Empowering Women: Feminist Activist Gloria Feldt (taped) LIVE on Big Think
Gloria Feldt is the former president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power.
She is a frequent public speaker, lecturing at universities, civic and professional organizations, and national and international conferences on women, feminism, politics, leadership,media, and health. In addition to speaking on these topics, she tours with an intergenerational feminist panel, WomenGirlsLadies. She is a professor of practice at Arizona State University, where she teaches a course called “Women, Power, and Leadership.”
Feldt currently serves on the boards of the Women’s Media Center and the Jewish Women’s Archive, and on the Our Bodies, Ourselves advisory board.
Question: What is wrong with the way women tend to think about power?
Gloria Feldt: Well I don’t like to say something is wrong. It’s in fact, one of the things I didn’t want to do when I wrote my book, No Excuses, was to tell women to have another one of those books that says what’s wrong with women, women can’t, women don’t, women shouldn’t. I think we have way too many of those. I'm a practical activist. I'm very positive. I'm very optimistic. I think this is women’s moment. We can do so many things. We have so much power in our hands right now if we can see it and seize it and use it and that’s really my point. It’s that this is that kind of a moment and so I wanted to give women some very practical power tools. Now in order to get there and to use these power tools what I've found when I talked with women because what really got me started on this obsession that I have now about women’s relationship with power is that I realized that women have been stuck at 18% of top leadership positions for—I mean and that’s in politics. That’s in the workplace across all sectors of employment for at least 20 years, sometimes more and that’s despite the fact that here in the US at least we have changed the laws. We have opened many doors. We’ve seen a women first almost everything.
So trying to figure out what’s the problem and it really isn’t just that all of the child rearing responsibilities are still put on women’s shoulders, although that’s an issue that I think we can talk about in a separate kind of thing, but what I found was that women have an outdated notion of what power means and I talked to women all over the country. I looked at the research and I frankly I had to look at my own heart and my own journey to leadership and some of the things that I had learned along the way and some of the ways I had not yet learned how to embrace my own power. This was not an easy exploration for me. I can tell you that. But what I found was that we women tend to think of power in a really outdated way, which is the power over. It’s a traditional way of thinking about power. It means that somebody can make you do something. It means that you don’t have control over your own life and it also implies a finite pie, as in if I take a slice there is less for you.
So therefore, it feels oppressive. It makes you feel powerless. Once I can get women to change how they’re thinking about power from that oppressive way to the most expansive idea of power over I just would see faces relax and women say, oh yeah, give me that, I want that kind of power because the power to is the ability to make life better for yourself, your kids, your community, your world, your country. It’s the ability to innovate, to think of new and better ways of doing things and I think women sort of inherently know that power isn’t a finite pie, that in fact the more there is the more there is. If I help you get more powerful it doesn’t mean there is less power for me. It means there is more capability to do these good things in the world and therefore, power to makes you feel powerful and power to is what enables us to be leaders, to take on leadership roles. I think power to is real, authentic leadership and leadership that can transform how things are done in this world.
Question: Do you think that gender quotas in hiring are counterproductive? I'll give you a countdown, so three, two, one.
Gloria Feldt: Gender quotas are not my favorite way to think about helping women reach parity in the workplace or in government, but I think that sometimes we may be at a place and particularly in different cultures they may be more necessary. Certainly well for example, we’ve seen that the World Bank has said that parliaments that have larger numbers of women in them have less corruption, a better decision making process and at the rate we’re going here in the United States to reach parity in political positions it will take 70 years to get there. Now since I've been an activist for women for several decades already I’d love to think I could live another 70 years to see that happen, but I probably am not going to have that luxury and I think that’s really too slow and the same holds around the world and we’ve seen in many countries where they have instituted some quotas that they have been able to bring more women in and that it really has made a big difference in the quality of the decision making position, the quality of the decisions that are made in those parliaments.
