To Run the World (Better), Power Up Feminism

In the Spring ’09 edition, On The Issues Magazine writers and artists discuss feminist and progressive values that transcend politics — our Lines In The Sand. I’m pleased to have been asked to contribute this article to the mix.

Were you thinking we were done with elections and could take a few minutes to celebrate a pro-woman administration and a Democratically-controlled Congress that appears ready to embrace pro-choice and pro-equality measures? Sorry, my Sisters. Elections are never over when they are over.

Candidates are already gearing up for 2010 and 2012. It’s critically important that feminists review the lessons of 1992 and its parallels to 2008 so we can avoid repeating mistakes—and more urgently, so we can charge ahead with strategies that advance a bold vision of gender equality and justice.

After all, men have been making America’s political decisions for over 200 years now, and I don’t need to tell you it’s not a pretty picture. Women, especially those not afraid to identify themselves with the F-word, are the change we need. But whether women will be the change we get depends on whether we use the power we have.

For the one constant in politics is that every victory sows the seeds of the next defeat and every defeat sows the seeds of the next victory, unless eternal vigilance is applied. This means using a movement mentality that continually advances bold new ideas and keeps its grassroots watered.

Ideological Whiplash Sneaks Up
A quick look back: 1992’s “Year of the Woman” was deemed a transformational moment similar to 2008. The nation was ready for change, tired of Republican presidents who took us into war while taking the economy downhill, and disgusted with wedge-issue politics that kept the country fighting about abortion and homosexuality when people were hurting from bread-and-butter woes. Women voters were especially outraged (read that, “activated”) over the Senate’s treatment of Anita Hill after she accused the eminently unqualified conservative Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment.

“Year of the Woman.” Then, Boom! The Right came roaring back.

Then, Boom! In 1994, the right came roaring back with the Gingrich Revolution and ultra-conservative “Contract for America,” (or as I prefer, a “Contract on America”). Republicans, mostly of the hard right variety, grabbed a net gain of eight Senate and 54 House seats.

Karan English, a pro-choice Democrat supported by Emily’s List, typifies what happened. English was elected to Congress from Northern Arizona’s swing District 6 in 1992. Though backed even by “Mr. Conservative,” the late Senator Barry Goldwater (who in his inimitable way said that “all good Christians should kick Jerry Falwell in the ass”), she was defeated in 1994 by Limbaugh-like Republican J.D. Hayworth.

Far from being passé, conservative political strength regained its headlock on Congress and the national psyche. This scared the bejeezus out of Bill Clinton’s still wet-behind-the-ears administration. In Texas, George W. Bush defeated Governor Ann Richards that same year, setting the stage for his 2000 presidential win, which by any measure has been devastating to 20th century advances in civil rights, women’s rights and reproductive justice.

It’s tempting to credit the likes of Gingrich and Bush’s spinmeister Karl Rove with right wing resurgence. But this ideological whiplash could have been prevented if only the women who turned out to vote in droves in 1992 had returned to the polls in 1994. Instead, women demonstrated voting power, and then too many vanished from the political firmament. The right, on the other hand, never, ever goes away.

In 2008, Ann Kirkpatrick reclaimed English’s district (now redrawn Dist. 1) for the Democrats by beating extreme right-wing incumbent Rick Renzi, again securing even some conservative endorsements. But will she keep the seat in 2010?

Get Serious About Gender Parity
Power unused is power useless. It takes sustained ethical use of power to get and secure liberty. Yes, women friends, we must understand that power is not inherently bad; it’s our responsibility to use power in the service of feminist values both in political office and in influencing policy decisions. Feminists must get a bigger vision for feminist and female equality in making public policy, and mean business about achieving it by date certain. NOW has begun to identify what that agenda includes. My take is that we all know it when we see it, so don’t let the lack of a document agreed to by every women’s group keep us from taking action without delay.

It’s true that gender politics has become more nuanced, as the paradox of faux feminist Sarah Palin illustrates. But that makes it even more important to support women (and men–see below) who explicitly and publicly support feminist values and policies. That’s not necessarily partisan, incidentally, since the Republican party was first to support the ERA. it’s all about who wields voting power most effectively, and the Republicans’ shift to the right because of right-wing organizing precinct by precinct is yet one more cautionary tale.

