Photo credit: Planned Parenthood Federation of America
Over the course of writing my book, Make Trouble
, I revisited just about every chapter in my life — from my earliest memories growing up in Texas to the moment of unprecedented women’s activism we’re living through right now. I traveled back in time to my family’s dinner table in Austin, which was never for eating — it was for sorting precinct lists for whichever campaign we were working on at the time. I remembered classmates who joined the very first organization I started back in seventh grade, which we named “Youth Against Pollution.” (Try to think of a more unfortunate acronym, I’ll wait.) I dug through photos of my wedding to my husband, Kirk, a fellow troublemaker I met as an organizer back in New Orleans, and of the day my mother, Ann Richards, became the first woman elected in her own right as Governor of Texas.
Along the way, I realized that music has been a common thread throughout my life. And as I reconstructed each of these memories, I thought about what I was listening to — the songs that inspired me and kept me going. Here are just a few of the activist anthems that got me through good times and hard times alike.
"Move Over" by Janis Joplin
|Note: In order to listen to the playlist, you will need to log in to Spotify. Sign up for a free account here.
I grew up in Dallas and Austin, a child of the ’60s. As was true of so many progressive cities in that era, in Austin, culture and activism were fused together. Early Austin bands like Shiva’s Headband and Freda and the Firedogs played at anti-Vietnam War rallies, and my parents tossed out their Frank Sinatra records in exchange for Jefferson Airplane and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. I’ll never forget the afternoon their friend Eddie Wilson called and asked them to come over and see a great place he’d found, an old abandoned national guard armory just outside downtown Austin. He told us he wanted to buy this big, dusty, cobwebbed building and turn it into a music hall. It was hard to picture, but sure enough, it became the Armadillo World Headquarters — which for a decade was a must-visit stop for musicians traveling through Texas, from Van Morrison to Frank Zappa to Bette Midler and her bathhouse tour. It was a magical place — to me, the Armadillo represented breaking every rule and cultural norm. One of the most important musicians was Janis Joplin, born in Port Arthur, Texas, who died too young, but made music that has been a part of my life forever.
"Johannesburg" by Gil Scott-Heron
As a college student at Brown University, I discovered activism and organizing in a whole new way. Some of my fellow students were part of the movement to end apartheid in South Africa, and I gladly joined their ranks. We organized rallies and concerts — one of our proudest moments was when Gil Scott-Heron came to play at a small chapel off campus. He was famous for his song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," and his and Brian Jackson’s song “Johannesburg” became an anthem for the movement across the United States. The lyrics are just as relevant today: “I know their strugglin’ over there / Ain’t gonna free me, / But we all need to be strugglin’ / If we’re gonna be free.”
"Bad Boy/Having a Party" by Luther Vandross
After college I went to work as an organizer, helping hotel workers in New Orleans and nursing home workers in East Texas to fight for fair wages and better working conditions. East Texas in particular was a tough place to live — especially if you were an African American woman, as most of the nursing home workers we were organizing with were. But it was also the place where we learned that, even in the midst of soul-crushing poverty, people could celebrate and love life. Whenever we won a union election, we’d rent a room at the Ramada Inn, get somebody’s son to DJ, and have at it. Even though the days were hard, some of our very best times were celebrating with the amazing women employee leaders in small towns across Texas, and no night was complete without Luther.
"That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas)" by Lyle Lovett
The day my mother, Ann Richards, told us that she was going to run for governor, I didn’t see it coming. When my siblings and I were growing up, she had been a frustrated housewife (though we didn’t always realize it at the time) who channeled her energy into going all-out for holidays and dinner parties, and volunteering for local candidates and progressive causes. After she gave her legendary speech at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta in 1988, it launched her into the category of a household name. People still come up to me and quote lines from that speech. One of my favorites is still: “Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”
Once she’d made up her mind to run, she needed to pull in every warm-blooded family member and friend to help. Kirk and I were living in Los Angeles at the time, so we packed up our daughter Lily, then a toddler, and moved back from California to Austin, Texas. Most of those days are a blur of driving across the state in my car, which was basically a mobile campaign office. We listened to a lot of Lyle Lovett — especially the night the stars and moon and sun aligned, and Ann Richards became the first progressive woman governor in the history of the state.
