Gloria Feldt is a force to be reckoned with. Feldt is the former President and CEO of the Planned Parenthood Foundation of America and has devoted her entire working life to women’s rights. This week marked the conclusion of efforts to pass health care reform, and because abortion coverage was used, successfully, as a wedge issue in the debate over those efforts, it’s important to reflect on what went wrong, what we did right, and what our next steps should be. And who better to help us understand that than Feldt?
That said, any week is a good week to interview a woman who had led a life like Feldt’s. Raised in West Texas, she grew up in a world that was, in so many ways, totally different from the one we live in today, a world where women couldn’t get credit cards or take out loans under their own names or without their husbands’ permission. Today, she lives in New York City, having run for almost a decade one of the most important institutions in the feminist movement. She is the author of three books, including The War on Choice and Behind Every Choice There is a Story, and her forthcoming book, No Excuses, is about women and power.
It was a pleasure to be able to talk to Feldt, and to hear her insights into how the world has changed in her lifetime, and her hopes for what the next generation of women – that’s us! – will do to change it even more.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Gloria Feldt.
Chloe Angyal: How did you come to be involved in the reproductive rights movement, and rise to become the President and CEO of the Planned Parenthood Foundation of America?
Gloria Feldt: I had a thirty year career in the reproductive rights movement, but I started out in the Civil Rights movement. And I got there by way of my own personal story, in a way. I was a teen mom; I grew up in West Texas in the 1950s, when women were not encouraged to do anything other than become wives and mothers very very early. And I wanted to be normal, like most teenagers. And I was, really, really normal: The highest teen pregnancy rate we ever had was in 1957, which was the year I became pregnant with my first child, so I didn’t know how normal I was. I woke up after a while, and I started to college after my third child was born, at 20, and I became really engaged in what was going on at that time in the struggle for Civil Rights. And after being involved in several efforts on behalf of Civil Rights, I sort of had this epiphany that, wait a minute, aren’t women’s rights civil rights too? So I began to expand my horizons, and it was about that time that I was introduced to this marvelous new magazine called Ms., and I began to learn that I wasn’t the only woman having these thoughts. There were other women out there who were feeling the same way that I was, which was kind of ticked off about stuff! I started to work out of economic necessity, and after I started earning some money, I realized that even then I wasn’t able to get a credit card in my own name. I had to have my credit card be under my husband’s name. Well that didn’t seem fair. And after a few years I wanted to buy a car by myself, and the bank wouldn’t give me a loan. I was earning more money than my husband at the time, and the bank wouldn’t give me a loan. So those were the kinds of things that women were facing every day, very practical things, the “Help wanted, female” and “Help wanted, male” employment signs. So we were ticked off and we began to find each other and I began to learn there the power of a movement, of working together as opposed to being isolated and trying to solve problems yourself. And that was just enormously impactful for me.
So when I was encouraged to apply for my first job at Planned Parenthood in West Texas, I really didn’t know much about the reproductive rights movement at all. But it just fit with my value system. For me, the birth control had been a miracle when it came out. Being able to have reliable birth control was what had allowed me to start to college, be able to work, earn some money and support the family, and just generally be able to have more of a sense of my own life, my own future. So the value system was perfect, and it just really fit with my own personal experience. I didn’t really know anything about how the movement had occurred, I had no health administration experience, but I was willing to give it a try. So I learned on the job. And it was really by learning on the job that I began to understand the dynamics behind the visceral opposition to women’s reproductive freedom that still exists within many parts of our society. I began to realize that the fight against birth control, in the early part of the twentieth century, that morphed into the fight against abortion in the latter half, was not about either of those subjects at all. It was really about the value of a woman. What is she worth? What is her role, what is her place in society? And a subheading to that is what is the purpose of human sexuality? Through the ages, women have sort of equaled sexuality, in a cultural sense. So that was what I came to learn on the job, and I also came to learn all the elements of the job: fundraising, political action, and further engagement in trying to accomplishing something with the movement, by joining together with like-minded people.
So after four years in West Texas, as Executive Director, my children were getting old enough for me to start looking for other opportunities elsewhere. By that time I was divorced, and I had fallen in love with the movement but I wanted to move to a larger city. There happened to be a position open in the Phoenix area, and I applied and was hired, and I pretty much followed the same pattern that I had in west Texas, which was that I grew it. I was so on a mission to make sure that every woman could get access to family planning services, I just wanted to open a clinic on every corner. Honestly, when I look back on my thirty years, the most fun times were always opening a new clinic. That’s the coolest thing, to put together the resources you need to actually open the doors of a health care facility where you know women can come and they can get quality care in a compassionate setting -there’s nothing better than that. There’s something about that direct service that is unmatchable.
So after eighteen years in Arizona, I was starting to feel stale, and I was ready to leave and I was planning to launch a writing career at that time. And instead I got thrown from the frying pan into the fire; I was asked t apply for the national president position, and I felt like it was the right thing at the right time. I applied, and I was hired, and I did that for nine years. It was an amazing opportunity to see things from 10, 000 feet up as well as having seen them from the grassroots. And again, we grew a lot. We grew a political arm and services on the ground and developed new programs. And then it was thirty years and it was time. If I was ever going to get to devote time to writing, I was going to have to move on.
