No Excuses Interview with Daily Femme

This interview with Cherie over at The Daily Femme was a lot of fun. They generously agreed to let me cross-post it here on Heartfeldt. Please join the conversation. There’s really No Excuse not to. ;^)

A teen mother from rural Texas, Gloria Feldt was active in the Civil Rights movement before committing herself to the advancement of women.  She served as president and CEO of Planned Parenthood from 1996 to 2005 and is also the author of four books, including the New York Times bestseller ‘Send Yourself Roses’ and her latest book ‘No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think about Power,’ in which she argues that women are the ones holding themselves back and discusses the ways they can achieve power. When I heard Gloria speak as the keynote at this year’s BlogHer conference, I knew she would be an incredible interview for The Daily Femme. I am thrilled that she accepted to be featured on our site.  In this wide ranging interview, she urges women to recognize the power they hold and discusses the hardest steps for women to take in order to exercise such power.  She even argues that President Obama can use Feldt’s 9 ways. One of my favorite ideas in her new book is the distinction she draws between the “power over” and the “power to” which she explains in this interview.

Gloria is currently on tour discussing her book, No Excuses, and will be at the Strand Bookstore (828 Broadway) in New York on October 7th at 7pm and at Busboys & Poets (1025 5th St. NW) in DC on October 13th at 5:30pm.

Prior to becoming an activist for women’s rights, you were set on a more traditional path as a young wife and mother living in Texas. What made you decide to change routes and get involved in the struggle for gender equality?  How hard was it for you to maintain a work life balance as you took on more responsibilities?

The personal is always political and vice versa. I became an activist for women 40 years ago when I got ticked at discrimination that affected me personally—like “help wanted, male” ads that said I couldn’t apply for well-paying jobs. I married and had children in my teens, and then when the birth control pill became available, I realized I could plan my life more intentionally, and became aware of the importance of reproductive self-determination to women’s ability to determine anything else in their lives. So I started to college and as my children grew up, I needed to go to work to contribute to the family income. I was denied a credit card in my own name and refused a loan for a car without my then-husband becoming the responsible person. I became incensed at the unfairness of it all.

At the same time, I was immersed in the Civil Rights movement, volunteering with several local organizations. One day it occurred to me that women have civil rights too. That was a turning point in my life, and since then I have devoted both my professional work and my community service to advancing women.

There was no such thing as work-life balance then.  A woman who worked outside the home simply had to be Supermom and do it all without complaining. So I did—for a while. Then I realized it was unfair and started enlisting my children to do some of the housework. But the male-female roles were relatively stuck. My first husband and I were divorced about that time after 18 years—not because of life balance, but because a teenage marriage rarely lasts forever. Four years later I remarried. I have often joked that I was taken with Alex because he cooked and had a housekeeper once a week.  (He does have many other fine qualities too! )

In truth I work too much—always have and probably always will–and for me balance is in doing what I love.

In your new and 4th book, “No Excuses” you argue that the doors are open for women but it is women who are not taking the initiative to walk through them or break the glass ceiling. Why do you believe that women are the ones holding themselves back?

I’ve been thrilled to see women break open so many doors during my life, and my decades of activism. But at the rate women are going, it’ll take 70 years to get to parity-and not just in politics! Women hold only 18% of top leadership roles at work too–and that’s not fair, or good for men, women, a balanced family life, or even companies’ return on investment according to McKenzie and Company’s analysis. Yet in spite of cultural barriers that arguably do remain, from the boardroom to the bedroom, no law or structural barrier is holding us women back now, except ourselves. It is easier to become co-opted by a little success and not hold out for the whole package. Sometimes it is even easier not to have choices. But is “easy” the same as fulfilling? Not to me.

There are many reasons –external barriers of discrimination and internal barriers of fear and insecurity–but there are no excuses any more. The doors are open; we have to walk through them. For example, in politics, women can now raise money as well a men, are more trusted by the voters, and are clearly as capable of putting together strong campaigns. Still, women candidates face media sexism and scrutiny that can be daunting– Hillary Clinton’s cackle, ankles, and cleavage for example. When did you hear a media commentator say about a male candidate that he couldn’t win because voters wouldn’t want to watch him age?

