Gloria Feldt Helps Women Embrace Their Power

Gloria Feldt talks about her book giving women the tools and insights they need to achieve parity at home and in the workplace.

by Sue Tomchin

Gloria Feldt’s life has been nothing less than extraordinary. She has evolved from teen mom to president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America to best-selling author and commentator. Along the way, she has had more than her share of experience in understanding women’s leadership and the things that keep women from embracing their own power. Through her book, No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power (Seal Press), out in paperback in March for Women’s History Month, she hopes to give women the tools and insights they need to achieve the parity at home and in the workplace that continues to elude them.

How would you assess what is happening now in relation to women’s reproductive rights?

GF: It’s the best and the worst of times. There have been tremendous strides. It was during my tenure that we began the initiative to get contraceptives covered by insurance plans. Now insurance coverage is state of the art. It’s what people’s expectations are. That said, the reproductive rights movement, like all movements, has a hard time learning the lessons of history. I think that any time you stop being proactive and stop having a constant flow of proactive measures you run the risk of going backward. You can never stop. The best of times is that essentially they’ve done a good job of getting contraceptive coverage and family planning services in general into the health care plan that was passed by Congress. The fight will continue to keep it in there. The good news is that everyone, except the Catholic bishops, now sees it as the state of the art, a given that insurance should cover contraception. I think the battle is going to be won.

As former president of Planned Parenthood, how do you view the recent controversies about contraceptive coverage?

GF: There will always be issues, because there are different worldviews. This has never been about contraception or abortion. It is about women’s place in the world and the nature and purpose of human sexuality. It’s about power and control. Making contraceptives readily available to women has completely changed the balance of power from a gender perspective, so it’s not surprising that there will continue to be these battles. We only lose when we fail to recognize what the battle is about. We need to keep it on a high moral plain. Women’s health is very important, but it isn’t only about women’s health; it’s also about whether women can actually have a life that they choose.

In No Excuses, you talk about women making extraordinary leaps forward, only to lose momentum and relinquish power again. How can we change that behavior?

GF: That is exactly why I wrote my book. The thing we have to understand is we can only change society by changing it ourselves, by recognizing what’s happening and being intentional in making changes. I think very often there’s a mistaken idea that things just happen in a culture. Nothing ever just happens. People have to have an intention about making them happen. For example, we wouldn’t have had the birth control pill had it not been for Margaret Sanger’s vision. She felt that if there was a simple pill that women could take that was not connected with the sexual act, that couples would have more satisfying sex and women would be able to determine when they had children. That started a generation before the pill came to be. Then there were some researchers who were willing to do the research.

We limit ourselves most when we don’t step up and take action, and not just when women’s advances are threatened. We must also continue to break boundaries where they exist and to take an expansive view of what the agenda must be for the future.
I think the women’s movement right now is lacking that kind of a centrifugal force. That may be OK, because there are so many young women coming up, and they are so adept at social media that they make things happen in spite of the fact that they ask: “Where’s the women’s movement?” Well, it’s everywhere now.

You meet a lot of women in your work in the women’s community. How do the older and younger generations differ in their views on power?

GF: The younger the woman, the more likely it is that she has been told from the very moment of birth that she can do anything and be anything. The more you hear that in your life, the more you believe it. I find more young women who are quite wonderfully fearless. But I also find many younger women who have the same fears. For example, I did a book reading recently in my apartment house. Most of the crowd was pushing on middle age or older. There was this one young woman who was an aspiring actress. She was barely 20. She literally was curled up in a fetal position in a comfortable chair in the corner. I always ask everybody: What brought you here? She said that she knew I had written the book with Kathleen Turner called Send Yourself Roses. She was interested in acting and came because she felt it was a good idea to learn more about power.

I always ask women, “On a scale of one to 10, how do you think about power?” One is I don’t like the idea, it’s frightening and has negative connotations; 10 is I love it, give me more, I can’t have enough; and five is in the middle, meaning I’m somewhat ambivalent about it, but realize it’s something I have to deal with. This young actress put herself down at a two or a three. It was so obvious she was struggling with talent she knew she had, yet she was terrified about going forward to use that talent to actually achieve what she thought were her goals. The two men in the room practically jumped on her and said, “What are you talking about? You can do anything. Don’t let the naysayers do that to you.” The women in the room were all sympathetic. They all understood that struggle.

The thing is, it’s hard to change a culture while you are living in it. Girls, even today, even though are told they can be anything and do anything, are also still socialized much more than boys to care first about what other people think about them. Are they nice? Are they good? Are they pretty? That’s a really big challenge we have, not that we want girls to be told, “Don’t be nice,” but we want being nice to other people to become a positive value for everybody. Embracing your own power and living with intention can also be a value that everybody shares.

