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Books: No Excuses

October 24, 2010 | Benefits,Books,Economics,Education,Family,Gloria Feldt,Leslie Bennetts,Linda Hirshman,Motherhood,Politics,Work

I just read No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think about Power by Gloria Feldt. I bought the Kindle version.

If I’d only read the headlines and tweets, I might have dismissed it as a (sadly familiar) scolding of “not doing feminism right.” When I saw, “Women’s roadblock to power: themselves,” I thought, wait a second. I thought I had a good sense of who Gloria Feldt was (we met in Chicago in 2009), and this doesn’t sound like that. I’d better read this book.

It’s a great book, and I’ll tell you why.

I just need to get a few things out of the way first.

Feldt quotes so many inspiring people and tells the stories of amazing women. She also quotes Linda Hirshman and Leslie Bennetts, both of whom I disagree with on so many levels. Feldt may call Hirshman her “tough-love feminist friend,” but to many, Hirshman is a bully. Bennetts says she’s simply the messenger, but it’s actually her “message” that’s flawed. Her heart may be in the right place, but her supporting evidence isn’t.

Feldt takes a couple of surface swipes at women who “opt out” of the workplace. They should just “cut it out” because, you know, she and other feminists of her generation didn’t work their butts off so these youngsters could just sit on theirs. (My words, not hers.)

Looking at the issues we face as women through a completely individualistic lens presents us with a problem, or maybe it’s just an excuse. I liken it to the so-called choice feminists who say that what the women’s movement fought for was solely to give them options, and every option, including opting out of the workforce or total indifference to politics, is equally valid. It’s individualism dressed up as feminism. (Location 2082, Kindle edition)

It’s just not that simple. Women get fired because of pregnancy and lactation, others are pushed out for other reasons. Many women don’t want to “opt out” and wouldn’t if they had more rights. For example, lactation wouldn’t even be a work issue if women had guaranteed, paid family leave. But they don’t. So they get lactation rooms. If they’re lucky. Most get nothing.

I do, however, agree with her advice to work together on these issues, especially considering the standing advice is to “negotiate individually with your boss.” That’s fine, until your boss takes another job and you’re left with a boss who refuses to (and isn’t required to) honor your previous agreement. Or maybe your company will have layoffs, and you (with the flextime or on maternity leave) will probably be the first to go.

When you’re up against a work-life balance problem that requires changing a long-used process — perhaps you’re trying to change a policy like creating flextime, ensuring sick leave, or getting more women onto the executive team — you can, to a limited extent, improve your situation independently of others by negotiating your own terms of employment. But that won’t alter the underlying structure that perpetuates the problem. If you want to change the system, you need to function like a movement. (Location 3719, Kindle edition)

When all choices are framed as radically individual ones, not only are women less likely to perceive their own power to determine the course of their lives and the quality of others’ lives, but they are also less likely to seek the recourse and strength that can be found in a collective movement united in Sister Courage. (Location 5093, Kindle edition)

At one point, Feldt talked about a meeting where she asked a room full of university professionals why men earn more money.

“Because they ask for it!” they said.

No, they don’t. Money falls in their laps like manna from heaven. OK. Sweeping generalization alert! (As in, “they [all] ask for it!”) But I’d bet a lot of them don’t. They’re rewarded with more money because the guys they work for figure they deserve it. (Another generalization alert!)

So, let me get specific.

My husband and I graduated from college at the same time from the same university. We had different majors and worked in different industries, but we earned the same salary in our first jobs out. In less than five years, his salary was more than double mine. He never once asked for more money or a raise. I, on the other hand, spoke up often. About everything. I was told no or shown the hoops that I should jump through before I would get what I requested, whether it was more money, the proper equipment to do my job or getting a sexist boss to treat me fairly. (I ended up leaving that job, and he stayed on for several more years, probably getting raises he never had to request.)

I once applied and interviewed for a job when I was working another. They were interested until it came to money. They choked on my salary requirement and asked what I earned in the job I had. I told them. I was better off staying where I was, they told me (and I was already earning less than half my husband’s salary).

So, while my husband was offered more money at every new job he considered, I was always offered less. Just a few years ago, I finagled an interview for a management position, which was really five jobs squeezed into one. When I asked about salary, it was all I could do to not fall out of my chair. That wasn’t a living wage for one person, let alone a family of five. If I hadn’t bitten my tongue, the next words out of my mouth would have been, “OK. Close your eyes. Pretend I’m a man. Now what’s the salary?”

