She has been called the “voice of experience” by People magazine, as well as other publishing accolades such as Glamour’s “Woman of the Year” and one of Vanity Fair’s “America’s Top 200 Women Leaders, Legends, and Trailblazers.” When you are carrying around credentials like that, you know your voice is important and impactful.
Gloria Feldt has spent her lifetime using her platform to advocate for women and girls in leadership positions and understands the intrinsic value they bring to the decision-making table, no matter where they are. The bestselling author and speaker is certainly no stranger to success herself, and her journey to becoming a powerful leader reads like the kind of Hollywood script where we would leave the cinema cheering and clapping with tears in our eyes, as we raise our fists with a knowing look to the other women around us.
Hailing from rural Texas, Gloria ended up dropping out of high school and became pregnant as a teen. She had three kids by the time she was twenty with her high school sweetheart, but that was far from the end of her story. Fast forward a number of years, Gloria became the President and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America from 1996 to 2006, before current CEO and fellow Texan Cecile Richards took over.
During her decade at the largest reproductive healthcare provider in the country, Gloria activated the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the organization’s political action committee, which made a presidential endorsement for the first time in its 100 year history for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Since leaving the healthcare provider, Gloria has taken her advocacy to the next level, authored 4 books, and regularly speaks at events about the need for more women in leadership roles. She currently travels the country with her Take The Lead movement, which is about tapping into the current wave of female empowerment, and helping half the population break through the resistance to embracing their own power in an age where there is a distinct knowledge of the need for feminine leadership, rather than women simply trying to emulate men to get to the top.
Gloria believes we are living in a moment where women are fighting for equality more than ever, and with the Trump/Pence administration, her voice and encouragement are certainly part of what is going to be the collective resistance to regressive policies and culture. She has been fighting this fight against anti-choice lawmakers for many years, and is now taking that experience into a much wider landscape for many more women to benefit from.
In line with our commitment to utilize our platform to give voice to powerful women who are the change-makers across America, we spoke with Gloria about ‘Take The Lead’, her thoughts on the state of women’s reproductive rights today, and what she believes is a better strategy than simply “fighting back”.
You have been a long-time advocate for women in leadership. Why is encouraging female leadership important to you?
There is always a personal story. I grew up in a time and place when women were not given aspirations for careers or opportunities to share in life’s accomplishments or wealth. Women’s equality in all areas has always been about simple justice to me. And now we know businesses do better (are more profitable) and the world would be a safer and healthier place for everyone if there were greater gender parity in leadership.
How did it all begin for you? What was your first leadership position that propelled your career initially?
You could say my first leadership position was having three children by the time I was 20. You learn many leadership skills from that experience! I was serendipitously recruited for and offered my first CEO position after teaching at Head Start for five years. I had always wanted to be a teacher. I accepted the position as executive director of the small new Planned Parenthood affiliate in West Texas, thinking I’d do it for three years and then go back to teaching. 30 years later I retired as the organization’s national president. So you never know where life will give you the opportunities to lead. Just say yes and take them.
Today in the US there is still a lot of stigma around teen mothers, sadly. Talk to us about being a teen mom, a high school dropout from rural Texas, and how you defied all expectations despite your situation.
I felt very weak and powerless at the time, and though I was married felt isolated in a new city with few friends or family. But I had always been a good student. So I continued my education, first through a high school correspondence course and then took 12 years to get my college degree. The ability to learn was one thing I knew I did have the ability to do, and that achievement helped me to tackle others.
Before becoming a best-selling author and entrepreneur, you were the CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Why are women’s reproductive rights so important to you?
Again, there’s always a personal story. I knew how hard it was to be a very young mother. The birth control pill saved my life when it became available—it let me know I could have a life of my own. As I became more attuned to women’s rights, or the lack of them in society, I realized that to be fully free and to be an equal citizen, everyone needs two things: first, to own and control your own body. Second is to have a means to support yourself financially. If you have those two things and then you can be whatever you want to be. And you can contribute your best self to the world.
When you look at the current political landscape of women’s healthcare, what encouragement and important advice would you give to women who are looking to fight back against regressive ideas and policies?
The same advice I’ve always given. Stop fighting back. Focus on fighting forward. Set the agenda. And understand you’re not just fighting for health care, you’re fighting for women’s fundamental human and civil rights. Own it. Say it. I think that by narrowing the issue to health care, they have harmed the movement.
While lack of access to healthcare and family planning can often hold (especially low-income) women back from reaching their full potential, there are also many other factors. How are you looking to change this with your ‘Take The Lead’ movement?
If you keep fighting the same battle over and over again and getting the same result, that’s a sure sign you need to change your strategy. Aiming for power sharing by advancing gender parity in leadership is that new strategy that I think is the most effective one now. I was shocked to find when researching my latest book, ‘No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power’, that women’s own culturally learned ambivalence toward power has been holding us back from achieving parity.
Though the second wave of the feminist movement opened the doors and changed certain discriminatory laws, women have been stuck in under 20% of the top leadership positions across all sectors of the economy. I decided I had to change that and I developed our 9 Leadership Power Tools to Accelerate Your Career program. It gives women amazing breakthrough so they can embrace their power with authenticity, intention, confidence, and joy. And then they do extraordinary things.
How can women in positions of leadership become powerful agents for change in their lives and communities?
The most important thing at woman in a position of leadership can do to be a powerful agent of change is to nurture, mentor, and sponsor other women into leadership. To teach women to create a new paradigm and how we think about power. The male model has been a belief that resources are always finite, that there is a finite pie and if I take a slice of it, there’s less for you. In truth, if I help you and you help me, we both can create more of everything: more wealth, more innovation, more pie all around.
Every generation of women faces a different set of challenges. What advice do you give to future generations of female leaders?
My leadership experience and study of what’s happening in business, politics, and family life today leads me to conclude this is the moment when women can make quantum leaps forward toward equality in all areas. But change does not happen on its own—people have to make it happen. So remember where you came from, that you didn’t get where you are alone, and that what you do today matters—it becomes someone else’s history tomorrow.
Why do we need more women in positions of leadership today?
It’s good for business and the economy—companies that have more women leaders make more money.
It’s good for the world to get the benefit of the full capabilities of all humans of any gender.
It’s the right thing to do. We’re back to simple justice.
What makes you a powerful woman?
They say you write the book you need to read. I’m still learning to own my power. I intentionally try to choose power over fear every day. Even though that’s not how I was socialized to be and it remains a challenge, I set daily intentions. Often I don’t succeed in achieving them all, but I learn from each setback.