January 24, 2012 | Politics and Leadership

Woman of the Week: Gloria Feldt

The former president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and author of "No Excuses" says women need to embrace power - and fast.

Woman of the Week: Gloria Feldt

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. Spurred by her research into women’s status in electoral politics, she describes what she believes is truly holding women back, confronting some uncomfortable notions along the way. The book mixes social science and economic data with history, personal anecdotes and insights from accomplished women leaders big and small, and ends with a set of “Power Tools” that woman can use to seize the moment. The week of the 39th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, we talked with her about the current state of reproductive freedom in America and how women can transform their relationship with power.

What led you to this issue of women and power?

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.

What did you discover in researching writing your book?

Well, it’s not surprising that women often have ambivalent relationship with power, because we have borne the brunt of its negative aspects. We have been discriminated against, we have been raped, we have had a lot of bad things happen to us because people have had power over us. And we don’t want that kind of power. 

I realized that we have to encourage women to change our definition of power, from an oppressive “power-over” to an expansive, and positive kind of power that I call “power-to.” And really, in that moment, I decided that that was what I needed to do with the rest of my life, was try to help women get to that point. Because once I would talk to women about changing that definition of power they would say ‘Oh yes, I want that kind,” and their faces would literally relax. Because power-to is what lets you innovate, make the world a better place for you and your family and your kid.

Fortunately, younger women are far less ambivalent about power, and you have more young men who were raised by women like me, so they share the values of having women in the workplace and women in office, and that’s very positive.

Speaking of political office, 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?

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.

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

I always say that 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.

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?

• "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.
• "The Handmaiden’s Tale," by Margaret Atwood
• Walter Truett Anderson’s "Reality Isn’t What it Used to Be" is still one of the most enlightening political science books I’ve ever read
• Gail Collins’ "When Everything Changed." See Power Tip #1: Know your history and you can create the future of your choice.