Own Your Power To Make Change: Ms. Interviews Gloria Feldt

Women must be fearless in wielding power.

This is the point of Gloria Feldt’s new book, No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change the Way We think About Power and Leadership (Seal Press). “The most confounding problem facing women today,” Feldt writes, is that doors of opportunity are open, but “not enough women are walking through them.” No Excuses points women toward those doors and then gives a firm, supportive nudge to move past internal and external roadblocks.

Women have made significant gains in the workplace, politics and education. Yet the job isn’t quite done. Women represent more than half the nation’s population but comprise less than 17 percent of Congress. In 2010, only 15 Fortune 500 CEOs are women, relatively few women become scientists and engineers, most media heavy-hitters are (white) men and barriers to pay equity in the workplace remain.

Data shows that inequality remains a serious issue, especially when ethnicity or skin tone is added to the gender mix. While we need paycheck fairness legislation and public awareness about discrimination, women must also negotiate and aim high. Feldt intends to change the contemporary landscape by encouraging women to “equalize power in politics, work and love.”

With the current recession, high unemployment rates and gendered dynamics that challenge so many interpersonal relationships, some wonder how women can really grab those reins of power, as Feldt suggests. At California State University, Long Beach, where I teach a course on Women and Power, my students are closely reading No Excuses. Facing graduation, uncertain economic futures and the challenge of blending power politics with social justice, they jumped at the chance to ask Gloria Feldt about her ideas. Here’s their Q&A:

The door is not always open equally to all women. Among other things, sexual orientation, race and immigration status impact opportunities for achieving power and leadership positions. How do you address this in No Excuses?

There are many reasons, like those you’ve identified, why women in the U.S. haven’t reached parity. But there are no excuses not to go forward with intention to accomplish what we want. Legal barriers are down. At least one woman has shattered almost every glass ceiling, and doors are cracked enough to get through them. We’re better educated than men. Studies show that more women around the decision table result in better decisions. Women have the very leadership skills the world needs right now. It’s women’s moment, but do we know it yet?

I don’t say it’s easy. I say it’s possible and that we have not just the capability, but also the responsibility to ourselves and our sisters to make it happen. So in No Excuses, I give women nine practical ways or “power tools” to help them become unlimited in work, politics and personal life. My role model is Sojourner Truth who though born a slave in the most powerless of circumstances became an influential leader for abolition and women’s rights.

Isn’t a woman who seeks power simply conforming to the systems that are already in place? Is it possible to achieve power without being co-opted by the status quo?

Yes, with power tool #2: Define your own terms first–before anyone else does. Women must change the outmoded patriarchal definition of “power over” to the expansive idea of “power to,” the power to accomplish good things in the world. “Power over” is oppression. “Power to” is leadership. Power over implies a finite pie. Power to affirms the infinite potential for human development. But power unused is power useless. In the chapter “Opt Out of Being Co-Opted,” I discuss how to avoid being co-opted by learning to embrace controversy.

We’ve seen so many instances of a powerful woman vilified by the mainstream media–or even by friends and family. She’s called a ball-buster, bitch and worse. How can women avoid being rejected by society in her efforts to gain power?

It’s been said of any profound social change that first they laugh at you, then they try to kill you and finally they accept you as normal. We’re on the cusp of women’s power and leadership being accepted as normal. Some will still vilify women. Righting that wrong is exactly why we must look those retrogrades in the eye and keep on moving forward.

Women must BE the media to change the media–as Ms. Magazine has done for decades. We need many more progressive women to create and lead media organizations. Meanwhile, the rest of us can pitch a fit at sexist media, as we call it at the Women’s Media Center where I serve on the board.

What is your advice to college students who want to work professionally in progressive organizations?

Pursue it with intention. Seek mentors. Do informational interviews to learn what the organization’s needs are and how you might fill them. Volunteer with several to test out your best fit. Don’t get cynical when they disappoint you.

Would you go on Bill Maher?
In a nanosecond. Can you make it happen?

We’ll do our best. Paging Bill Maher!

With thanks to the questioners, our fearless leaders of today and tomorrow: Farah Kent, Sarah Covey, Sandie Reed, Lorraine Labrador, John Nguyn, Laura Nieto, Kimberli Reince, Larissa Medellin, Dianne Waite, Jessica Myers, Shelly Oh, Kelissa Myers and Brittany Ainsworth.

