Not Oprah’s Book Club: No Excuses

description hereI’ve known Gloria Feldt since 2007 when I was assigned to write this short profile of her for Women’s eNews. I remember sitting across from this dynamic woman–one part Texas flower, one part tenacious fighter–as she told me about growing up Jewish in Odessa, being totally transformed by the birth control pill, and making her way to Washington to play a large role in organizing the largest march on the mall in the history of the United States. After leaving her position as the president of Planned Parenthood, Gloria sought to finally go after her childhood dream of being a writer whose voice resonated with boldness and conviction.

Well folks, dreams come true.

Gloria’s new book, No Excuses: Nine Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power, is out this week and it’s chock-full of Gloria’s unique voice and tough love feminism. Gloria has written books before, but this one is the most prescriptive, the most daring, and–I’m guessing–will prove to be the most controversial. (Never fear, one of her nine “power tools” is “embrace controversy!”)

That’s actually an edict that Gloria and I have been living side by side on our intergenerational panel, which has now traveled from the University of Arizona to Harvard and plenty of places in between. As we try to reclaim the frame of feminist dialogue, we model respectful disagreement for others. When I was voting for Obama and Gloria was voting for Clinton, it wasn’t a cat fight, it was a conversation. So, it will probably come as no surprise to her that her book brought up some questions for me–starting points for further dialogue on stage or off, online or off, as we do…

Gloria’s main thesis is that most of the really massive institutional barriers to women gaining power have been toppled by years of hard-fought feminism, and now what’s holding us back is often, well, us. I agree with her, to an extent, but I fear she gives short-shrift to the systemic injustices that still make being a woman in this country a very different experience depending on your background (i.e. class, race, sexual identity, ability etc.). It’s not courage, for example, that keeps a young woman who doesn’t know how to apply to college or get funding from going out and doing it. It’s access. In the pursuit of revving women up to seize their power, I fear Gloria sometimes bulldozes past some of these nuances.

And speaking of nuances, I’ve been thinking a lot about one of Gloria’s assertions:

That mistaken tendency to locate the sources of power outside of ourselves so that we respond rather than initiating action is the essential challenge women still face today, despite the many doors that have opened and barriers that have been smashed. Even young women, who grow up being told they can do anything and be anything, often don’t make the necessary connection between their ability (potential) and their willingness to act on it (intention). Nor do they have a clear sense of their responsibility to themselves and to other women to utilize their abilities to the fullest so that the female half of the world can continue to advance toward full justice and equality.

On the one hand, I feel like Gloria really woke me up to the fundamental importance of collective power in this book. She makes the case again and again for seeing oneself as part of a larger whole, and thus, seeing one’s decision as tied up in a collective fate. That’s deeply powerful. I think the idea that women, like the left in general, don’t initiate enough, don’t determine the framework for conversations, is key. We are constantly in a state of responding to sexism rather than re-imagining the world we want to live in.

But where I think it gets sticky is this notion that there is a moment when women shrink from power because they don’t have enough courage. Is that it? Maybe some of the time, it is. But I would guess that, at other times, women have to make complex choices about what will benefit themselves and their families most, what will make them happiest, what will be healthiest, and the current positions of power and clout don’t serve those more important–as they see it–priorities. In these cases, there’s something more than a lack of courage going on. There’s a prioritization of quality of life. Maybe Gloria would see this as not self-sacrificing enough? I look forward to exploring it with her.

I also continue to disagree with Gloria’s assessment of the 2008 election. She writes, “A battle was won when a pro-choice president was elected; but the war for full equality and justice was lost soon afterward. No—given away freely. In exchange for—nothing.” I would say that the symbolic power of having a black president alone certainly doesn’t constitute nothing, even setting aside that I actually think Obama has done a fairly decent job navigating partisan gridlock. I do understand more deeply–after reading both Gloria’s book and Rebecca Traister’s Big Girls Don’t Cry–that women lost a lot when Clinton lost. A lot. I’m still not sure that understanding would change my vote, but it’s made me think long and hard about collective power.

Gloria is not afraid of power and doesn’t have time for philosophizing when there is good work to be done to make women’s lives better. I love that. She’s obsessively practical, not prone to the kind of paralyzing perfectionism or politicking that I’ve seen stop so many women from reaching their full potential as genuine leaders. I learn a lot from Gloria consistently, and reading this book was no different. She taught me to “carpe the chaos”–an idea I love. I think too many women spend time lamenting how messy their lives are, rather than embracing the mess and just continuing to do good work and enjoy themselves. She reminds us all that our paltry involvement in some of the most major spheres of power is simply inexcusable. How can we let our presence on corporate boards and in political office remain so faint?

Further, I love her take on care giving: ““If we could see child rearing as a necessary task and not an identity, and if we could collectively recognize that facilitating this kind of care benefits us all, we would go much further in guaranteeing women’s choices than we do when we are expected to uncritically celebrate every individual’s decisions.” It’s a point of view I’ve never heard articulated quite this way and it seems really radical to me.

For all of these reasons, and so many others, this book is a must-read for women who care about the state of the world and want to make it better. Gloria has gifted us with a tome worthy of wrestling with, being inspired by, and carrying with us as we head back into the fray to finish this unfinished revolution.

It’s funny, Gloria and I have had some of our biggest disagreements about presidential politics. You know who I’d really like to vote into that office?


If you’re in the New York area, catch Gloria Feldt reading from No Excuses at The Strand at 7pm tonight.

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