1. Raised to Make Trouble 1 Raised to Make Trouble
I’ve been training for the resistance my whole life. I was raised by troublemakers. Neither of my parents ever backed away from a righteous fight.
My father, David Richards, is a civil rights attorney whose career has been rabble-rousing. And Mom? When she was coming up in Waco, Texas, girls were expected to set their sights no further than the home—they should grow up to become good wives and mothers. Mom rebelled against those expectations and willed herself to become the first woman elected in her own right as governor of Texas. She believed she was put on this earth to make a difference.
My folks grew up in the hard-core Baptist environment of Waco, high school sweethearts from different sides of town. Mom’s parents were country folk from humble beginnings who worked long and hard for everything they had. They were survivors of the Great Depression of the 1930s, when millions of Americans lost their jobs and their homes and went hungry. Her father—Cecil, for whom I’m named—traveled to small-town drugstores throughout central and western Texas selling medicines. Poppy, as I called him, was well over six feet tall, with a gentle way about him. He never graduated from high school, yet his street smarts and keen sense of people made him a natural salesman. He always had some hilarious way of stating the obvious. “That’s no hill for a stepper” was a favorite. In other words, “You can overcome anything if you’re determined.”
Mom’s mother also had little in the way of formal schooling. But she knew how to fend for herself and her family; she made my mother’s clothes and grew and canned all her own vegetables—survival skills I’m so grateful she passed along to me. There was never a moment when the deep freezer in the garage didn’t have enough food to survive a nuclear holocaust.
Nona was no-nonsense and did not suffer fools. The day my mother was born, going to the hospital was unthinkable; they didn’t have the money, and giving birth at home was just the country way. When Nona went into labor, she called a neighbor woman to come over and cook for Cecil, as it was unimaginable that he would make his own dinner that night. The story goes that the neighbor was struggling to kill the chicken that was planned for his meal, so my grandmother hoisted herself up on one elbow, reached out her other hand, and wrung that chicken’s neck right there from the birthing bed. Mom told that story every chance she got. “Mama is tough,” she’d say with a mix of pride and awe. “She isn’t scared of anything.”
Mom and Dad, age sixteen, as Dad gets shipped off from Waco, Texas, to Andover.
Dad’s parents were on the other end of the social spectrum from Mom’s. They were Waco society and belonged to the Ridgewood Country Club. They traveled the globe when that was unheard-of in Texas, and it was my grandmother Eleanor who later introduced me to the world. Worried that their only son would fall in love at such a young age with a Waco girl, they shipped my father off to a prep school in Massachusetts, in hopes of breaking up the romance. It didn’t work. My dad rebelled and soon was back at Waco High and back with my mom.
My parents married in 1953 after their junior year of college. After my dad graduated from law school, he took a job with a Dallas law firm known for representing labor unions, which support the rights of workers to band together for decent pay and working conditions and even to stop work, or strike, if they aren’t treated fairly.
Dad also took up civil rights cases, to ensure that all people were equally protected under the law, no matter the color of their skin. There weren’t a lot of lawyers doing this kind of work in Texas at the time.
Around then Mom realized she was pregnant with me. And after me came my brothers, Dan and Clark, and later my sister, Ellen. We spent our early years in Dallas, in a house on Lovers Lane. It was small and cramped for the six of us, but Mom spent long hours decorating to try to make it look like the Dallas homes she’d seen in magazine photos.
In those days, women in our neighborhood were expected to stay home, take care of the family, and help make their husbands successful. Mom pursued her role as a housewife with purpose. While Dad was working on “a big, important case,” she baked our birthday cakes from scratch and tried every latest recipe. On Easter she’d have us dye dozens of eggs, wrap hundreds of jelly beans in plastic wrap, and throw the biggest Easter egg hunt around. At Christmas she put up the tallest, most elaborately decorated tree. As she once said, “If it was in a glossy magazine, I was doing it!”
