Interview: Gloria Feldt

by Danielle Cantor

 photo by Maryanne Russell

photo by Maryanne Russell

The next time I pick up a pack of birth control pills at the pharmacy, I should really send Gloria Feldt a thank-you note. If not for her call to “fight forward” while she was at the helm of Planned Parenthood, insurance coverage for contraceptives would not be guaranteed – and I’d be shelling out a lot of money every month. Feldt brought phenomenal growth leading Planned Parenthood affiliates in West Texas and Arizona, then serving as president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America from 1996 to 2005. Under her leadership, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund grew into the largest nonpartisan pro-choice action fund.

Feldt was a teenage mother from rural Texas - hers was the only Jewish family in town - who grew up to be an activist, author and leading expert in women's rights, health, sex, media, leadership and politics. (She blogs about these and other topics on her own popular webspace, Heartfeldt, at www.GloriaFeldt.com.) She is a sought-after speaker and has appeared on most major media outlets, both in the news and commenting on it. Her commentary has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, ELLE, and Ms. magazines, among many others, and in countless online news sources including Salon, The Huffington Post and Daily Kos. Vanity Fair magazine named Feldt one of America's "top 200 women legends, leaders, and trailblazers." Glamour honored her as Woman of the Year. She was one of Women's e-News' 2007 "21 Leaders for the 21st Century." A fellow of the International Leadership Forum, she serves on the Women’s Media Center board of directors, on the board of the Jewish Women’s Archive, and advisory boards of Our Bodies, Ourselves, Women’s Internet History Project, SheWrites.com, and Hygeia PCP.

Feldt has authored four books – most recently, No Excuses, 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power (Seal Press, Sept. 2010). The book asserts that there is no reason for women today not to own their power, and outlines nine “power tools” to help them achieve power in relationships and at work, and as political and cultural change-makers.

When you say that we need to “redefine power on our own terms,” what does that mean in a practical sense? How can we put this into practice in our jobs? Our homes? Our communities?

GF: I think that very often women have in the backs of our minds an idea of what power is that has negative connotations. And because of that, we resist owning our own power to its fullest extent. What we think about power is the traditional idea of “power over” – somebody has power over us. The flip of that is having power over someone else – and if we don’t like having power over us, why would we want to do that someone else? When we redefine it at “power to,” suddenly it becomes a positive. Women say, “Yes, I want to be able to do that – to have power to make life better for my family, myself, my community.” And they realize that “power to” is an infinite resource – the more there is, the more there is. So “power over” is oppression; “power to” is leadership and responsibility. And that’s why it’s important to redefine it on our own terms.

The nine “power tools” outlined in your newest book: Did you sit down and conceive them, or had they been building over time?

GF: Basically it took 18 years to write and a lifetime on the frontlines to learn. These nine ways are all tools and techniques that I learned on the frontlines of working in social justice movements and running organizations, but they’re not just my own anecdotes; I interviewed women all over the country to find out how they’d done it and what worked for them, and I also did considerable research into the history of the women’s movement and the current status of women.

If the book had to be “Three Ways,” which would make the cut?

GF: That’s a really hard question! I feel that “define your own terms” is the most essential. I would also say that the concept of using what you’ve got – the resources we need are usually there if we’re willing and able to see them, and have the courage to use them. Very often we don’t listen to our own instincts. I know the worst mistakes I’ve ever made were when I didn’t listen to the little voice inside me that says, “No, don’t do that.” And the third would be… Wow, this is really hard – I believe in learning to embrace controversy and see it as your friend. It gives you an opportunity to clarify your own values, and if it creates conflict it just means people have to clarify theirs.

In talking to women all over the U.S. about power in their own lives, did you hear any stories or meet anyone who really floored you?

GF: I met so many, of all ages. In the book I profiled some of the ones who impressed me the most. It’s not so much being blown away as it is seeing the incredible will among some women – and so often it comes out of adversity. There was Julie Gilbert, who was an executive with Best Buy: In the same day was told by a young employee that she was a role model, and also told by an older male supervisor that the women employees hated her because she was too successful. She thought it through and realized that in trying to operate in a male environment, women had isolated themselves to the point that they couldn’t reach out to each other as a support system. She says they were “demobilized by their own fear.” She took that and created a process for leadership development for the women in the company. She convinced the company to implement it by telling them they would increase female market share, which they did, but her goal was to recruit more women and make it a workplace where they could be successful.

Are there any moments in your life that, looking back, you could have lived… more powerfully?

GF: So many! While many people look at my career trajectory at Planned Parenthood and think I’ve been so powerful, I always told the story as though I was a little boat being carried along by the current and doing what was needed of me. And after I left Planned Parenthood, I was persuaded by my publisher that chronicling a powerful woman’s life in my next book would be a great service to other women. They wanted me to write Kathleen Turner’s biography, “Send Yourself Roses.” And in the process of writing that book, what I foolishly didn’t realize until it was too late was that my agent and publisher had used me, and my relationship with Kathleen, to reel her in. They wanted her celebrity. Our contract was for a 50/50 authorship, and Kathleen was completely collegial – I can’t say enough good things about working with her – but as soon as I turned in the manuscript it was as if I didn’t exist. That confrontation with reality changed me; it made me realize the pattern I’d had all my life. And that’s what led me to write No Excuses – I became fascinated with the question of women’s relationship with power.