Photo from Maryanne Russell


  1. John Nguyen says:

    As a guy reading your book, I get a "call to arm vibe" where women are encouraged to fight for greater "parity". I'm in love with that idea and powerful women are very attractive.

  2. Farah Kent says:

    It is truly a privilege to read your book; I cannot express how much I applaud and admire all of your work, Ms. Feldt. My CSULB Women and Power classmates and I are hungry for knowledge, and I am both honored and proud to say that our great professor, Dr. Shira Tarrant, is nourishing us with your powerful words of wisdom. Thank you for the wonderful read!

  3. Gloria – Great timing and important work. Thank you. Power is the frontier for women. Stepping into and using it to change the rules and perhaps even the very game itself should be one of the most important issues on our agenda. Love your suggestion about identifying one's principals at the outset and focusing on Power To vs.Power Over.

    Jane Perdue of the Braithewaite Group @thehrgoddess and Dr. Anne Perschel of Germane Consulting @bizshrink are in the midst of research about professional women and power: how we perceive it; how much we have; how we think we will get more; how we learn about power; and whether we have enough to achieve our career goals. Findings indicate that women are comfortable with having power and being powerful, but that they don't see themselves as having enough to achieve their goals. Unfortunately some are stuck with the myth of a Prince Charming ( a senior leader) who will come along and help her attain more power. This leaves the power in the hands of the Prince – who does not even exist. Compare this to the men who said "Take it," when we asked "How would you attain more power?" Time for us as women to step into and own our power, but never ever to step on men or each other while doing so.

    Thanks again for putting this issue up front and center.

  4. Lorraine Labrador says:

    Ms. Feldt, thank you for writing us this genuine book that speaks to all women to put matters into our own hands and finally walk through those open doors. Through your life experiences, you show us in this book how to battle hardships in succeeding to be powerful leaders by making progress towards parity, while keeping a driving force behind it. With Dr. Tarrant's guidance, the CSULB Women and Power class and myself will definitely keep your messages in mind as we go through our own lives and careers to be powerful, motivated women and men.

  5. Jane Perdue says:

    Dr. Anne Perschel (@bizshrink on Twitter) and I just completed a research study with executive women regarding their views on power. What we discovered is that their feelings about power are generally positive. However, their activity level in using power is reactive rather than proactive – appears to parallel the need for "power tools" as provided in Gloria's book. Would welcome the opportunity to continue the discussion.

  6. As a psychotherapist specialising in women and mother-daughter relationship and founder of Women's Power Circles Ltd, I see everyday how doors shut in woman's faces when they claim their power and more importantly, when they want to be paid for their time and skills. I'm talking about women who work in the traditionally female caring professions. So often they find that potential clients are ever so keen to take advantage of their services but they don't want to pay for them. We are still living with what I call "The Culture of Female Service" (see article http://www.policyreview.co.uk/articles) that expects women to care for others in terms of providing massages, counselling, etc, all those allied health professional without being paid properly because they should "want" to help people. Also the recession has hit these professions hard because they are seen as an optional extra but again "The Culture of Female Service" rears its ugly head when these professionals are expected to want to support everyone without being paid for it. Even some business coaches and mentors are encouraging women to give their time away for free with the hope that then people will see how good they are and start paying for it. What complete rubbish. We all know that once something is given away for free, people will expect it for free the next time and the times after that. I agree we must push against shrinking ourselves down but we must also notice the ways women are stopped from being their full selves and financially valued for that. Rosjke Hasseldine mail@thesilentfemalescream.com

  7. Brittany Ainsworth says:

    I am grateful that we are reading your book and studying your 9 power tools of how to use "power-to,"in Dr. Tarrant's class. My eyes have been opened to the reality that I should not make any excuses for myself in regards to the goals I wish to achieve, as nothing and no one can stand in my way of using my power except myself. This book could not have come at a better time in my life, as I will be graduating soon and out in the world where I will have to learn to negotiate power in the workplace and be proactive in making my power my own. With your power tools, all men and women can be a contributing force to achieveing parity in the workplace, personal relationships, and even politics. No Excuses.

  8. Larissa Medellin says:

    I really appreciate the opportunity to have been apart of this interview, especially at a time when I'm sure Ms.Feldt has been very busy. Thank you Ms.Feldt for taking the time to answer our questions, and also, our professor, Dr. Tarrant for giving us such an amazing opportunity.
    I've never enjoyed reading a required text as much as I am now, and I'm excited to take the advice given in this book and actually put it to good use!

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