Even with all that, the only way to make the change is to make the change. Hillary did that and as a result it is becoming increasingly clear to people that leadership comes in both genders. Leaders can have breasts and wear turquoise pantsuits.  So we have to take the leap. You can’t win if you don’t run. You can’t get the job if you don’t apply or the salary raise if you don’t ask. You might not always get what you ask for, but that is one of the things we need to learn. Being told “no” isn’t the end of the world. Try again.

There is much anticipation for the release of your new book! What was the biggest challenge you faced writing it and what would you like readers to take away from it? In what ways do you think your book is different from other books out there on the topic of how women can succeed and gain more control over their lives?

We are all much better at stating problems than getting to solutions. Most books about similar topics are hand wringers, or if they propose solutions, they do so as individualistic self-help books but don’t tell women how to change things at the systemic level. Because I am a practical activist, I wanted to share what I’ve learned on the frontlines of movement leadership about how to make change at both the personal and systemic levels. That took substantial time, gathering stories, tips, and tools from a wide array of women and interviewing some of the most inspiring ones so I could share their stories. And of course digging into my own life experiences and writing about them.

I don’t like merely to define a problem—I like to do something about it. And I hope that I have done that in No Excuses.

Just this morning I received a note from a woman I met only briefly at an event a few days ago. I told her about my book and the 9 Ways. She wrote:

    “As I read your No Excuses book flyer, it occurred to me I achieved your top 3 ways to embrace power yesterday when I accepted my first paid position in 20 years to become a college English instructor. It was thrilling to me to accept the Top Salary ever paid by the institute for a new hire. Visions of that pay check and its affirmation of my skill set has me on a natural high! I just had to share…”

So I just had to share that with the Daily Femme! And I hope that we can continue this conversation on my website, our Facebook pages, and wherever women get together.

In your view, how did women’s relationship to power change over say the past twenty years? Are the circumstances and priorities different for women today? How so?

Twenty years ago, women might have thought they had to become men (metaphorically and in their behaviors and even dress) to succeed. Today, it is clear that the world needs what women have to offer–and women are more comfortable being who they are. We learn and get stronger in the doing.

I love the card used to promote you new book with its “9 ways to embrace your power”. Which of the 9 steps do you feel is the hardest for women?

Thank you! I’d say power tool #2, “define your terms—first before others define them for you” is hardest because we have yet to define power on our own terms. Women resist their power in part because we have borne the brunt of the most negative aspects of power for millennia.  Power has been defined as the power over something or someone. I urge women to redefine power in their own minds as the power to—power to accomplish good things in this world, power to thrive as an individual and the power to help others.

Power over is from Mars. Power to is from Venus. Power over is oppressive. Power to is leadership. See what a difference it makes to define your terms?

What do you say to those who claim that we live in a post-feminist society? In your view, what challenges face feminists and feminism today?

The fact that sexism remains rampant in the media and cultural norms if not laws should tell us that the job of feminism isn’t finished. Nor are we post-anything. But we are in a new phase.

Feminism has in many ways become a dominant social value. Who in 2010 would dare say that girls shouldn’t be educated and aspire to be the CEO rather than the secretary? Despite the remaining barriers, I believe this is an amazing moment for women, a hopeful and historic moment—if we make it so. It’s time for women to step up, stand in the power they have, and lead their own dreams. And to understand that change won’t happen by itself. Just because there’s a trend doesn’t mean it will continue without conscious action.

I think that for example, women’s numbers in Congress might well go backward in this fall’s elections if women fail to step up and support those who won in swing districts in 2008. That’s what happened after 1992, the last time an election was dubbed “the year of the woman.” In 1994, those women who had tipped the scales stayed home, and we got the Gingrich revolution and many steps back in women’s equality.

What’s your assessment of the Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress on the eve of the 2010 congressional elections in particular on the issue of women’s rights?

I feel that Obama needs to take note of my 9 Ways, especially the one about defining your own terms first, before anyone else does. And I have to answer this question from the perspective that all issues are women’s rights issues.

Obama has not stepped into the executive role effectively; rather than stake out his own agenda and work to lead people to understand why they should support those policies, he has led as though he is still in the senate—looking for incremental change and compromises, responding to pressures rather than sailing the ship of state where he wants it to go. I think he has failed to “carpe the chaos” (power tool #5) of the recession too. When he was elected, people were open to creative new ways of doing things, as happens when there is economic chaos and the normal boundaries aren’t serving us well. But instead he appointed the same old inside players to lead his financial team, and that signaled business as usual instead of the change he had promised.

