I Left Planned Parenthood After 12 Years — And Now I’m Defying What I "Should" Do Next

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By Cecile Richards

This year, Bustle is celebrating Rule Breakers — the women and non-binary individuals among us who dare to be themselves no matter what. In the lead-up to our list of Bustle's Rule Breakers of 2018 going live in late August, we are featuring stories from an array of individuals about critical moments when they didn't do as they were told. In a world that encourages us to conform unquestioningly, they refused to look or act the part, and we're all better for it.

With my generation of women, to just put it bluntly, there really weren’t many expectations of us. Most expectations were to make good grades, make your parents proud, or for God’s sake, don’t embarrass the family. So, everything we did that actually was big or bold was defying the expectations that were held of us.

I was somewhat of a troublemaker in high school. I went to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and the fact that I left the state of Texas and went away to college to a state that none of us had ever been to was very unusual and almost unheard of in those days. I don’t think there were a lot of expectations for me in Texas, and though I will always be a Texan, it was important for me to get out and explore the world. That was my real liberation, leaving Texas and going pretty much as far away as I possibly could.

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When I finished college, I decided I wanted to go to Guatemala and learn Spanish, because I really was interested in organizing women who worked in the garment industry, and most of them were Latina. I went to Guatemala on my own, lived with a family, was spending no money, and was basically learning Spanish. I remember my dad calling me, and he said, "You have got to get back here and start getting real about your life and get a job."

I stayed another two months.

Folks want to put you in a box. They want to pigeonhole you.

He really was also just trying to follow the rules. So many people were raised with certain expectations. Both of my parents were only children, and I think they each spent a lot of time trying to do what they thought they should do or what their parents expected them to do. But I never have forgotten that, because I never wanted my daughters to feel that way.

In a funny way, because my mom was governor of Texas and because I’ve always been active in issues of civil rights and women’s rights, one of the unspoken things was, "Well, I should run for office." Folks want to put you in a box. They want to pigeonhole you. Now that I’ve left Planned Parenthood, that’s the question most people ask me, as if running for office would be the highest calling. For a lot of people it is, and that's great. But one of the things I’ve rebelled against was ever doing that.

"The work I do, which is to help people in office be better, do better, stand up for things that matter, is as important as being in office itself."

Just as we need more folks who believe in women and support women in office, we also need people on the outside organizing and agitating and making trouble to make sure that the people who are in office can do the right thing. Sometimes, we can force them to do the right thing. I've had to defend myself and say, "Actually, I think the work I do, which is to help people in office be better, do better, stand up for things that matter, is as important as being in office itself."

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I am completely focused now on getting more women to vote, on supporting women who are running for office. If we begin to change the electorate, if we begin to change who’s representing us, if the government looked more like the people it represented, then that's a very worthwhile job to do.

What is exciting about these days is I actually feel like women are doing more to support each other, to challenge the norms, to take risks, to start before we're ready. I wouldn’t have ever done the things I’ve done if I hadn’t challenged myself to actually leave Texas even when it was scary.

We can’t wait until someone thinks up the idea for us or encourages us to do something more. The only way we’re going to learn and make progress is through the mistakes we make or the risks that we take or the things we try that don’t work. The most important rules we break are the expectations.

As told to Celia Darrough. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.