Gloria Feldt, author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change the Way We Think About Power, is comfortable with controversy. As president and CEO of Planned Parenthood from 1996-2005, she went up against an Arizona ballot initiative that would have outlawed all abortion in the state.
Gloria Feldt: Our constituents were terrified. They just knew this was going to pass. I said this will be the best thing that ever happened to us and so, to fast forward, sure enough we ended up defeating it by 67% vote. That was the highest percentage that ever voted against a ballot initiative in the history of the state.
One of the “power tools” Feldt’s book offers women for overcoming second-class citizen status in life and work is called Embrace Controversy – the idea being that controversy is a powerful political force. If you can ride the wave of controversy and turn it to your advantage, you’ve got the momentum to effect real change.
While embracing controversy in any form is a challenging first step, Feldt argues that women need to go further. Rather than waiting passively for their rights to be challenged (by which time the momentum against them may already be overwhelming), she says women need to set the agenda – becoming political thermostats rather than thermometers. This may mean creating controversy where none exists. Take, for example, the late Katherine Graham’s approach to changing a sexist custom in Washington DC high society, as described by (the also late and equally controversial) Christopher Hitchens:
Well, all it takes is a bit of resistance. Until relatively recently in Washington, it was the custom at diplomatic and Georgetown dinners for the hostess to invite the ladies to withdraw, leaving the men to port and cigars and high matters of state. And then one evening in the 1970s, at the British Embassy, the late Katharine Graham refused to get up and go. There was nobody who felt like making her, and within a day, the news was all over town. Within a very short time, everybody had abandoned the silly practice.
A New Wave of “Anti-Women Legislation”
Women’s rights, especially around the issue of abortion, are often a zero-sum political game. Those who oppose abortion tend to oppose it absolutely, viewing the “right” to an abortion as legally sanctioned homicide. Those who view abortion as a women’s rights issue believe that the state has no right to intervene in the private, personal matter of reproduction. This impasse is the cause of endless legislative battles, some direct, others more insidious. In the latter category falls recent legislation in many states that would require women to undergo a medically unnecessary transvaginal ultrasound before being approved for an abortion.
Feldt describes this as part of a new generation of “anti-woman legislation” that seeks “to intrude upon the physician, patient relationship and to make women go through shaming procedures before they’re able to get an abortion.”
For Feldt, this is an example of what happens when women’s rights advocates let their guard down long enough to allow the other side to regroup. T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia)’s brilliant strategy on the Turkish front in World War I might serve as a useful analogy for the more proactive, agenda-setting approach – instead of engaging in deadlocked, protracted ground battles with the Turkish army (like the endless trench warfare on the Western Front), Lawrence and small raiding parties would appear out of nowhere, destroying the Turkish military railways and raiding supply cars in unlikely locations. This kept the opposition guessing, undersupplied, and constantly scrambling to defend an impossibly vast frontier.
“You’ve got to know how to play a good defense,” says Feldt, “but ultimately it’s the offense that wins the game.”
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