Similarly, there is a hugely important business case to be made for bringing more women in even if it requires quotas to do that. What we’ve seen from Ernst & Young and McKinsey and other big consulting firms that have looked at companies around the world is that those with more women in their upper management and on their boards of directors actually make more money. So they’re more profitable. So there is a lot of good reasons and so sometimes I think maybe having quotas might just help move that along, but over the long term I honestly believe that we women have the capability in our own hands. What we need to learn to do more of is to put ourselves forward. We need to put ourselves forward much more aggressively for those C-suite positions. We need to not be shy about negotiating those entry level salaries. We need to learn to say the first word. I mean one of the power tools that I teach in No Excuses is define your own terms first before someone else defines you because you are going to be defined and if you think about it in many meetings who talks first? It’s usually a man.
So we women need to learn not to have that moment of hesitation, but rather to put ourselves forward and I think if we just did that and nothing else that we would probably be moving toward that parity in leadership positions just as fast as quotas would take us there.
Question: How, in 2012, can there be opposition to the “violence against women act”?
Gloria Feldt: Boy that is a really good question. How in the world can there be opposition to the Violence against Women Act? Clearly there is an attempt to politicize some elements of it and I think primarily it’s coming from some anti immigration forces within the rightwing of the Republican Party and what they’re really screaming about is that there may be a woman or two who claims that she might be abused and therefore get asylum in the US and they don’t want that. They don’t want to risk any single woman, any woman at all ever being able to become an American citizen without a legitimate claim to having been abused. But you know what? We have to get passed that because a woman is raped every two minutes in the United States. We still have so much culturally engrained misogyny. I mean look at the whole episode with Rush Limbaugh telling this young woman that, Sandra Fluke that she should release tapes of herself having sex in order to get her contraceptives covered.
Think about what that means. Think about the underlying misogyny that that represents. It’s really pretty awful and so the Violence against Women Act has helped enormously to bring what used to be a hidden trauma, a hidden power over problem out into the open and so the thing is that it is up to the citizens I think now to let Congress know that we want this bill to be renewed now.
Question: Is the right to an active sex life unencumbered by unwanted pregnancy a healthcare issue?
Gloria Feldt: Yes, of course the right to have an active sex life unencumbered by unintended pregnancy is a healthcare issue, but it is so much more than that as well and it’s important to understand that a lot of the underlying opposition to contraception comes from a worldview about sex, which says that it’s only for procreative purposes or primarily for procreative purposes. That view is not held by most people anymore if it ever was and actually it’s never been held by woman who throughout history since before they knew what caused pregnancy had recipes for ways to prevent pregnancy when they didn’t feel that they were ready to have a child as part of their life and not just for health reasons, but as part of their life, as part of their life goals.
So I think what we need to understand and I actually think that advocates of contraceptive coverage right now are making a big strategic mistake by reducing it to a healthcare issue because in truth the ability to control your own fertility, the ability to plan and space your child bearing that separation of one’s ability to think forward about our own lives from the biology is what enables women to have any kind of equality in this world. So I see it as a human rights issue, a civil rights issue. I mean it is the most fundamental human and civil right that exists. If you don’t have the security of your own body and ability to decide for yourself whether and when you’re going to be a parent you really don’t have the ability to determine anything else about your future.
I mean I will tell you that for me as a mother of three at age 20 the birth control pill saved my life and it saved my health, but it also saved my life in the sense of I was able then to start to college. I was able to eventually have a career for myself and I could do that thoughtfully rather than be subject to the constant fear of pregnancy, which is what most women had to deal with prior to the ability to have really good, reliable contraception. So 99% of Americans use contraception at some point in their lives. That means men as well as women and I think men really ought to think about what it would mean for their sex lives if women didn’t have the ability to separate sex from procreation.
So absolutely, it’s a health issue. It’s a social issue. It’s a moral issue in the sense of I think it’s better to have children when you know you can take care of them. So you can tell I'm very passionate about that and I think that the ability to control our fertility is at the source, at the base of women’s power to do anything else in their lives and I just want to say that I think this whole issue of women’s relationship with power is very fascinating. I’d love for people to come talk to me about it on my website, which is GloriaFeldt.com, F-e-l-d-t, GloriaFeldt.com and you can also find me on just about every social media and I use my name Gloria Feldt like at Twitter @GloriaFeldt and so forth because if I tried to use another name I’d never remember what it was. So find me anywhere. I really love to carry on these conversations and to speak and talk and teach about these issues all the time.
Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd
Gloria Feldt is the former president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power.
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