People often say to me, “It must have been incredible to have Ann Richards as a mom!” And of course it was. But to paint the picture a bit more clearly, it was not as if this young mother, the only child of working-class parents, sprang fully formed as a sharp-witted, feminist icon. That happened over the course of many years. But even early on, I could see that Mom was quietly beginning to revolt against the role she was expected to play. I suspect it was those early days in Dallas, being the perfect wife and mother, that set the stage for her rebellion later on.
Mom and me in her childhood bedroom.
Life in Dallas back then is hard to imagine unless you experienced it. The city was segregated, drawing a deep and unjust divide between African Americans and whites. Racism was rampant, as was homophobia: discrimination against people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer, those who love people of the same sex. Mom shared Dad’s passion for progressive causes, but while he fought injustice in the courts, she was bound to us kids and had to find her own ways to resist the status quo.
Her keen interest in social issues and politics ended up being what kept Mom sane in those years. With a tree house in the backyard, a basketball hoop in the driveway, and a station wagon parked in the garage, we looked like the quintessential upper-middle-class Dallas family. But while other families bowled, we did politics.
Does your family do volunteer activities together? If you could choose, what volunteer activities would you like to do together?
While we were growing up, our dinner table was never for eating—it was for sorting precinct lists, which is how voters are organized into neighborhoods around the polling places where they vote. The earliest photo I have of me walking is at age two, out on our front lawn with a yard sign advertising the congressional campaign of Barefoot Sanders, a progressive Democrat. Our after-school activities were as likely to include stuffing envelopes at campaign headquarters as they were going to gymnastics or soccer practice.
As time passed and my parents’ involvement in local politics expanded, our house on Lovers Lane became the local gathering place for misfits and rabble-rousers, with parties until the wee hours. It was one long continuum of liberal camaraderie, and Mom was the life of the party. It was much later that I realized those early days may have foreshadowed my mother’s struggle with drinking too much alcohol. All of their friends drank, so it never seemed out of the ordinary. Didn’t everybody’s parents have a few martinis before dinner?
Of course we kids were sleeping during most of those late nights. More than once, my siblings and I would wake up for school in the morning to find some stranger snoring on the couch—the latest traveling reporter or union leader from out of town. Having grown up in that exciting environment, to me, politics never seemed like a chore; it was where the action was.
My first campaign: Barefoot Sanders’s run for Congress. Dallas, 1958.
When I was twelve, we moved to Austin. If Dallas was the heart of right-wing conservatism, Austin was the motherland of the resistance. Unlike Dallas, where we never fit in, Austin was full of folks who shared our views and lifestyle. Mom threw herself into all the things she could never have done in Dallas and seemed to be having a blast.
As they had done in Dallas, my parents hung out at the Unitarian church, less for the religion than for finding a community of other liberals. The kids at church, including my oldest friend, Jill Whitten, whose family had moved to Austin from Dallas a few years earlier, had welcomed me to town, and they were up-to-date on all the political activities, especially the protests against the war in Vietnam. Kids were planning to wear black armbands to school in solidarity.
Listening to music in my bedroom, I considered whether I too might wear an armband. I was still relatively new to Austin and had spent most of my time just trying to adjust to a new school. We lived in the country, outside of town, and I didn’t know how the other kids would react to my political statement. Like a lot of other seventh graders, the last thing I wanted to do was draw attention to myself. But in the end, I decided that it was a good thing to do, regardless of what my classmates might think.
Before going to bed, I dug around in Mom’s sewing kit and found a piece of black felt. I methodically measured and cut it into an armband big enough that it would be impossible to miss. The next morning I attached it carefully to my sleeve with a safety pin and marched out the door, waving good-bye to my parents. As the oldest child, I had always tried to be perfect, and this felt like the most daring thing I had ever done. The armband might as well have had the word agitator sewn onto it.
Stepping onto the school bus, I glanced around, trying to play it cool, even though my stomach was churning. I found my friend Alison and sat with her, dodging the paper airplanes most of the other kids were tossing around. No one else wore armbands. Did they not know about the protest?
Maybe they were afraid to get in trouble. I figured that if there were going to be consequences, it would be once we got to school. Sure enough, the principal at Westlake Junior High, Tom Hestand, stopped me on my way to third period and asked that I come to his office. I had never been summoned to the principal’s office before, and my heart raced as I followed him and took a seat in the chair across from his desk.