What roles can older women play in mentoring younger women?

GF: When I spoke with young women in my research for No Excuses, what I kept hearing was—as much as there’s a myth out there that they don’t want to hear what the older women think—“We want to hear your stories. We want to know what was hard for you, how you dealt with certain challenges. We’re struggling, too.” I think that telling your story is incredibly important. Stories are our truth and incredibly powerful.

I should step back for a minute and say that what I really wanted No Excuses to be is a positive call to action, because as women we can be awfully hard on ourselves. There are so many books out there that tell us what’s wrong with us and what we can’t, don’t and shouldn’t do. I wanted this book to say: “Yes, you can. You have the power in your hands, and here are some very specific and concrete tips and tools that will help you get there.”

The second thing older women can do, when we’re talking about the workplace, is not just to mentor young women. The latest research from Catalyst shows that we actually need something stronger than mentoring. Mentoring tends to be listening to and empathizing with another person, maybe giving them a little advice. Women really need to make it to the next level: sponsorship. That’s what the men do for each other. They don’t just mentor each other. They say, “There’s a job coming up. Are you interested? Let me help you get there.” What I think we can do across the generations is to sponsor younger women. If we have walked through a door, we can help a younger woman to come through it with us.

By the same token, older women can learn from younger women. We can all learn something from each other. How did I learn about social media? Young women took me by the hand and said, “You need to have a Facebook page.” They set it up for me. Now you can’t get me off of Facebook!

In your book, you express frustration that younger women don’t know more about women’s history. Why is this important, and how would that help them moving forward?

GF: If you don’t know your history, you can’t create the future of your choice. If we don’t know where we’ve come from, it’s awfully hard to figure out where it is we want to go. Our history is what forms us in so many ways. If we don’t understand history, we can’t understand where there are injustices that we need to fix. We also can’t understand why we have certain problems. It’s a very helpful tool. I also think it’s very heartwarming and heartening to hear other people’s stories. We learn from them.

Why, with women having come so far professionally and otherwise, do so many teen girls and young women still choose to be defined by the approval of the boys and men in their lives?

GF: Yes, it’s awfully hard to get away from the Walt Disney pink princess approach. I don’t understand why it is so attractive to girls, except that it is clear when they see the Walt Disney princesses that this princess is getting a lot of external validation from the beautiful clothing and a sense of power from being on the arm of the prince (a powerful man). We really do need to think carefully about the very early acculturation of young girls and teach them how to value, love and appreciate themselves for who they are, whatever they are, whatever their talents and physical attributes are.

So are you telling young women not to have a special man in their lives?

GF: No, not at all. Know who you are first and appreciate who you are first and meet that man on equal terms.

What is holding women back from claiming their financial power?

GF: It is timidity about negotiating, for one thing. “The half-million-dollar mistake,” as I call it in my book, comes primarily from women not negotiating their entry salaries as aggressively as men do. Future salaries get built from where you start from. The same holds true for promotions. Men assume they are qualified even when they are not. They are much more willing to toot their own horns. Women need to get some horn-tooting lessons, too, and not feel worried about it.

It isn’t as though people are born knowing this. These are things you have to learn going through life. I never negotiated a salary until I was in my 50s. When I took the job with Planned Parenthood in Arizona, there were two women and one man among the finalists. After I accepted the position at the salary they offered me and I got to Arizona, I learned the man had been offered the job, but declined it, asking for more money. They offered him $5,000 more and he still didn’t take the job. In 1978, on the salary they were offering me, I can tell you that $5,000 was a great big old chunk of change. It never even occurred to me to negotiate. I was so glad that I was going to be able to work in a job that I wanted to have.

I think it’s about knowing your own worth, knowing your own value and appreciating your own value. We’ve had millennia of being told we don’t have as much value. We’re still working our way out of some of that. We need to give ourselves a good talking to. You have to practice.

Money has been a boy thing, but it’s not anymore. Women now control 85 percent of the consumer spending, but we don’t act like it. That is huge power if we were to coalesce ourselves around any one issue. I think we just saw that happen when the Susan G. Komen Foundation withdrew funding from Planned Parenthood in January. Women said, “I’m not raising money and I’m not giving money until you change your policy,” and it worked.

What else holds women back from embracing their power?

