Writing for wonder women

Hilary Clinton and Cecile Richards turn to UW grad
Writing for wonder women
Photos courtesy of Lauren Peterson
Lauren Peterson, right, with co-author Cecile Richards

Lauren Peterson is a 2005 Madison West High School graduate who went on to the University of Wisconsin Madison considering a possible career in film. She worked in the box office of the Wisconsin Film Festival while in college.

She thought about journalism, too, working in news for WORT-FM.

But fate had something else in store for Peterson, 30, daughter of U.S. Judge Jim Peterson and his wife, Sue Collins.

As of Sunday, Peterson is a New York Times bestselling author.

“Make Trouble,” the book Peterson coauthored with Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards, debuted at No. 4 on the Times Book Review’s April 22 hardcover nonfiction list.

When I reached her last week by phone in her home in Brooklyn, New York, Peterson had just completed a two-week tour with Richards promoting the book. The last stop was Chicago. Lauren’s mom and dad and a large contingent of family and friends drove down.

The book is a memoir in the voice of Richards, whose mother, Ann, was a force in Texas politics and the world at large. But Peterson, who also wrote speeches for former secretary of state and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, gets a coauthor credit on the cover.

And, as noted, Peterson went along on the national book tour, and not only because she and Richards can finish one another’s stories and make each other laugh.

“Cecile walks the walk when it comes to supporting other women,” Peterson says. “Especially young women. She believes in giving other people credit for their work.”

The Act 10 protests at the state Capitol in early 2011 changed Peterson’s career path. She was on the grounds as a radio reporter.

“In the process of covering them,” she says, “I realized politics and organizing was never something I was going to be objective about. It was a real passion of mine. One day I just put down the recording equipment and decided I was going to join the protest instead of covering it.”

A friend then suggested Peterson apply for a job as a writer with President Obama’s re-election campaign in Chicago. Somewhat to her amazement, Peterson got the job. She moved to Chicago and “hit the job running,” writing digital content and video scripts for everyone from the president to local campaign volunteer leaders.

“I discovered that what I really like to do is help other people tell their stories,” she says.

Peterson – who in high school volunteered at Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin – first saw Cecile Richards at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. It was an early morning meeting of the women’s caucus, so everyone was a bit groggy from the night before.

“Suddenly I heard someone speaking at the front of the room who just came in and commanded the space,” Peterson recalls. “She was hilarious and full of energy and telling it like it is. That was Cecile.”

When Obama was reelected in 2012, someone asked Peterson what she wanted to do next. She replied, “I’d like to write for somebody like Cecile Richards.”

Richards, it turned out, was looking to hire a writer. Peterson applied, and got an interview.

“I was incredibly nervous,” she says. “Right before, somebody said to me, ‘You’ve sat with the president. This is no different.’ I thought, ‘This is no different from sitting across from the president?’ If I wasn’t nervous before, I was then.”

Richards came in and immediately pulled her chair around to Peterson’s side of the table.

“We just started talking,” Peterson says. “We hit it off right away. She’s from Texas but she loves Wisconsin and is really passionate about Wisconsin politics. We laughed a lot. I left thinking that even if I didn’t end up writing for her, I’d made a new friend.”

She got the job, and moved to New York City. She might have stayed in that position forever, but in 2015 a call came from Hillary Clinton campaign digital director Katie Dowd.

Would Peterson join the campaign?

She says she’d always admired Clinton, but worried about letting down Richards. “You have to go,” Cecile said.

Peterson was director of content and creative for the campaign, wrote speeches, too. After the primary, she only wrote speeches. She was gut-punched by the election result.

“The day after when Secretary Clinton gave her concession speech, on the way from the speech to the campaign office, I stopped at Planned Parenthood, and told Cecile to put me back to work. I needed to do something,” Peterson recalls.

She and Richards – who had worked tirelessly for Clinton, too – began noticing something in the ensuing weeks.

“Every event we went to,” Peterson says, “people would come up to Cecile and say, ‘I’m just so upset about what happened. What should I do now?'”

Rather than try to answer one by one, it occurred to them to write a book. Richards and Peterson kicked it around, almost in the manner of a dare. They decided to collaborate on a volume that both tells Richards’ story and serves as an invitation to activism.

About the same time, Clinton decided to write her own book, “What Happened”, which required the help of her top speechwriters, Dan Schwerin and Megan Rooney. Peterson was drafted to help Clinton with her speeches.

With “Make Trouble” finished and published and shining on the bestseller list, Peterson is exhaling a bit. She and Liz Zaretsky – they met on the Clinton campaign – will marry in October in Wisconsin.

Peterson is still writing for both Richards and Clinton.

“I feel really lucky,” she says, “to be able to write for women I admire who are making a difference and providing leadership at a time when it’s so sorely needed.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.