By far the most confounding problem facing women today is not that doors aren’t open, but that women aren’t walking through the open doors in numbers and with intention sufficient to transform society’s major institutions once and for all. (Location 789, Kindle edition)

When I started reading in No Excuses about all these wide-open doors that women should be walking through, I couldn’t help but thinking, with a side order of sarcasm …

Oh, oh, oh! Did you get us paid maternity leave?



OK. Umm. Oh, oh, oh! Did you get us equal pay?



OK. Umm. What about universal child care?


Well? Did you at least get us one guaranteed paid sick day?


But, seriously. I’d be missing the point if that were my overall response to this book.

This is a great book because it is overwhelmingly positive, encouraging and inclusive. It builds momentum and fosters hope. It says, “Now is the time to claim power. Let’s do it together.”

I may not agree with every one of her assessments on why women are “stuck” where they are, but I do agree that women are stuck, and it’s best to work together to change that. As she said, this is an exciting time, “flush with the promise of transformation” and that women should embrace their “power to push the fulcrum, finally, to abundant justice and full equality so that women can at last lead unlimited lives.” (Location 5326, Kindle edition)

How could you not get swept up in that?

I thought it was interesting that she told the story of Joan Gerberding of Mediaguide and Mentoring and Inspiring Women in Radio because I’d recently read a book by Eric Shoars, Women Under Glass: The Secret Nature of Glass Ceilings and the Steps to Overcome Them, in which he talks about the dearth of women at the executive level in the radio industry. His advice for gaining parity for women in the radio industry was a mentorship program. While that’s a great idea, it’s far too simplistic. Feldt confirmed my thoughts by quoting Cherie Blair, “We need more than mentors. We need real structural change.” (Location 1820, Kindle edition)

I’m good at connecting people who belong together. I’ve always wanted to gather a powerhouse panel of amazing women, but I haven’t been able to do that yet.

You know who can? Gloria Feldt. She knows everyone from Gloria Steinem to Shelby Knox. She builds bridges instead of burning them. She builds people up instead of tearing them down. She looks for opportunity and equality at every turn.

She wants to inspire: “There are many reasons why women have been held back or have stepped back from our power. But there are no excuses anymore. My intent is not to assign blame, but to inspire women to embrace our historic moment; not to dish up ancient history, but to envision a bright future, and to provide the tools to make it happen now while the opportunity is hot.” (Location 143, Kindle edition)

I might just think this book was written by someone who plans to run for office. Hey, it’s happened before. I know a certain president who wrote a couple of books before he got elected.

Is that a wide-open Oval Office door I see?

I stood up and asked, ‘What in the world is wrong with leading?’ (Location 5308, Kindle edition)

What indeed. What do you say, Gloria? You walking through?

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Posted by Becky @ 5:26 pm  

19 Responses to “Books: No Excuses”

  1. tracy thompson Says:

    Yeah, I think we can argue til the cows come home about why we are stuck, and whether we secretly deserve to be stuck, and whether we did something wrong that led to our being stuck–this is where Leslie Bennetts made me so mad–but in the end what matters is: we’re stuck. And: so what do we do? And then the next question: who can spare the time from PTA and chauffeuring kids and work and all that, you know, STUFF to figure it out? Because I, for one, am up to my butt in alligators.

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  3. Margaret Says:

    I saw something in the press about Feldt’s book, and I did, in fact, assume it was another book like Hirshman’s. We don’t need another of those. If you say it’s different, Becky, I’ll take your word for it, and maybe I’ll even read it.

    So, first, on opting out. I’m happy for Hirshman and Bennetts and Feldt, happy that they worked hard, succeeded, and enjoyed their careers. Mazel tov.

    But life has thrown me a lot of curve balls and I’ve swatted at them as best I can. Staying home with kids for eight years was one way to cope. Believe me, it wasn’t much of a choice. In an ideal world, my spouse and I would have shared the paid and unpaid work equally, but the current world of work doesn’t permit that. Cherie Blair has it right: we need structural change. But it’s hard to push for structural change in the workplace when unemployment is 9.5%. Most women I know who have jobs are laying low, working hard, and hoping they don’t get laid off. No one in her right mind is going to ask for flextime, either alone or as part of a movement.

    I’m glad to hear that Feldt’s book is largely positive and uplifting. At the moment, I sorely need something like that. I’ll check it out.

  4. magpie Says:

    Fascinating. I think I’d like to read it.

