Richards, the iconic face of Planned Parenthood for over a decade, will officially step down from helm of the organization in May, just after the April release of her new memoir, Make Trouble: Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead — My Life Story. The search committee for Richards’ replacement will be led by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist and novelist Anna Quindlen, whose mother died of ovarian cancer at the age of 40.
“Anna’s unique voice on behalf of women has motivated us for decades,” said Naomi Aberly, chair of the board at Planned Parenthood. “The board is grateful for her willingness to help us find our future leader.”
The search committee, a group of nine women and one man of diverse backgrounds, includes Dr. Luz Towns-Miranda, activist and mother of “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda; Dominican-American television journalist Carmen Rita Wong; Democratic fundraiser Aimee Boone Cunningham; and various leaders and board members at Planned Parenthood. The board has specifically instructed the committee to seek candidates who reflect Planned Parenthood’s patients, most of whom are women and roughly 40 percent of whom are people of color.
Planned Parenthood is a nonprofit reproductive health provider that offers affordable contraceptives, cancer screenings, STI treatments and abortion care to 2.4 million patients a year, most of whom are low-income. The political arm of the organization, Planned Parenthood Action Fund, advocates for reproductive rights and helps elect candidates who support them. Richards’ replacement must be an effective and charismatic political organizer as well as the public face of the health care provider.
Loretta Ross, a black reproductive rights activist, made a strong case for a woman of color to replace Richards in her HuffPost column on the subject:
Planned Parenthood’s financial structure depends on the low-income black and brown women who rely on its services in communities with the greatest needs ― places like Texas, which has the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world.
Under a white president, Planned Parenthood could still focus on the needs of low-income women. But to put a woman of color in the top job ― one with a fundamental understanding of how class works in a racialized health care system ― would send a strong signal to current and potential clients of color that the organization can be trusted and that it believes in empowering women who share their experiences.
Imani Gandy, senior legal analyst for Rewire, specifically called for a black woman to lead the nation’s largest family planning provider, because it would defang Republicans’ charge that Planned Parenthood is racist for having clinics in predominantly black neighborhoods.
“I want a Black woman—specifically a Black feminist—to be appointed,” she wrote in Rewire. “I’m hoping that the cognitive dissonance of blaming an organization run by a Black woman of supporting Black genocide might cause anti-choicers’ brains to scramble.”
Indeed, women of color have been critical in the fight for reproductive rights and women’s equality for many decades, but their voices are often left out. Richards pointed out that during the Women’s March last month, it was black women who led Democrat Doug Jones to victory in the deep-red state of Alabama.
“From Virginia to Alabama and to last week in Wisconsin, women have beaten the odds to elect our own to office. ... Women of color, transgender women, rural and urban women,” Richards said.
“White women, listen up. We’ve got to do better. ... It is not up to women of color to save this country from itself. That’s on all of us. That’s on all of us.”
Planned Parenthood, under Richards’ leadership, has been increasingly conscious of intersectional feminism and the need to elevate the voices and stories of women of color. The organization said it will strongly consider women of color as candidates to be its next leader.
In the meantime, Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood, will take over as the public face of the organization once Richards leaves in May. She will also weather Planned Parenthood’s political fights as President Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress remain determined to pull federal funding from the family planning provider.
Joe Solmonese, former president of the Human Rights Campaign and former CEO of EMILY’s List, will serve as transition chair to temporarily oversee day-to-day operations of Planned Parenthood. And Debra Alligood White, the organization’s general counsel, will partner with the board and search committee to run an “inclusive and transparent process” of finding Planned Parenthood’s new leader.
Richards, meanwhile, will be promoting her book and using her fundraising power to help elect Democratic female candidates in the 2018 midterms. A record number of women are running this year, inspired and motivated by an opposition to Trump’s presidency.
“As a lifetime organizer, I’ve never been more excited, despite this Congress and this presidency,” Richards told The New York Times in late January. “There’s this kind of organic activism by women.”
Richards is leaving Planned Parenthood in good shape ― since she took the helm in 2006, the organization’s supporters have grown from 2.5 million to 11 million. Republican congressmen can’t seem to make it through a town hall meeting without a woman in a pink shirt pressuring them to leave Planned Parenthood funding alone. And so far, members of the GOP-controlled House and Senate have been unable to defund the provider, despite many of their campaign promises to block Medicaid patients from accessing its services.
“We are determined to protect women’s health through the upcoming legislative sessions and in elections across the country,” said Aberly. “We are confident that our leadership at the national office and at Planned Parenthood affiliates will maintain the organization’s momentum as we search for a new president to replace the outstanding and dynamic leadership of Cecile Richards.”
This story has been updated to provide a more recent statistic for how many patients Planned Parenthood serves per year.