Growing up in rural Texas, Gloria Feldt became pregnant at age 15 in the 1950s. The birth control pill did not exist and abortion was illegal; it was a time when a wife needed her husband’s signature to open a bank account and job listings said “Wanted: Male” and “Wanted: Female.” So, she married the guy who got her pregnant and by age 20, they had three kids together. Although she loved her family, Gloria felt she had very little ability to make choices for her own life. She began working at a small Planned Parenthood clinic in Texas (and can remember a time when the birth control pill was so new that men were afraid of it and would flush their wives’ pills down the toilet!). Eventually, the kids were grown and the marriage dissolved, but Gloria rose through the ranks of Planned Parenthood, eventually becoming the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She served PPFA from 1996 to 2005, testifying before Congress and even appearing on “The O’Reilly Factor” (and coming out alive). She recently published No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power, which is filled with stories from her own life and “Power Tools” of advice, like “know your history,” “embrace controversy,” “employ every medium,” and “tell your story.” While I don’t necessarily agree with every argument Gloria makes in No Excuses, it’s nothing if not thought-provoking. More importantly, reading the book was like a pep talk to get off my butt, stop complaining, and make things happen for myself. I think she has a lot to teach the younger generation of women and I’m thrilled she spoke to The Frisky about women, power, and why there aren’t more ladies in Congress.
What got you interested in exploring the notion of women and power?
What started me off was a narrower bit of research that I did into women candidates for office in 2008. I was going to write an article for Elle magazine on what I thought was going to be the successes of the many organizations that are now spending millions of dollars to help women — recruit them, train them, persuade them to run for office, sometimes even raise money for them. They are doing extraordinary work. But it ended up being an article about why women aren’t running for office in numbers sufficient to bring women to parity for at least 70 years at this rate. … What I was stunned by is it’s not the external barriers anymore keeping women running for office. Actually, when women run, they win in approximately the same percentages as men who run. They can raise money as well, they can persuade the voters even better because voters trust women more right now, but women simply were not running. So I began to interview the heads of these organizations [to help women run] and I was surprised they all said about the same thing, which is “Women need to be asked.” They need to be asked over and over. Men just get up in the morning and decide they’re going to run. Women think about running, but they decide they need to get some education, have some volunteer experience, they need to learn all kinds of things before they run. So, by the time women run, the man already holds the office. And 95 percent of incumbents win. So that’s the conundrum!
No Excuses says that women may have a lot of ambition, but it may not result in anything if they don’t have “intention” to get something accomplished. What does having “intention” mean?
Ambition, to me, is a burning desire to do something. Intention is more of a sense of oneself as not only being able to do something but having the reasonable probability of being able to do it and seeing an end result. “I want to run for office, because …” Men tend to want to run for office because they think it’s cool to have that power. Women will run for office, I found, if they’re ticked off about something, if they feel there’s an injustice and they can do something good for the world.
Your book says that some women are repelled by the idea of having “power over” someone, because controlling other people sounds unpleasant. But you argue that women should view power as “power to,” as in “you have the power to run for office and get a new school built” or “you have the power to ask for a raise.”
I’ve been teaching a class called “Women, Power and Leadership” for several years at Arizona State University and I realized when we talked about power, there would be a negative reaction to it. In exploring that, what I found was [my female students] were perceiving female power as what it has been for, oh, a few millennia, and that is power over someone. It’s perceived of in sort of a male-centric, war-centric, “power over you,” negative way that means “I lose the choices of my own life.” That kind of power is not only oppressive, but it’s a finite pie. If I take a slice, there’s less for you.
I find that as soon as we begin to talk about changing the definition of power from that kind of power to “the power to” — the power to accomplish things in this world, the power to make life better, the power to create new things — there’s a relaxation that comes over women’s faces. Oh, I want that kind of power. And that kind of power in infinite: the more there is, the more there is.
I actually saw the same dynamic in doing a focus group with very highly placed executive women around developing a leadership program. The exact same reaction occurred. I’ve seen it happen with women in their 40s, 50s, and 60s and I’ve seen it happen with college students. It’s a rational reaction. We know that women have over the years been discriminated against. We have probably felt the brunt of it ourselves. We have been in meetings where we put forth an idea, nobody listens, and a man put forth an idea and suddenly it was gospel truth.
You say women have to stop thinking of themselves as victims. While I love that empowering message, the reality is that things like racism, able-bodied-ism and sexism exist. I think if a woman in a wheelchair or a black woman or whoever can’t get anything done because people are prejudiced towards her, I would say she is a victim.
