Elevate Difference

No Excuses: Nine Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power

When I heard Gloria Feldt being interviewed on NPR, I thought I might have some problems with No Excuses, so I asked to review it and follow up with a telephone interview of Feldt. When I read the book, my first impression was confirmed. After an hour interview with Feldt, who I had met previously in Arizona, she seemed such a nice, genuine person concerned for women that I was torn about what to do with the review. I reread the book and got upset all over again. Feminism, like quarks, comes in many colors. My working class background and grassroots perspective has colored my response.

Feldt’s main theme is that the women’s movement is stuck, and it’s our own fault because we resist using the power we have. She argues that all formal laws and barriers have fallen and only social norms and self-limitation hold us back. She insists that because of the economic collapse, now is the time, because women will be tapped to clean up the mess made by men. But rather than charging forward, we are stepping back yet again.

In the interview, Feldt supported her belief that the world wants women by pointing out that management studies from Ernst and Young have found that companies with a higher percentage of women in management function more efficiently and have a higher return in the market. The World Bank analyzed the results of parliaments that have 30% or more of women and found that they make better decisions. But in counterpoint, the number of people in slavery, many of them women and many in the U.S., is higher now than it was at the height of the Black slave trade. The U.S. now has the largest gap between the rich and the poor. Poor women are driven into prostitution, domestic work, or sweatshops to feed their children.

While Feldt is clear that she is only talking about the U.S., international trends also do not support her conclusions. The just released report, The Authoritarian Challenge to Democracy: Selected Data from Freedom House’s Annual Survey of Political Rights and Civil Liberties, found that in 2010, twenty-five countries exhibited declines in freedom and only eleven showed gains. Both Mexico and Ukraine dropped from Free to Partly Free. The number of countries designated as Free dropped from eighty-nine to eighty-seven, the number of electoral democracies dropped from 116 to 115, the worst since 1995. In 2005, the number was 123. The Middle East and North Africa regions that have been the focus of democratic reform declined even further from an already low democratic baseline.

The author encourages women to make one last push for equality to get us over the finish line. But in discussion, she admitted that one final push will not solve every problem and cannot create complete equality. The 2010 election that was to be yet another “year of the woman” resulted in fewer and more conservative women in Congress. But she believes a final push will lead to greater equality and that will be a profound shift in human rights and justice.

She wrote the book because political changes and society transformations are complicated, and people do not make the connection between theory and action, laws and reality. Those dots have to be connected over and over again, so the “push” does not mean an end, but a beginning starting from a different place. The “push” does not include quotas that have been credited the world over with creating more gender balanced governing bodies. She believes that the politics are such in the U.S. that it would be an unlikely fight to win today. Since she believes that almost all of the legal barriers and many of the policy barriers have been eliminated, if women decided to seek parity, and took action, they could achieve it in ten to twenty years.

Certainly, Feldt is correct that women should redefine the use of power in a non-abusive way. Models of that approach are outlined in the book. The problems of co-optation and internal barriers are discussed. The essentials necessary to embrace her philosophy—money and control over our own bodies—are however, both in short supply. The “power tools” she sprinkles throughout the book read a bit “New Agey” until the end of the book where they are given more in-depth analysis. Many of her slogans are old wine in new bottles without attribution to earlier feminists whose shoulders she stands on. Practical methods are not mentioned such as union organizing or fighting for quotas in political parties. In the “tool section,” she encourages women to smile, but in fact, smiling is counter-indicated. In December 2010, Stanford business school professor Deborah Gruenfeld recommended that women stop all the smiling. “Women give away power all the time, by smiling or looking away when they are saying something authoritative.” In the finale, Feldt argues that to re-ignite the movement, we should be courageous sisters and support other women.

“Equal rights for the sexes will be achieved when mediocre women occupy high positions,” said Francoise Giroud (1916-2003), as quoted in the 2006 SheSource article, “The Glass Ceiling in Media: Think the glass ceiling is gone—or just an outdated metaphor? Think again” by Tekla Szymanski. Women have to perform to be promoted; men only have to have potential and connections. The article outlines the dismal state of women in commercial media. Even in media that focus mainly on “women’s issues,” only 28% of the publishers and 50% of the executive and senior editors are female.