So I left in 2005 and in the last few years I have primarily focused on writing and speaking. I had written two books while I was still at Planned Parenthood, one called Behind Every Choice is a Story and the other called The War on Choice, and then I spent about a year and a half writing a book with Kathleen Turner about her life. And now I’m working on a book called No Excuses, which is about women’s relationship with power, which I’ve becoming fascinated by.
When I saw Kathryn Bigelow standing on the stage with an Oscar in each hand, looking totally flustered, like she didn’t know what to say or what to do, it seemed to me to be a metaphor for where American women are today. The spotlight is on us. The whole world knows that we’re ready, that we can do anything. We don’t always know what to do that. So what I want to do is to help women to sort through that, to understand how we got where we are today. The history of the women’s movement in the US has been taking steps forward only to step back, very often to let somebody else go first. There’s a consistency to that pattern, or to fighting hard, winning a big battle, and then instead of consolidating those gains with a proactive new agenda, stepping back and letting the movement go fallow, letting the grass roots go fallow. So I’m looking at that history very briefly, and then I’m looking at the constraints, both external and internal, that may keep us from being able to embrace our full power and authority and ability. And then I am looking at what I call the power tools, that can actually help us to embrace our power, and live and lead with intention. To be unlimited in life. It’s got some practical tools in it, and one of the most important practical tools is a whole chapter on how to apply movement building principles to any change you want to make, whether it’s at work, or in politics, or in your personal relationships.
CA: Who are your favorite fictional heroines, and who are your heroines in real life?
GF: I would have to say Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, because she was so resourceful. She was a leader, a natural leader, and she just figured it out. She just figured out what to do. And she also saw through the wizard, and saw that he didn’t have any supernatural powers. She got the message that she had to help herself, so she’s been a bit of a role model, I guess.
I have a fascination with Margaret Sanger, because she was so complex. What I learned from her was that she started a movement when she had nothing: No law on her side, no supporters, no money. She didn’t have anything. But she had a vision and she had a mission, and she stayed true to those. Sometimes I think that the women’s movement has gotten sort of big and rich, and we don’t realize what we have. We don’t appreciate the women whose shoulders we stand on, they started with nothing. And they went to jail, and they got beaten up and we just whine about some little setback. We need to ask how they would approach it, what would they do? So that we don’t lose our edge. That’s what excites me so much about things like Feministing and so many of the young women that I see emerging now: you’ve got the edge again. And I hope you keep it and keep moving forward with it.
CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?
GF: Definitely the issue of abortion within health reform. I must say that my approach would be, after an election where your political philosophy is the prevailing philosophy, that’s the moment of opportunity. What frustrated me was I felt that the women’s groups should have gone into the health reform negotiations from the position that now is the time to get rid of restrictions on abortion coverage. Instead, they started from a position of negotiating a so-called compromise, before they were even asked to compromise, which was the Capps amendment. The misbegotten notion that you can ever feed the lion and it still won’t come back and eat you later is crazy. The anti-choice lion will always come back and try to eat you later. So why would you try to appease it? It’s not going to work. And as a result, they ended up with something even worse. They were trying to keep the status quo, and that might have been where we ended up anyway, but I believe that it’s better to put your values out there and make the other guys fight with you on your territory. You’re going to get further than if you start from a compromised position. That was a tooth-knashing moment for me, it was just unbelievable. And I feel like the rhetoric and the issue really got away from them. They lost control of the narrative, and it’s going to take a lot of work to get it back. It was a missed moment; in the early days of the Obama administration, they should have gone to him and said, “look, you have to do this, or we’re not going to support anything you do.” Because that’s the language he understands. But that’s clearly not what happened.
CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
GF: I think the greatest challenge is to realize we do have those Oscars in our hands, and that feminism has changed the world. It was changed men as much as it has changed women. Now we need to take a new look at what needs to be done, and I think the next wave needs to be things like feminist men and feminist women coming together to change the way the workplace is structured. Because both of them are going to be working all their lives, but the workplace was designed for a time when daddy went to work and mommy stayed home and minded the children. So I think we’re at a great moment to make that kind of a change.
And I think that with reproductive rights, we almost have to start over. I’m depending on you young women for this, because I think it will take another generation, but what I believe we must do is rebuild an entire new legal basis and an entire new narrative of reproductive rights as a human right, and women as rightful owners of that human right. And believe me, that is going to be tough. But I don’t think that the right to privacy is strong enough to protect reproductive rights. I don’t want to see Roe overturned, I think privacy is also an important American value, but it is not strong enough to trump life. And so we have to give women’s life a value. We have to say, as Hillary Clinton has said repeatedly, that women’s rights are human rights, and we have to translate to the most fundamental human right a woman has to have, which is to control her own fertility and her own body. Without that, none of the other human rights mean anything. So I throw that gauntlet down for young women today.
CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you get to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?
GF: My husband, tea and bread.