Have you ever taken a stand about something and worried what others might think?
“Cecile, do your parents know what you’re doing?” he asked sternly.
I thought about it, keeping my cool. “I’m pretty sure they do.”
“Well,” he said, “surely you won’t mind, then, if I give them a call.”
I shrugged and watched as he dialed the phone, then listened to it ring and ring. Finally he hung up. Mom wasn’t home—perhaps one of the luckiest moments in Principal Hestand’s life. Having tried and failed to get me in trouble, he had no choice but to let me go back to class.
Later that evening, when I recounted the excitement of being taken to the principal’s office—escorted by the principal, no less—Mom went ballistic. “Who does Principal Hestand think he is,” she fumed, “trying to intimidate you just for standing up for what you believe?” It felt like Mom and I were in a conspiracy together. The rush was exhilarating. Whether he meant to or not, Principal Hestand gets credit for helping to launch my life of activism. I’ve always wanted to find him and thank him for getting me started!
From then on, it was Okay, now what can I do? Where can I make a difference?
A few months later, inspired by the first Earth Day in 1970, I started my very first organization with some girlfriends. We named it Youth Against Pollution. We picked up trash in our neighborhood and collected aluminum cans in the lunchroom. Then I enlisted the help of my brother Dan to crush them for recycling.
My family always had lots of dogs, many of which just sort of showed up. I became obsessed with washing out all the dog food cans to recycle them. Dad found me doing it in the kitchen one day and asked me in exasperation, “Cecile, don’t you know that it’s pointless to wash out all those dog food cans?”
“It’s for the environment!” I protested.
Dad did what he so often did when he thought an idea was harebrained: he told me exactly how he felt, in no uncertain terms. “You’re not going to save the environment by washing out those goddamn dog food cans,” he said, shaking his head. “Don’t you know that companies are going to have to start doing this for it to make any difference?”
Dad thought I was nuts, and that wasn’t the last time. Despite his idealism, he often let me know how impractical I was—and of course I was so desperate to make him proud. It took decades before I began to understand that he must have felt pride all along, even if he sometimes had trouble expressing it. I’m sure seeking his approval helped drive me to try harder. But it also might have been my first lesson in the importance of doing what feels right and not getting too caught up in what others think—including my father. And I guess in a way we were both right. Recycling did catch on, but it had to begin somewhere. I like to think it got a jump start from teenagers washing out dog food cans.
Have you ever tried to do something that’s different from what your parents think?
Even in Austin, the promised land, there were problems. I was really tall, so logically I wanted to play basketball. But this was before Title IX, the federal law that now guarantees equal opportunity for girls in school activities. Back then the geniuses who determined the rules for junior high sports made us play half-court basketball. They didn’t think girls could handle running up and down the full court.
And then there was football, the entire focus of our junior high and high school. I was too tall to even try out for the cheerleading squad, which outraged my mother. I opted not to take on this fight, since I would rather have died than be a part of the football scene.
Instead some friends and I fought against having to go to the weekly pep rallies—demanding a study hall for students who didn’t want to cheer on the football team. At Westlake pretty much every teacher was a coach, so history and science and even sex ed were taught by folks whose primary responsibility was coaching football. As you might imagine, I was a thorn in their side.
Coach C doubled as a football coach and my eighth-grade history teacher. It was pretty obvious what his first love was, as he mainly used the blackboard for drawing football plays. When he asked us to bring in newspaper articles to discuss, I brought in one about a student who was suspended for shining his shoes with an American flag. I was outraged on the student’s behalf.
“Richards!” Coach C yelled, like I was on his junior varsity team. “That kid got just what he deserved!” I never backed down from a debate with Coach C, and he definitely got me to speak up, since I disagreed with almost everything he believed.
Despite this unintended sharpening of my debate skills, it was clear that Westlake High was a dead end for me, and after a while I was spending more time trying to figure out how to skip school and raise hell than anything else. I was a good enough student, so my parents decided to move me to St. Stephen’s, a small Episcopal school. It was the first racially integrated school I’d ever attended, and it changed the direction of my life. Suddenly I had the opportunity to learn from really smart teachers alongside kids from different races and backgrounds. It felt like the world was opening up. I threw myself into acting and music and writing, all of which gave me confidence to express opinions and speak in front of others.