Of course [those things] exist. [They] will probably always exist. The reason I started my prologue with a wonderful quote by Sojourner Truth is because I wanted to have as a role model someone who began life with less than no power: a slave, a woman, in the South, giving birth to child after child when she had no way not to, having several of them die or sold into slavery. But she somehow managed to think of herself not as a victim but as someone who needed to make change in the world. That’s what’s empowering: take what you have and turn that energy into becoming the change you want to see in the world.
I’ll use myself as an example. A 15-year-old pregnant girl in the ’50s didn’t have a lot of power. It took a lot of years to feel like I had control in my life. I guess what I learned in my life was if you keep thinking of yourself as a victim, you probably will be [one]. It’s just very dis-empowering. It makes you depressed instead of angry. It’s better to get angry and make change. You know how women are more depressed than men? That’s because anger is turned inward. That feeling of victimhood is exactly what gives you that feeling. You may be right — you may totally be a victim. But take that feeling and use it. Point it outward. Point the finger in the right direction. Point the finger where the oppressor is. Don’t just point it inward.
The whole premise of No Excuses is that so many women have already cracked the glass ceiling — there’s been the first woman brain surgeon, the first woman senator, etc. — and therefore women have no excuses for not accomplishing what we want to accomplish. Other women have already proven it can be done. But sometimes I think it can be hard for people to accomplish goals without mentors or role models actually in our lives. Female senators and CEOs are more rare.
I do think we have entered an era where there has been a “first woman” for almost everything. So, it’s not that hard to find role models if you’re looking. It may be harder to see yourself in the picture because you don’t see those role models everywhere. But if you have an idea about it, then that role model is there. … I will tell you, some of the women who feel like they did open these doors just feel despairing that younger women are coming into professions, but they’re not staying in it in the kind of positions that would take them to the top. I don’t know if that’s your experience, what you have seen, but that’s what I hear from the ground-breakers.
I don’t know. Almost everyone I have worked with in my professional life has been under the age of 40 and the women at the top either were childless or could afford to hire a nanny. So I don’t know if your colleagues’ observations are true. But I will say that I do struggle with those sorts of work/life balance issues. I am going to be thinking about having children in the next five years or so and I’m always wondering, ‘How am I going to do this?’ That’s something I could use a role model for!
I hear from those [older] women who are so distraught who were walking through the doors is [young people] progress into their careers, they get into their 30s, the biological clock is ticking, if they have the first child they can usually stay in the job but when they have the second child they can’t work 24/7 anymore. So [younger women] step out, and even if they come back in five years, or three years, there’s a man who has already stepped into that higher position. That’s why women are not really quite making it to the top of the ladder.
So, the concern about work/life balance is a concern that comes from the success of feminism and I don’t think we should overlook that fact. We should celebrate that! Whereas young women are concerned about work/life balance, I just wanted to be allowed to work in a job that I wanted. That’s progress, to have to worry about work/life balance. But it doesn’t make it any less of a problem.
Again, I think it is a question of rethinking. I think it is going to be young women and young men. We now have a generation of young men who were raised by mothers who did have professions. And we have a generation who were raised by feminist mothers. And we have a generation, just by virtue of the fact that people are marrying later, both the men and the women are, frankly, more mature. They actually want to be more thoughtful about their childbearing. The chaos of work/life balance issues is the opportunity to change the workplace. I realize believe there is a critical mass of young people coming into the workplace, male and female, who want to be able to earn a living and have a life at the same time.
Do you think younger women take for granted the opportunities we have today, like being able to go to whichever colleges we want and apply for whatever jobs we want?
Of course they do! We all take for granted the opportunities we have. That’s not to blame younger women; it’s to inspire them to recognize if you have that privilege, there’s a responsibility to use it. … One of my Power Tools is “know your history.” If you don’t know your history and what brought you there, you can’t really shape your future consciously. It’s not only that you’ll make the same mistakes all over again, but knowing one’s history gives you a context and a sense of connection.
We didn’t even talk about women gaining the right to vote in my U.S. History class junior year of high school. I was so irritated about that.
Men … have made themselves the protagonists of history. They have written the history books. And we have a chance to change that. We now have more women than men graduating from college. We probably have more women historians now. We’ll be writing history with a completely different lens. It’s really a fascinating question — this may be one that readers may enjoy asking themselves — what would be in the history books if women had written them? I just can’t help but think a lot of things would be different. (laughs)
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
Find out more about Gloria Feldt and her other books at GloraFeldt.com
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