Deal A Three-Handed Strategy
This three-point strategy will get us our rightful half of the policy-making pie: 1) elect women with feminist values; 2) promote women for appointive office, and 3) mobilize movement and grassroots support for policies that will secure equality and justice for women.

1. Elect women (and men) with feminist values
Women make up only 17 percent of the U.S. Senate and 16 percent of the House. At the current rate of increase, it will take 70 years to reach parity. Personally, I can’t wait that long. It’s well past time for women to have parity in all decision making bodies, especially the reins of political power. So let’s set specific goals and hold ourselves accountable to reach them:

  • 50 percent feminist legislators by 2015. They may be male or female, but all must proactively support progress toward gender equality in a legislative agenda and in electoral office. It’s going to take both men and women to make change, so why not bring men into the effort for gender parity?
  • Full gender parity in Congress and state legislatures by 2025. If nations as diverse as Sweden (47 percent) and Rwanda (56 percent) can do it, why can’t the U.S.? Not surprisingly, the quality of decisions improves when women exceed the UN’s “critical mass” definition, or 30 percent, and, according to the World Bank, the more women in parliament, the less corruption. So everybody benefits.

2. Promote women for appointive office
Essentially the same commitments apply as in the electoral strategy. Think about the judiciary, for example. Dahlia Lithwick speculates on what we mean when we say there should be more female judges and why it matters. But suffice it to remember how Sandra Day O’Connor cobbled together majorities to hold onto Roe v Wade’s ever-diminishing thread during her tenure. Multiply this by cabinet posts, and local, state and federal commissions, and the impact is exponential.

Go for it. Seek out an appointment. It’s also a good way to get your feet wet and prepare to run for office yourself.

3. Mobilize movement and grassroots support for women’s equality and justice
We need to dramatically beef up support and encouragement for women officials at all levels of government through a strategic coalition of the burgeoning existing organizations dedicated to recruiting and training women to run for office. The infrastructure is there, but could easily be leveraged with some forward looking leadership.

Get us our rightful half.
In regard to taking on issues, here’s a reproductive justice example that applies, too, and to any measure. In 1992, a raft of state anti-choice ballot initiatives were soundly defeated. One I had to contend with in Arizona as CEO of Planned Parenthood was rejected by a whopping 67 per cent to 33 per cent, causing pundits and pro-choicers alike to declare that the nation had decided, once and for all, that abortion should be legal (as if once-and-for-all could ever be in a democracy). Well, in 2008, South Dakotans faced and defeated a ballot measure almost identical to the one rejected in Arizona in 1992. Now, several states are mounting draconian egg-as-persons initiatives for 2010.

We should change the dynamic by mobilizing supporters around initiatives like the Prevention First Act and the Freedom of Choice Act at state and federal levels.

Activists need to act, so let’s act from the power of setting our own agenda rather than reacting to attacks from the other side.

Hard Times Make Good Chances
Gender parity won’t solve all problems, but women’s lives will be significantly better and our laws more just if we commit to carrying out these three strategies.

The current economic mess is the best opportunity we will ever have to hasten the pace of change toward gender parity, since people are more open to breaking boundaries during chaotic times. But like any profound change, it won’t just happen. It’s up to women to elect, promote, and mobilize our way to equality and justice.

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.


Like many women who identify themselves as feminists, Kathleen Turner and I are divided in our presidential candidate pick. We spent 18 months collaborating on her just-released memoir, Send Yourself Roses: Thoughts on My Life, Love, and Leading Roles.

During that time, we talked about politics quite a bit, because she sees herself as an activist as well as an actor. I rolled my eyes last summer when she announced to me that she’d decided to support Barack Obama and was going stumping for him in North Carolina’s August heat.

I thought it a naïve choice, but Obama had the good sense to invite her to a meeting with a few prominent women and had asked directly for her support. She’d been impressed, as I was when I first met him soon after his 2004 election to the U.S. Senate. And like many people, I was thrilled that the Democratic candidate lineup looked more like America, whereas Republicans were still mired in cookie-cutter white male political hegemony. Nevertheless, it seemed at the time that Hillary Clinton was surging to an unassailable lead for her party’s nomination, so I didn’t need to press too hard on Kathleen to join me in supporting her.