How did your family react when you became pregnant at 16?

GF: My family was very upset, needless to say. But in those days, you got married. And I really thought that’s what I wanted. My family had made assumptions that I would go to college, but still – they lived in small towns in Texas. Having a boyfriend, getting married and having babies was the norm in rural Texas in the 1950s. And I wanted to be “normal” – I didn’t want to be the one kid whose parents said she had to go to college. It was a very conflicted time. I was certainly going through an adolescent rebellion, even if I didn’t realize it at the time.

Did being a teenage mother inform the way you parented your teens?

GF: My children were young kids in the 1960s and ‘70s, when there was a civil rights movement that touched me very deeply. As I realized that African-Americans should have civil rights, I also realized women should too. That’s what led me into working with Planned Parenthood. What informed my parenting of my kids when they were adolescents was the desire for them to think about what they wanted for their lives in total before they started making decisions about starting a family. It came from a feminist perspective – I wanted my daughters to have an equal place at life’s table, and for my son to respect that place.

What were you most proud of during your tenure at Planned Parenthood?

GF: I’m most proud of having turned the organizational mindset from being constantly reactive to having a strong proactive strategy, and creating a 25-year vision for the future. And concretely, that translates into having passed legislation that requires insurance companies to cover contraception, and also to bring some new technologies to the marketplace so that women had more reproductive choices. We got emergency contraception approved, then approved to go over–the-counter, and made it much more accessible to women. I’m also very proud of the fact that during the time I was an affiliate CEO, we were constantly growing, serving more and more women. Even in the worst of times we were finding ways to grow.

 Glorida Feldt makes a special appearance with the band  Betty  at the 92nd Street Y in New York City in 2012.  Photo by Marnie Joyce via Flickr.

Glorida Feldt makes a special appearance with the band Betty at the 92nd Street Y in New York City in 2012. Photo by Marnie Joyce via Flickr.

What have been your greatest frustrations - as head of the organization, and around reproductive rights in general?

GF: My greatest frustration – it’s a challenge, really – is that it’s hard to keep a movement moving. It’s easy to think that enough has been accomplished, and I feel that it’s important to keep doing new things, otherwise the movement starts to atrophy. It’s frustrating when people don’t want to come along.

Where would you like to see family planning in 50 years, and how likely are those dreams to come true?

GF: I’d like to see some incredibly wonderful, totally natural organic, safe & effective contraception. I’d like to see the Freedom of Choice Act passed into law to guarantee reproductive self-determination as a civil right. To do that we’d have to change the way our culture deals with women. We’d have to get women into power. We need to change some values in the culture so women are properly valued. And that would translate into the healthcare aspect of family planning – it being something everybody has access to, and the recognition that it’s not a one-size-fits-all thing. And I’d like to see better technology. Abortion services should be just a part of women’s healthcare, period. I’d like for OB-Gyns to stand up and be brave – the medical profession could do a lot toward making that happen.

Are you able to make sense of, or peace with, the paradox of conservative women who oppose reproductive choice?

GF: That’s one of the most interesting things happening now. At the time I wrote No Excuses, Sarah Palin was already in the mix. I said she created cognitive dissonance about what feminism is and what women in politics are like. I think there’s a now a big challenge, and progressive women are going to need every one of my “power tools” to figure out the next step. I think they can learn something from Sarah Palin and the “mama grizzlies”; we need to realize that if there’s going to be a progressive agenda that continues to advance women, progressive women will have be much more aggressive about building their political base. They need to not play too nice. Sarah Palin does it; Christine O’Donnell doesn’t care if she makes sense, she just goes out there and does it. And progressives need to do the same. They need to also be very careful to employ every medium; to use the media effectively to get their voices, their stories, their words, their convictions – and their proposals for solving the problems of our country – heard.

What did you learn about power and success from your relatives who were immigrants to the U.S. - Jewish, in the South?

GF: You may have noticed that I dedicated the book to my father, who always told me, “You can do anything your pretty little head desires.” The first generation of immigrant parents had such drive to succeed and reap the benefits of living in a country where they could actually have the freedom to pursue their own dreams. And so – this is in the category of “use what you’ve got” – I had to become an adult to see that it was a good thing for me that I’d had the experience of being the only Jewish family in town. It taught me empathy and concern for other people who were viewed as outsiders. And I know that’s what led me to working in social justice movement. That and the Jewish imperative of tikkun olam – it’s incredibly important to me to repair the world.

You deal with young women a lot now, as a college professor: Do your observations leave you feeling optimistic or concerned about their futures as professionals, wives and mothers?

GF: I'm optimistic about their aspirations and sense of ability to accomplish their goals. At the same time, they do fret about how and when they are going to work parenthood into the mix. I tell them that the next wave of the feminist movement should be young women and men working together to create workplaces where both can have a life and earn a living.

What will successful women’s empowerment mean for domestic violence?

GF: Domestic violence is the embodiment of disempowerment for women. In my chapter titled "Secure £500 and a Womb of Your Own," I show why economic and reproductive justice are the two essential elements of any kind of power for women. When a woman owns her body so she can make her own childbearing decisions, and when she has the economic ability so she can support herself and her children, she has the wherewithal to leave an abusive partner.

(Originally published in winter 2010)