“As a lifetime organizer, I’ve never been more excited, despite this Congress and this presidency,” she said in the first interview in which she confirmed and discussed her departure. “There’s this kind of organic activism by women.”
Video by Planned Parenthood
Ms. Richards, the elder daughter of Ann Richards, the former governor of Texas who died in 2006, became a household name in 2015, when an anti-abortion group released several secretly recorded videos of abortion providers discussing selling fetal tissue to researchers. Ms. Richards testified to congressional Republicans who wanted to strip the group of its estimated $450 million in annual federal funding.
“She has really helped put a face on the position,” said Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, adding that Ms. Richards was “unfazed by the horrendous, awful, negative attacks.”
Credit Stephen Crowley/The New York Times
On the contrary, Ms. Richards seemed to relish her role as the consummate rabble-rouser to Republicans. She was practically giddy relaying the time she visited a Planned Parenthood clinic in Kenosha, Wis., in the district represented by Paul D. Ryan, the Republican speaker of the House.
But the work, and her visibility, had a dark side. Death threats to abortion providers, blockades, fires and protests at Planned Parenthood clinics — already hotbeds of political unrest — increased after the videos, and picketing ticked up fourfold, to 21,715 reported incidents in 2015, according to a study by the National Abortion Federation, a Washington-based association of abortion providers.
Ms. Richards, who with her signature hot-pink suits stood out from most Washington power brokers, wouldn’t talk about the threats she received.
“For every person who has come up and said something tacky — as Mom would say — there are literally hundreds of women who have stopped me in the subway, on the street, in an airport to say, ‘thank you,’” she said.
She will meet with the Planned Parenthood board at its annual meeting on Friday and Saturday to discuss the timing of her departure and what is expected be a wide search to replace her.
Credit Krista Schlueter for The New York Times
Many conservatives are celebrating the end of her reign. “Cecile Richards Leaves Behind Brutal Legacy,” read a headline in The Blaze. The story estimated the group had performed 328,384 abortions in 2016. Planned Parenthood disputed those figures, adding that the organization served 2.4 million patients that year, largely for physical exams, breast exams and the treatment of sexually transmitted infections.
Previously deputy chief of staff to Representative Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, Ms. Richards sought to transform Planned Parenthood when she was named president in 2006. The organization’s base of volunteers and supporters has grown substantially — from 2.5 million to 11 million — and it has added 700,000 new donors, since the 2016 election, the highest number ever for such a time period.
But Ms. Richards, who lives in New York City, also became a frequent presence in glitzy fund-raising circles, winning over billionaire donors who may have shied away from publicly supporting abortion rights in the past.
“Planned Parenthood is vital, and under Cecile’s leadership it has been dynamic, strategic and most importantly effective,” Michael R. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York and a major supporter, said in an email.
Ms. Richards said she is most proud of securing free birth-control coverage for every woman with health insurance (72 million), the historically low teen-pregnancy rate and a 30-year low for unintended pregnancies overall.
She seemed more reserved about using the word abortion, masterfully pivoting to phrases like “women’s health” and “reproductive medicine” when a reporter brought them up.
Ms. Richards does see progress in the way abortion is depicted in popular culture, with Kerry Washington’s sexy Washington fixer Olivia Pope on the hit drama “Scandal” undergoing the procedure and articles in Cosmopolitan, Glamour and Essence discussing the issue.
“It’s about changing our culture and talking about topics that I thought had been shoved to the side and taboo,” she said.
Certainly the channels of conversation have multiplied exponentially since Ms. Richards first volunteered on Sarah Weddington’s 1972 campaign to the Texas House of Representatives, an election that unfurled as Ms. Weddington represented “Jane Roe” in the Supreme Court case that legalized abortion nationwide.
At 32, with twins on the way and a baby in tow, Ms. Richards later took on running her mother’s long-shot 1990 campaign for governor.
If the elder Ms. Richards, a divorced recovering alcoholic Democrat, could get elected governor of Texas, and wind up being one of the state’s most beloved leaders, her daughter figures she can convince other women that they, too, have a chance. “She was never a sure thing in anything she did,” Ms. Richards said.
Raising the inevitable question: Does Ms. Richards plan to run?
After news of Ms. Richards’s departure became public, tweets (mostly from women) erupted like popcorn: “Hopefully to run for office!” one read. And another: “Please run for Texas governor, please run for Texas governor, please run for Texas governor.”
Ms. Richards’s reply is emphatic (if not entirely convincing).
“I’m not thinking of running for anything,” she said.