What’s the Secret to Increasing Women’s Political Leadership?

In this interview, I talked with WJCT-FM (NPR) First Coast Connect host Melissa Ross  about why women haven’t moved the political power and leadership dial since 1992, and why women remain stuck at a mere 17% of Congressional seats and less than 25% of state legislative positions.

Remember 1992 year of the woman? That was the last time a presidential election overlapped with re-districting initiatives. The result was that women won 22 of the 24 open congressional seats that year. Some political observers think that kind of sweep could happen again this year as congressional and state legislative districts are being redrawn across the country.

The 2012 project of the Rutger’s Center for Women in Politics says, “Political opportunities for women are ripe for the picking if they only seize the moment.”

MELISSA ROSS: Let me begin by asking you about the 2012 Project. Is it designed to get more women into congress?

GLORIA FELDT: The 2012 project is designed to get more women to run for office. Period. And Congress has been a big focus. I think people tend to focus more on national elected positions but it’s also important for women to think about running for office in more local offices too. School boards, city councils, state legislators. There are many, many opportunities for women to serve and to be engaged in the political process where we haven’t really been maximizing our leadership potential.

MR: I noticed that the presidential election and all of the re-districting elections around the country sort of opened up space for that to happen. For women to get into office. Now your book is called No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change the Way they Think about Power. So you’re saying that are women making more excuses when it comes to their reasons for not pursuing more political or economic power?

GF: I have to tell you a funny story. My title for the book was Unlimited because I believe this is a moment when women are unlimited. And I tend to be a rather positive person to begin with. But once the booksellers got into the act they decided that I needed an edgier title.  So they wanted me to call it No Excuses. And I’ve come to really like that title because it has a more in your face quality about it. And maybe that’s good because I think women do need a little bit of tough love right now. We’ve opened the doors but nobody’s going to walk through them but ourselves.

MR: So how do women need to change the way they think about power? What do we need to change in our thinking?

GF: We need to change how we think about it from an old fashioned way that I discovered women are looking at power and therefore resisting it. That is the idea that power is power over. Power over has a really negative connotation. Particularly for women, because we’ve worn the brunt of the negative aspects of it. It’s oppressive. It assumes that there is a finite pie and if I take a slice there’s less for you. Women have been abused, we’ve been discriminated against, why would we want that kind of power?

Once we discuss this and change how we’re defining it in our own minds as the power to, the power to do good things in this world, the power to make life better for our kids, ourselves, our families, our communities, our world. The power to understand that it’s not a finite pie and if I help you have more power, there’s not less for me it just means there’s more power and goodness out there in the world. Then I would see women’s faces relax. And hear them say ‘’Oh, yeah, I want that kind of power.”

And I think what you find, since we’re talking about women in politics specifically, is that the motivations women have for running for politics and running for political office tend to be different motivations than men have. Men will run just because they want the power and the glory. Women will run if they see an injustice, if they see something that needs to be fixed.

MR: Then let me ask you then, what’s wrong with women wanting power for its own sake?

GF: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. The thing we need to learn to do is embrace power. And, why not us? Particularly if we’re going to use it in an ethical fashion. Again, I think what women resist is that we’ve seen too much power being used unethically and we don’t like that.

But power is like a hammer: you can use it to break something apart or you can use it to build something. So I just urge women to recognize that using their power to is the same thing as leadership. And the world right now is crying out for women in leadership. The World Bank has looked at parliaments around the world and found that those with more women have less corruption and have a better decision-making process.

MR: You mentioned that the goal of the 2012 project is to get more women into office at the local, state and national levels. How are the numbers looking?

GF: Numbers aren’t looking so good. This is what actually got me started writing No Excuses. Once I started looking into women in politics, I discovered the dynamics are exactly the same whether we’re talking about the workplace, personal relationships or politics. But it was the political issues that got me looking at this topic. And what I found was that all the organizations that have been trying to get women to run for office like The 2012 Project, The White House Project, Women’s Campaign Forum—there are dozens and dozens of them—hadn’t moved the dial in 20 years. They hadn’t moved the dial at all since 1992’s year of the woman which you cited at the beginning of the show.

So, that’s when I started looking at why women aren’t moving the dial and that’s when I discovered that it’s because they didn’t want what they perceived as the male model of power.

MR: She’s Gloria Feldt: author, former CEO of Planned Parenthood and women’s leadership speaker and expert. Thanks for joining us.

GF: It’s my pleasure and I invite people to learn more at my website Gloriafeldt.com.

Listen to the interview here, and share your thoughts about whether 2012 is going to be another “year of the woman” and how you night have shifted your own view of power recently.

GLORIA FELDT is the New York Times bestselling author of several books including No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power, a sought-after speaker and frequent contributor to major news outlets, and the Co-Founder and President of Take The LeadPeople has called her “the voice of experience,” and among the many honors she has been given, Vanity Fair called her one of America’s “Top 200 Women Legends, Leaders, and Trailblazers,” and Glamour chose her as a “Woman of the Year.”

As co-founder and president of Take The Lead, a leading women’s leadership nonprofit, her mission is to achieve gender parity by 2025 through innovative training programs, workshops, a groundbreaking 50 Women Can Change The World immersive, online courses, a free weekly newsletter, and events including a monthly Virtual Happy Hour program and a Take The Lead Day symposium that reached over 400,000 women globally in 2017.

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