Though I loved my family and didn’t know much beyond Texas, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there had to be more. Dad’s mother, Eleanor Richards, planted that seed in me.
My family in Austin, 1970: Mom, Clark, me, Ellen, Dan, and Dad, embracing the hippie culture.
Eleanor, or Momel, grew up at a time when women were expected to stay in the kitchen, but she had seen the world. She had gone to Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and had been to China and India and Africa. She helped start the League of Women Voters in Texas and fought for integration and civil rights. I loved her. More than anyone in my family, she talked about the world and politics and issues nonstop.
Momel had big plans for me. When I was still in high school, she invited me to go with her to London for a week. No one I knew had been out of the country, unless it was to go across the Texas border for Mexican food. We went to the theater, took a boat down the River Thames, and visited Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace. When I came back from England, I told my parents they were not going to believe what was going on outside Texas.
Meanwhile, every movement of the 1960s and 1970s was coming alive, and it seemed like my parents were into them all. Mom especially threw herself into one well-intentioned hobby after another. At one point we even raised chickens in our backyard, until the fateful day that one of our many dogs got into the pen and committed the Great Chicken Massacre. (“But just think how happy that dog was!” Mom consoled my brother Dan.) Everything Mom did was larger than life, a full-scale production. But when she discovered the women’s movement, she found her perfect outlet. After all, she’d spent some of her best years taking care of four kids, and she’d volunteered on many campaigns, helping to elect male friends to the Texas legislature, which is like the Congress for the state, where elected officials make laws.
I was sixteen when a young lawyer in Austin named Sarah Weddington decided to run for the state legislature. She came to Mom, asking for help. It was a golden opportunity for Mom, and she seized it. She would gather us up in the back seat of the car and take us to Sarah’s headquarters, where we further refined our campaign skills, learning to make calls as part of a phone bank and to door knock to get voters to come out in support of Sarah.
Mom came up with one original idea after another for Sarah’s campaign, but it was a really tough race, and I saw firsthand just how ugly it could be for a woman to run for office. This was especially true for Sarah, who had made a name for herself at the age of twenty-six arguing Roe v. Wade before the US Supreme Court, the case that legalized abortion (the right for women to end their pregnancies) in America. Sexism was widespread in Texas politics; one of Sarah’s opponents refused to call her by name, instead referring to her as “that sweet little girl.” And she even faced opposition from her own party, the Democrats.
Despite all the nastiness, Sarah won—the first woman to represent our county in the Texas House of Representatives. Her victory gave Mom the chance to finally get out of the house and go work at the capitol as Sarah’s legislative assistant. This was a profound change, because up until then, it was my dad who got all the notoriety and fame. By then he was a big-deal labor and civil rights lawyer. But even we kids could tell Mom was coming into her own, and we were proud of her. After years of organizing the family, she was putting those skills to use organizing political campaigns, and she was really good at it. For the first time, we saw Mom in charge. It seemed like she knew everything.
Increasingly, as Mom was figuring out her path and my father was filling his spare time hanging out with his drinking and lawyering buddies, I was looking ahead to college. I read about Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where students had taken over a university building and were protesting racism and financial aid cuts. Now, that sounded like my kind of place.
But when I met with my college counselor, he told me, “I don’t think you’re likely to get into that school. So I’ve put together a list of schools that you should try instead.”
Like Principal Hestand, he seemed to be trying to take me down a few notches, and I wasn’t going to let him.
“Okay, well, I think I’m going to try anyway,” I said. I figured out how to get the application and put together some recommendations. I was proud of myself for getting it done on my own.
In those days the college acceptance and rejection letters all arrived in mailboxes across America on April 1. When the day arrived, I could hardly breathe as I walked down the road to our mailbox. Inside was a fat letter from Brown. I tore it open and read that I had been accepted.
I was leaving Texas for a chance to see the world and make trouble.
And that’s just what I did.