In that article, Feldt is quoted, “One reason the glass ceiling remains strong in broadcast and newspapers is media consolidation, which squeezes out positions at the top and in mid-management, where women might have been in the pipeline to advance...When resources are scarce, the old boys' network closes ranks and chooses leaders it feels most comfortable with—those most like themselves.” This statement is counter to her argument in the book that there is no glass ceiling, only a sticky floor.

Gail Evans, CNN’s first female executive vice president is quoted in the same article saying that women need to learn to play the game, and that we buy into the same stereotypes: “Women take care—and men take charge. Women have to start supporting each other. Their success is connected. Women think it’s all about “I can do it.” They think that, “if I try hard, it’ll change.” We have to go from “I can do it,” which gives isolated success to, “We can do it.””

I’m left confused. On the one hand, we are told (and Feldt says in the book) that women need to stop putting everyone else first. On the other hand, we are told that women tend to go it alone and should support their sisters. On one hand, we are told that women managers do better because we are more collaborative, but on the other hand, we are told that women think in terms of I not we. Which is it?

While I certainly agree with Feldt that women need to re-think their attitude toward power, no reason except the economic collapse explains why now is the time for women. The same people who caused the crash are still at the top in Obama’s government, at Harvard, and at Goldman Sachs. The CEO of GM that went bankrupt is now in charge of a job creation committee. The massive grassroots movement in support of Elizabeth Warren was not enough to have her appointed to the new consumer watchdog agency. Those in charge have no intention of turning over the reins. A woman warned us of the financial collapse. They didn’t listen. A woman warned us about 9/11. They didn’t listen. They may send in women to clean up their mess, but then they will send them back home again. The vicious attacks on Hillary Clinton during the primary should remind us of the fear of women that still lurks in the hearts of men.

As a lawyer, I cannot understand the claim that no laws or barriers exist. The book itself gives many examples of the laws and barriers, the facts and the acts, that still stand in our way. She acknowledges that the hardest barriers are the ones inside our head, describes her own struggles to escape the negative messages and admits that it took her well into her adult life to free herself, but yet she chastises young women as if she expects them to know so much more than we did at that age. She repeatedly disproves her own statements and doesn’t seem to notice.

As a long-time advocate for battered women, I was especially troubled by a description of the domineering, coercive, and controlling behavior by Claire Bloom’s husband Philip Roth that resulted in Bloom sending her daughter away. Feldt characterizes this as voluntary, which is a failure to understand the dynamics of domestic violence and coercive control. I asked about this in the interview and she answered that Claire Bloom was not a woman who needed to opt for the man over the child because she had means, talent, and networks. Coercive control happens to women who are rich and famous as much, or in some studies even more, than to women who are poor and unknown. The means, talents, or networks of women do not insulate them from male violence and control. In fact, it often means they have more to lose if they escape and keeps them locked in.

If the book is written for a specific group of women, “…for those of us who count ourselves among the lucky ones, the time for excuses is over…” I concur, because I too have little sympathy for women with money and power who turn their backs on other women. But if she meant it for all women, then I have a problem with the blaming and shaming that lies behind the words. The focus on the lucky ones should have been made clear from the beginning, otherwise the book reads a lot like blaming the victim.

Feldt both agreed and disagreed with my analysis. She agreed that the privileged women are the ones who have been able to be the leading edge in a formal way and have been able to get their message to the public. While that is commonly said, the new movie Made in Dagenham reminiscent of Norma Rae shows the tremendous impact made by working class women.

The author did have certain expectations that the book would resonate with our generation (we are about the same age) and the young feminists, but did not expect it to resonate as well as it has with the entrepreneurs who often don’t belong to any formal groups and wouldn’t call themselves feminists or with the young women who are the first in their family to graduate from high school or college. In the first six months since the release of the book, she believes it has resonated with the lower SES group and the acceptance of the message has been a great joy to her. One thing is clear, women need to be leaders. The leader, according to Feldt, is not necessarily the CEO but the person who gets things done.

The author had planned to write another book about women’s relationship with sex, but the unexpected success of this book has derailed that for a while. The book has taken on an unanticipated life. It’s being used in women’s studies, seminars, and she’s been asked to do a webinar. So for the short term, she’ll be working with the themes of the book perhaps putting her nine power tools into specific workshop formats to concretize them, which would be useful. On her bucket list, she has many more books to write and steps to take into women’s future of equality.

Written by: Dianne Post, February 22nd 2011