GF: One of the classic examples is not about the workplace, but about politics, yet the same thing holds true throughout. When I talked to the heads of the various organizations that help women run for office, it didn’t matter what kind, they all said the same thing: A man will get up in the morning and look at himself in the mirror and say, “I’m going to run for Senate.” He will not question whether he is qualified or whether he is entitled to do it. He just does it. A woman may get up in the morning and say, I’m really interested in what’s going on politically, but first I need to learn something about it. First I should take some courses. First I should maybe work in some campaigns to get some experience. By the time she gets around to running, that man is already the committee chair, deciding what bills are going to come up. It’s the same thing in the workplace; there’s a quote from Kermit the Frog that I use to start one of the chapters, and it’s something like, “If you wait until all the toads and frogs have croaked the last, you will have missed the point.” Women need to be careful about missing the point. Don’t be afraid to speak.

What are some of the positive things you see going on with women around the world?

GF: I think women in the U.S. have not yet done some of the technologically innovative things that seem to be coming from women who are immigrants here. One of the challenges I would like to issue to women is: Who is going to be the new female Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates? It’s great that Sheryl Sandberg is the CEO of Facebook, but she didn’t create it. What gives you the most influence and clout is to create a technology that literally changes how people think and behave. I want to see several of those women in the next generation.

We can also learn from our sisters in other countries who start from a place of much less power and much fewer financial resources than we have in the U.S. One of the examples I use in No Excuses is the Liberian market women. They were sick and tired of the civil war that had been going on for years in their country. They had no money, no weapons and no political power. Yet, they were the women who sold the goods in the marketplace, so they decided to strike. Every day they went into the marketplace and did not open their stalls, but they sang and they prayed. They didn’t sell any goods. They didn’t have sex with their husbands. They were not doing anything until the dictator was gone and the war ended. It took them well over a year and huge sacrifices.

We are so lucky in this country. We don’t know all of the resources available to us, because it’s hard to the see the ocean you’re swimming in every day. We need to step back and appreciate how much power we do have and use it for good. The opportunity women have right now is transformational in terms of women’s lives, men’s lives, the economy, the environment. I think women’s leadership is what the world is crying out for now. Let’s step up to the plate.

Do you think that because women see things differently, they can bring new approaches to difficult problems?

GF: Yes, it’s sometimes good to be an outsider. I think this is something that, as Jews, we have learned over the ages. Look at how much innovation has come from the Jewish people. Count up the Nobel Prizes, especially in the area of science and things that have changed the culture. That’s what I call using what you’ve got. You can see things, you can see things that people who are more “normal” or at least “the norm” can’t always see. I grew up in little towns in Texas where sometimes our family was sometimes the only Jewish family. As a teenager, that was a very difficult thing. But as an adult I came to realize how valuable that experience was. It allowed me to see things that other people couldn’t see. It allowed me to have empathy for other people who had been discriminated against. It allowed me to be more open to innovation and change. I came to value that experience enormously.

We are at this incredible place in history; I think now is the moment for women to use [their unique perspective]. In another generation, it will just be routine that women have some of the positions they have now and we’ll lose some of our competitive edge. We have to be very intentional about what we do. I come back to where we started. It’s all about intention.

(Originally published in spring 2012.)

Gloria Feldt's Nine Power Tools:

Power Tool #1: Know your history and you can create the future of your choice.

Power tool #2: Define your own terms—first, before anyone else does.
Whoever sets the terms of the debate usually wins it. By redefining power not as power-over but as power-to, we shift from a culture of oppression to a culture of positive intention to make things better for

Power-to Tool #3: Use What You’ve Got.
What you need is almost always there, in your hands or within reach, if you can only see it and have the courage to use it.

Power Tool #4: Embrace Controversy.
It gives you a platform. It nudges you to clarity. It is a teacher, a source of strength, and your friend, especially if you are trying to make change.

Power Tool #5: Carpe the Chaos.
Change creates chaos. Today’s changing gender roles and economic turbulence may feel chaotic and confusing. But chaos means boundaries become more fluid. People open up to new ways of thinking. You can have unprecedented opportunities you might not otherwise have had. Carpe the chaos, for in chaos is opportunity.

Power Tool #6: Wear the shirt.
Your gut-level commitment to what you decide to do with your one “wild and precious life”is a potent power tool. What’s happening and why? What’s your vision of what you think should happen? How can you make it happen? Go stand in your power and walk with intention to make it so.

Power Tool #7: Take Action; Create a Movement.
Things don’t just happen; people make them happen in a systematic way. “Don’t agonize, organize!” as labor movement leaders often say. Apply the movement-building principles of Sister Courage, and you will realize your vision.

Power Tool #8: Employ every medium.
Use personal, social, and traditional media every step of the way. Use the medium of your own voice. And think of each of these power tools as a medium to be pressed into the service of your power-to.

Power Tool #9: Tell your story.
Your story is your truth and your truth is your power. Others need and want to hear it as you want and need to hear theirs.

Copyright ©2010 Gloria Feldt