    For whatever reason, I’ve had a very different experience in the work world – perhaps I have my head in the sand, or perhaps it’s because I’ve spent my entire career in the non-profit arena. I don’t have an issue if I need to take the morning off for a parent-teacher conference, I was able to rearrange my schedule when I needed to get home for childcare, I pumped at my desk. But I know that I’ve been lucky (though I’m underpaid).

  5. Becky Says:

    You’re right, Tracy. That argument (and others) have been a distraction for so long, and THAT is what keeps things stuck.

    I should clarify. Gloria Feldt doesn’t dwell on this aspect. More than anything, she gives me the sense that she wants to change things … and that she is a person who can. Not all by herself, but I also think she has a great ability of gathering people to work together.

  6. Becky Says:

    Margaret, you’re right about change and the dire state of the economy. Feldt makes the point, though, that this is the perfect time to make change … out of chaos & all. And she makes sense. She also has an urgent message this NOW is the time.

  7. Becky Says:

    Interesting to hear your experiences, Maggie. Underpaid. Key word. What frustrates me most about the whole “you don’t ask for it” argument is that it AGAIN makes it MY problem that needs to be fixed … not the structual composition of the system that assumes I am worth less because I’m a woman. Ya know?

  8. Julie Says:

    My entire perspective has changed in small but significant ways as I’ve progressed in both my career and age.

    In college I eyed a career in law and the only advice a woman from the previous generation had for me — and she was a lawyer — was “Never let them know you can type. But fetch coffee. You have to pick your battles.”

    I remember thinking geez lady, it’s 1988 we’re soooooooooo far past that.


    I’d grown up in the 70s and 80s in a WonderWoman era: women could bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan, chase down bad guys and have perfect hair. Boomers told us we could have it ALL.

    Lot easier in theory.

    Anyway, now I’m the sandwich generation between:

    * older women who demand to know why we haven’t made more of the opportunity they handed us on a silver platter (most of us HAVE, have you seen the workplace numbers?) when they accuse “choice is really just dressed up individualism.” (And anyway, who are all these women? A few loud pundits? Mostly the Boomer women I know personally understand the juggle of work and family.)

    Hey I know a lot of people who don’t feel the workplace is for them or don’t have big career or earning aspirations. Men and women.

    * younger women who “don’t get all the fuss..it’s just joking and I can take it, I can be powerful in my low cut/high cut sexuality.”

    So my question about this book is…who are they asking to change, and how?

    I’ve busted my rear for 20 years to keep up a career. It took the toughest hit from parenting — tougher than the two economic downturns I’ve worked through.

    So what I know is this…

    in most careers I know, being a woman is not a benefit
    in most careers I know, flexibility to hard to get and easy to lose
    in most careers I know, there is a pay disparity and it’s not because women undervalue themselves or don’t ask
    in most careers I know, becoming a parent can be a death knell

    That’s why I’ve gone way outside the lines.

    I’d love to envision a bright future and might check into this book if it inspires that.

    Because lately I just worry we’ve taken five hard steps backwards.

    I just wonder if we are the definition of insanity: should we keep trying the same things or is it time for a new tack? And if so, what?

    I’m going to bang the “quit making it exclusively a woman’s issue — we’ve progressed forward enough to make it an ALL OF US issue.”

  9. Joanne Bamberger aka PunditMom Says:

    So many issues, so little time. I totally agree with you in our assessment about Linda Hirshman (I was astonished when I discovered she was a friend of Gloria’s!) and Leslie Bennetts (all the “opt out” stories have been disputed with real data).

    I agree with Gloria that we have to own our part and take whatever power we can, and stand up and walk through whatever doors we can. But we won’t be able to do ANY of that until there is institutional and structural change. And that won’t happen as long as there is a conservative business bias in this country and as long as the women of the Tea Party yell more loudly than we do that they don’t need any help and they’ll do it by themselves, thank you very much. The bad thing about the Tea Party women is so many of them have not lived through the kind of stories you tell, Becky, and the kind that many of us have lived through and they haven’t yet hit the wall to prevent their moving forward. And if we all have to keep relearning these lessons and looking out only for ourselves and not each other, not even our daughters or granddaughters will have it any different.

  10. Becky Says:

    Oh, Julie. I remember the ’80s. We women weren’t supposed to talk about our personal lives (and I didn’t even HAVE one to talk about), were we? So it was incredibly irritating to listen to male colleagues / superiors a decade or so later talking about their kids & families. Of course, they never got harrassed about taking too much sick leave to take their children to the doctor … because they never HAD to.

