Interview: How to Be Self-Conscious

As the absurdity of right-wing political figures’ pathological obsession with women’s uteruses continues, many people ask why this is happening now and what to do about it. In this Woman of the Week interview with Anna Louie Sussman for the Women in the World Foundation, Gloria speaks about how women can act, using what we’ve got (that’s Power Tool #3) to embrace our power to insist on our right to our bodies, our right to financial stability.

The article, excerpted here, was originally published January 24, 2012, and can be read in full on the Women in the World website.

 

Everything you need to know about Gloria Feldt can be gleaned from her email signature: “Warmest Regards and No Excuses, Gloria.” Her superlative compassion and conviction, combined with her intelligence and charisma, have carried her from teenage motherhood in West Texas to a thirty-year career with the reproductive health provider and advocacy group Planned Parenthood Federation of America, which she directed from 1996 until 2005, when she resigned.

Her most recent book, No Excuses, examines women’s relationship to power with an honesty and nuance often glossed over in media discussions. We talked with her about the current state of reproductive freedom in America and how women can transform their relationship with power.

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Women in the World Foundation: What led you to this issue of women and power?

Gloria Feldt: In 2008, I was writing an article for Elle magazine about the many organizations that help women run for office. They are legion, and they raise millions of dollars,  but women are still less than half as likely to even think about running for office as men. What I found was that the problem is no longer that women have a hard time running: the doors are open. Voters trust women more, women are now as capable of raising money, and when they do run, they are just as likely to win.

But not enough of them are running, and so these groups, which do a variety of leadership training, haven’t moved the dial in the last 20 years. At the rate we were progressing, would take 70 years for women to reach parity in Congress. And in the workplace, Sheryl Sandberg has predicted it will take 500 years to reach parity at the upper echelons of the corporate world.

So I got obsessed, and I started researching the issue of women and power.

WWF: We now have an all-male presidential campaign, including a candidate who has stated he is anti-contraception. When and how did that view become mainstream?

GF: One thing that I outlined in [her 2004 book] The War on Choice is the connection between abortion, and contraception. Those who oppose abortion, by and large, are the same people. Now, 95% of Americans use contraception, so there’s some spread there. But the people who are the most virulently opposed to women having the right to choose to have an abortion, are the same people if you scratch the surface who are opposed to access to contraception, to comprehensive sex education.

The use of contraception is so widespread and so available that it’s very difficult to persuade people that there’s a threat to their contraception, so for that I’m grateful to the Rick Santorums for taking these radical, extremist stands. I’m grateful that one of his staffers sent an email saying women aren’t fit to be president. It really shows the link of his position with his thinking about women’s place in the world.

There are two things that women have to have to have any power: ownership of your own body, and money.  When you have those two things, you can become a full citizen, and achieve some kind of fairness and equality. Without those two things, you don’t have a chance.

WWF: How should women use their power, especially women who might not feel empowered because of barriers like poverty or lack of time?

GF: Nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something. You can’t save the entire world, but you can do something, even if it’s just sending one email a day, or gathering a few signatures, or posting an article on Facebook that you think is important and you want others to read. Everybody needs meaning and purpose; those are fundamental things that everyone is looking for.

People used to say, “It must be so difficult dealing with George W. Bush.” Well yes, that’s hard, but what’s really hard is keeping our own troops courageous, making sure our own that people have the courage and the vision to keep moving forward.

I can’t stress how strongly I feel that this is a moment in time that, if women are self-conscious –and I mean that in a positive sense – enough to recognize and really take hold of it, can not only make the world so much better for ourselves, but for men too, because they’re captive to these old stereotypes. There’s a reason for the reactions of the Rick Santorums; he’s right! We are changing the world, and in ways that are all to the good. But I always say, this may be a wonderful moment, but moments don’t last.

WWF: You draw on a wide range of source material, and have some really terrific quotes. Can you name a few books that have inspired you?

GF:

  • The Wizard of Oz is a very feminist book in its own way, and has valuable metaphors about courage and leadership.
  •  Ellen Chesler’s biography of [Planned Parenthood founder] Margaret Sanger helps me to understand all the many dynamics going on.