Similarly I think he squandered his power to bring true health care reform to Americans.  First, he naively thought he had brokered a deal with the hospital, pharmaceutical, and insurance industries up front.  So he started from a compromised position—and then those businesses didn’t keep their end of the bargain–surprise. By not starting from a clear position of guaranteed health care for all under a unified plan, he lost his political clout. And we ended up with legislation that is such a boon to the insurance industry that it is likely to be more expensive than people will be willing to bear. Clearly, he backed off of his campaign commitment to women’s reproductive health—such as passing the Freedom of Choice Act and covering abortion services in the health plan—at the first sign of controversy. That’s another power tool he should use—“embrace controversy” as a platform to deliver his message, to teach and lead people toward what he thinks is right.

Without strong leadership from the top, Congressional leadership has similarly floundered and wasted the moment when they could have led the country to solve some of the problems that have been allowed to fester for too many years. Women should be pushing them more visibly for passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act too, since women earn 78 cents to men’s dollar even today.

This question almost asks me to write a whole other book!

As a former CEO of Planned Parenthood, what are your thoughts on the media coverage of former P.P. clinic director Abby Johnson’s decision to quit her job after watching an abortion and her claims that her bosses ordered her to encourage more abortions in order to make more money?

That’s not even credible enough to warrant an answer.  For every Abby, there are many more who change their views the other way “because it’s me and therefore it’s different.” But medical confidentiality doesn’t allow us to tell those stories.

Recently, you applauded on Twitter Anna Holmes and Rebecca Traister for their Op-ed, A Palin of Our Own, in which they call on Democrats to learn from and emulate Sarah Palin in order to be successful. Are you concerned that suggesting Sarah Palin as a source of inspiration for women Democrats only gives Palin and her conservative views more credence and may ultimately hinder progressive women in politics?

I always believe we should learn from our adversaries. That doesn’t mean we take on their characteristics that we may deem to be negative or harmful—as I believe Palin and her mama grizzlies are to women’s advancement—but that we study their successes and emulate them where that will make us more effective.

You also recently commended Jennifer Aniston for saying that a woman doesn’t need a man to have children and live a successful life and the television show ‘Friday Night Lights’ for portraying abortion in an honest way. Do you think that Hollywood and mainstream culture is playing a more positive role by developing more complex female characters and storyline that address women’s issues and concerns?

If women want justice in movies or television, they must collectively withhold their gold.  Who buys movie tickets after all? Women make up 55 percent of moviegoers (check out the numbers here). If we stop buying, Hollywood will stop selling negative images of women. Simple as that.

I think the popularity of “Madmen”  is a good example of showing how women were discriminated against in the 1960’s and how they began to take power into their own hands and create change. I would like to see more women in influential media positions that determine what is considered a story and how it will be told.  And women in those positions need to realize they have a responsibility to their sisters to tell women’s stories in a way that show women not as victims, but as protagonists with agency over our lives and not merely as supporting characters or arm candy.

In your keynote address at the BlogHer 2010 conference you spoke about the onslaught of brands and free products on attendees and asked if we as women know how powerful we are? Given the numbers of influential women bloggers, why do you think women are not more forceful in trying to get brands to improve the quality of products and make them healthier, safer, and more ethical?

I made the point that women control over 80% of the consumer buying power. The huge number of exhibitors and their expensive giveaways at the Blogher conference tell me that they know the power women hold today. But do we know it ourselves? Not yet.

And that’s the message I want to deliver so that women take action now, before this moment has passed us by. For power unused is power useless.

That’s why in No Excuses I give women “The 9 Ways”—a set of specific power tools, tips, and inspiring stories they can use to lead unconstrained lives. And I’m inviting readers to share their own stories with one another on my website.

One thought on “No Excuses Interview with Daily Femme

  1. Gloria, I can relate to what you said about working too much. My work life balance doesn’t involve housework – my partner and I split that pretty evenly. It’s knowing when to unplug the computer at the end of the day.

    I also appreciated what you said about learning from your opponents. As much as I dislike Sarah Palin’s politics, and her folksy catch phrases, she obviously has audiences enthralled. There’s something to be learned from that.

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