    Your list regarding pay disparity, etc., was covered well by Ann Crittenden almost 10 years ago in The Price of Motherhood. What’s frustrating is that things don’t seem to be getting better.

    I believe what Feldt is saying in her book is out of chaos comes opportunity. Things are very chaotic right now, and she believes we’re at a tipping point. As long as that momentum flows in the right direction (instead of another PR tool to sell us stuff to “feel” more powerful), I think she may be on to something.

    Even though she has this “generational bias,” I believe she is willing to sit at the table with anyone and everyone to work together — especially in supporting women running for elected office.

  11. Becky Says:

    Joanne, I think politics may be a key point … getting as many women to run for elected office as possible to achieve parity in making decisions about work and life. (Of course most contries that have achieved parity or come close? Had to pass laws mandating it.) She mentions The White House Project for one … and many other groups working toward that goal.

    While the latest headline is about two women running for the same office and one saying the other isn’t as good because she’s not a mother … wait. The most important part of that? TWO WOMEN RUNNING FOR THE SAME OFFICE.


    Who knows. Maybe we’ll have two women running for president next time.

  12. ilinap Says:

    “Opt out,” my ass. I was laid off. At five months pregnant. I find that the harshest judges of my choices are fellow women. Nevermind the reasons for the plight of women; we don’t need more layers to the “mommy Wars/Women Wars.” Sadly, to get structural, real change, we need some men advocating for us. While men still largely lord over corporations and Congress, we need them on this side.

  13. Amy@UWM Says:

    Great post. I have the same feelings about the Boomer generation that made all of these “choices” possible — some reverence mixed with true anger. How are we to take advantage of the choices if the system isn’t set up to allow us those choices? I wrote one of my very first blog posts about this where I come to the conclusion that women’s rights are a perpetual evolution and that we can only make incremental progress. You can read it here http://tinyurl.com/27h7w22.

    I agree with Feldt that to make changes, we need to work together with a movement mentality, the problem is that because the system is set up against us, working 18 hours a day juggling work and family, how in the world will we have time to change the world? That is a perpetual question I ask on my blog. It worries me terribly.

    Also, we need to make work-life balance a family issue rather than a feminist issue. To strike true balance, men need to take more responsibility at home and demand just as much flexibility at work as women.

  14. Becky Says:

    Wow, Ilina. Thanks for sharing your experience. This is exactly what I mean when I say it’s just not as simple as saying “cut it out.” How exactly were you supposed to have control in that situation? How were you supposed to get a similar job WHILE PREGNANT? Many, many questions to ask of those who think you somehow let down everyone by getting yourself knocked up and then laid off.

    Am I right?

    It is also very important to hear about your experience. That’s one of the things Feldt tells women to do, “Tell Your Story.” Your story needs to be told again and again to explain why structural change is needed.

    And you and Amy are right. Men need to advocate for change too. These are family issues, HUMAN issues.

    Thanks for sharing your post, Amy. I like your question about how to make choices if the system hasn’t changed. What bothers me most is the way that every problem is simply turned back on women. Instead of saying the system needs to change so that EVERYONE is paid fairly, women hear, you need to act like a man and ask for it. You’re not assertive enough.

  15. ilinap Says:

    I hope that this supposedly enlightened generation of fathers realize just how important their voices are here. You are right that this is a HUMAN issue, not male or female. Do these fathers want their daughters to get paid less than my sons? I experienced a major pay discrepancy (Oddly enough, that discrepancy was between me and Mac Daddy when we worked together.) and I marched into our boss’ office to demand equal pay. However, had Mac Daddy and I not been so close and come to realization that my pay was significantly less than his for the exact same job (that I was in longer!), I would have never even known to fight for that. We need to START with parity, not move towards it. Damn, I’ll fired up thinking about that experience now.

  16. Becky Says:

    Gloria Feldt posted this article by Lisa Belkin on Facebook: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/24/magazine/24fob-wwln-t.html?_r=2&ref=magazine

    In the article, Belkin mentions a new book by Joan C. Williams, Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter. I just ordered the book and can’t wait to read it because her Unbending Gender made so much sense.

  17. Becky Says:

    Gloria will be on Book Talk Radio tonight at 8 (eastern), Ilina, if you can participate! I hope to be there. You can also get a free copy of her book if you join the book club.


  18. Becky Says:

    (Though I’ve tried a couple of times to sign up for a book and have run into server errors.)

  19. Becky Says:

    Again, Ilina, another important story to tell! Keep telling it!

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