Aldous Huxley said, “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.” Apparently that holds true for women too. Because on reflection, the one truth I should know from my four decades in politics from the lowliest local grassroots to the highest halls of power in Washington is that today’s unassailable fact is often tomorrow’s untruth. Things are true until suddenly there is a new Moment and they are not true, whereupon everyone does a quick reality shift.

The reality shifted when Obama and Clinton became locked in nose-to-nose competition for the nomination after the Super Tuesday primaries. That wasn’t easily predicted last summer, but we should have known something would happen to create a new truth. In addition to the more predictable movement by African-Americans toward Obama, many feminist women have lined up with him, not as a movement or with any particular strategy, but one by one. The “truth” that the women’s vote would surely line up behind the first viable woman candidate for president? Out the window. This is one lesson of history that does appear ready to repeat itself because women have never learned it: power unused is power useless.


Women fought over 70 years to get the right to vote, if you count from the 1848 Seneca Falls convention—or 144 years if you count from the nation’s founding year when Abigail Adams implored her husband John to “remember the ladies”. In 1920, when the women’s right to vote was finally ratified as the 19th amendment to the Constitution, it presented a big historic Moment.

But instead of consolidating its gains into an agenda and strategy and using that newfound political power collectively, the women’s suffrage movement dissipated. What was left morphed into League of Women Voters’ style voter education.

Now I am personally indebted to the League of Women Voters because they taught me much of what I needed to know about how the government works when I was a fledgling activist. But instead of the fiery advancement of women represented by the suffrage movement, the good grey nonpartisan, everyone-should-vote-as-she-wishes approach squandered what could have become mass voting power for change and the elevation of women to our just portion of leadership roles.

Opponents of women’s suffrage won the war even though they lost its defining battle: among other points, anti-suffragists had argued that women didn’t need the vote because they’d just vote like their husbands anyway.

Turns out that’s pretty much what women did.

Power ceded. Battle won; war for full equality and justice lost. No—given away freely. In exchange for—nothing.


That is, until a gender gap started to appear and get defined as such in the 1980 presidential election. In 1992, the Moment dubbed the Year of the Woman, women voted in record numbers. For one thing, the Webster decision rolling back Roe v Wade awakened them to a threat not previously perceived. They voted for Bill Clinton and a change from the Bush/Reagan past. Women were elected to Congress in record numbers. Politicians started paying attention. Women’s endorsements were courted.

Two years later when the midterm elections came along, those same women stayed home and we got the Gingrich Revolution, the Contract on America, and the crushingly sexist ascendancy of the religious right. Since then, many organizations devoted to recruiting and electing women candidates have arisen. They work hard. They have scored some successes, yet the U. S. remains 67th among nations in women elected to federal and state legislative office. At this rate, it could be another 70 years before we have parity in Congress, and who knows how long before we have a woman president if Hillary loses.

Will women give this Moment away freely once again? Will we sacrifice our potential power as voters to another certainly worthy cause of electing the first African American president? Will African-American women, long the most reliable Democratic voters, choose their racial identity over their gender identity in deciding where to use the power of their votes? Will the majority of all women opt for an amorphous message of hope because it’s the new new thing, rather than dancing with the woman who brung us to this Moment of opportunity to wield the power of women’s votes for an extraordinarily well-qualified woman whose track record indicates she’ll prioritize issues women have complained for years get overlooked by the men, even progressive ones?


I credit feminism and feminists for doing many good things, but one thing we have failed miserably at is teaching each succeeding cohort to embrace the power and the responsibility of joining together as a movement to achieve goals that particularly improve the lot of women, just as every other group does and is expected to do.

We progressive women, we feminists who are activists in a thousand worthy social causes, might decide to squander this Moment and justify in a thousand ways why it’s our right to decide as individuals when we choose our candidate.

Well, yes, it is our right. But is it the sum total of our responsibility? Is it enough to really, really like Obama? Is it enough to flee from Hillary Clinton because of, say, one vote we didn’t like (even though her opponent never had to put his vote where his anti-war voice now is)? Or because her husband lacks impulse control?

In my mind, no. And I believe history will agree with me when feminist activists 70 years from now—yes, friends, at the rate we’re going there will still be a need for feminist activists then—look back at this year. I believe they too will say, “No, it was not enough.”

Now I argue with Kathleen publicly and privately, though still cordially and respectfully as women are prone to do. Soon enough we will know if women missed our Moment again.

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.