"Always on My Mind" by Willie Nelson
No Texan’s music list would be complete without Willie! I’ll never forget the day, near the very end of Mom’s first campaign for governor, when Willie Nelson was scheduled to perform for us in Austin. He and his crew had driven to town for the event in his traveling bus, parked out back of the venue. But every time a roadie or band member opened the door to get off, a huge marijuana cloud escaped, leading to an all-campaign rule: No one gets on Willie’s bus!
"All the Children Sing" by Todd Rundgren
Kirk and I have been really lucky. Despite the fact that our three kids grew up on picket lines and in campaign offices — or, I like to believe, because of it — they’re good people, and each is working in their own way to make a difference in the world. They’re funny and kind, and patient with their parents, who have often put organizing ahead of clean clothes or sitting down for dinner at regularly scheduled times. This is the song that I blasted in the minivan, every day on the way to elementary school. It’s still a family anthem.
"City of Immigrants" by Steve Earle
There are many reasons I love New York, including the fact that every morning, getting on the subway, getting coffee from the truck, or buying lunch at a halal stand, you encounter people from every part of the world. Steve Earle is my all-time favorite singer-songwriter, and this is his ode to the city.
"Not Ready to Make Nice" by the Dixie Chicks
One of my most unforgettable moments as an organizer was in 2013, when thousands of people in my home state rose up to protest a bill that would force reproductive health centers across Texas to close their doors. We kicked off several days of protests with a rally on the steps of the capitol, the likes of which no one had seen since Mom’s days as governor. Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks came from Lubbock with her father, Lloyd Maines. We all had goosebumps when she sang “Not Ready to Make Nice.”
"I Won’t Back Down" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
This was my pump-up song when I was getting ready to testify before Congress in 2015 — and so many other moments when we were gearing up to fight back against political attacks on women’s health and rights. These days it’s a song that captures the spirit of women (and men) across our country who are standing up for what they believe — and refusing to back down.
"Walking on Broken Glass" by Annie Lennox
I know “Fight Song” was the unofficial song of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, but this one will always have a special place in my heart. And even though Hillary Clinton didn’t shatter the highest, hardest glass ceiling, someday someone will, and it will be that much easier because she led the way.
"Tightrope" by Janelle Monáe
Janelle Monáe brought the house down at the Women’s March on Washington in 2017, performing as only she can, and inviting the “Mothers of the Movement,” women who have lost children to gun violence and police brutality, to the stage with her. It was an inspiring moment on an inspiring day — the biggest political demonstration in the history of our country.
"Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival
The night of the historic women’s march, Planned Parenthood threw a celebration to end all, including bands and poets and singers, plus as many people as we could fit into the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC. It was that night I got to live out the ultimate dream: singing backup for a great girl band, Sleater-Kinney, along with The National. This was the song! It is and always will be a classic. Enough said.
÷ ÷ ÷
is a nationally respected leader in the field of women’s health, reproductive rights, and social change. She began her career helping garment workers, hotel workers, and nursing home aides fight for better wages and working conditions. After years in the labor movement, she moved back home to Texas to help elect the state’s first Democratic woman governor: Her mother, Ann Richards. She went on to start her own grassroots organizations, and later served as Deputy Chief of Staff to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. In 2011 and 2012, she was named one of TIME Magazine
’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. Richards is currently the president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, and is a frequent speaker and commentator on issues related to women’s rights and activism. Richards serves on the board of the Ford Foundation. She and her husband, Kirk Adams, have three children and reside in New York City. Make Trouble
is her first book.