that is experienced by millions of American workers? Why are we still discriminated against on so many things, in terms of pay and opportunity and promotion because of our gender?

So that was really the idea of Supermajority. It's just saying, "Hey, well why don't we actually now all pull together," because we could actually take on things not just as individuals—which is what women unfortunately had to do, like fight for something on their job or their school or at their city council—and instead think about how we do this together. Anyway, so far it's been wild. It's been interesting. A lot of women want to do more.

Do you believe getting involved in an organization or community like Supermajority can help women feel more confident because they are surrounding themselves with other like-minded women?

Yes, absolutely. And partly just to try to reduce the isolation that a lot of women feel and the frustration that a lot of women feel about what's going on in the country—that it feels less alone. But to me, the most powerful conversations and community gatherings we've had have not even been with women who are alike in every way. It's actually been with the women who have different racial backgrounds, different experiences, have never met each other. They may live in the same community, literally never been in the same room together, but they're all trying to make a change in the world.

The exciting thing to me is when women realize not just, "Oh wow, there are a lot of other women just like me," but, "Oh wow, there are a lot of other women that aren't just like me, but we share all those same values." And that, to me, is a powerful part of Supermajority and organizing—getting out of your comfort zone and beginning to meet and build community with women who aren't necessarily like you at all.

On a slightly different topic, but since we're a wellness site, we have to know: What are the things you like to do to unwind or de-stress?

Well one, I still run. It just clears my head. I'm never going to be a great runner, so I think of it as more of a mental exercise than anything else. On a probably less healthy side of me, I like to bake and like to cook, and in fact, my daughter and I were just texting about what we're going to bake this weekend because at this moment in this time, I think everyone's looking for things they can do to get their mind off the news. I'm an obsessive pie baker because I felt like it was kind of a lost art. Although, now pie baking seems to really have gotten wildly popular, which is exciting. And also, now that I live in New York City—which, who knew I would ever, having been born in Waco, Texas, that I've ever end up in New York—there is nothing to me like getting to go to the theater, even bad theater. Just getting to go and being able to go see people on the stage, big or small, in the city, any day or night, it really is my guilty pleasure. It is the most amazing thing, and I feel very, very lucky to be able to do that.

Maya Angelou I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings ($21)

And lastly, what are some documentaries, books, or journals that you have found helpful about empowerment and confidence?

When I was growing up in Texas, like a million years ago, it was in many ways reading about women that were really different than me. I remember being in junior high and actually a librarian gave me Maya Angelou's book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. My life was so completely different than anything. It was like going through the looking glass into a completely different world. I can't overstate how important it was. I guess for me, it's books that actually turn the prism for you. I was trying to think about a book that did that for me too, and there are other ones I could mention, but one was Roxane Gay's book Hunger. I had the opportunity to actually do a panel with Roxane, which of course even made it just more incredible. This is a woman who has just laid herself out there for the public.

Roxane Gay Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body ($16)

It's been one of the most inspiring things I've read. I think it helps take you out of yourself, in all your own stuff and things, and so I liked that. I like reading about women who really, really have had really different backgrounds, really different experiences, and particularly this moment. And, again, I guess back to the point, just realizing too, we've all got our hang-ups, we've got our demons, we've got the things that we are dealing with, and if we could kind of let down the barriers, there's so much more we could do together and do to support each other.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Next up: 9 Body Language Secrets That Will Make You Look Powerful, According to an Expert.

This article originally appeared on The Thirty

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