The former head of Planned Parenthood, Gloria Feldt, has a new book out, No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change the Way We Think about Power and Leadership. Her interview with the New York Times suggests that the book is exactly what you’d expect. Feldt laments that women haven’t reached parity with men in terms of executive power, and believes that “a culture that undervalues an entire gender” keeps women from achieving more.
Self-help books are a fine thing, and to the extent that Feldt simply encourages women to be their own best advocates, the book is harmless. Feldt also implicitly acknowledges that not all of the wage gap is the result of discrimination when she discusses how women’s choices and behaviors result in less pay.
Yet when talking about motherhood, Feldt confirms that the book isn’t really about helping individual women live up to their potential and achieve greater happiness: It’s about advancing the feminist agenda of increasing women’s economic and political power, regardless of what individual women want.
The New York Times asks about the impact of women choosing to “flee” the workforce (a loaded question), Feldt explains:
They make it harder for the rest of us to remedy the inequities that remain. We have to make young women aware of how their choices affect other women. It should be acceptable criticism to point out that, although everyone has the right to make their own life decisions, choosing to “opt out” reinforces stereotypes about women’s priorities that we’ve been working for decades to shatter, so just cut it out. And, the “individual choice” women have to become stay-at-home moms becomes precarious when they try to return to the workplace and find their earning power and options reduced. If we could see child-rearing as a necessary task and not an identity, and if we could collectively recognize that facilitating it 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.
Feldt wants women to tell other women to “cut it out” and get back to work rather than spend their time nurturing their children. Feldt worries that women opting out confirms a stereotype — that many women actually want to spend time raising their children after they are born — that the feminists have been working so hard to shatter.
But what if the stereotype is actually true? Plenty has been written on how women and men differ biologically (see here and here, to start), so that women are more drawn to caring for their babies. In this light, Feldt’s desire to coerce women to ignore their natural instincts seems profoundly anti-woman.
Feldt may consider raising children “a necessary task” — much like taking out the trash or scrubbing the bathroom floor — that society should focus on completing in the most efficient, least intrusive manner. But many women who stay home with children feel it’s more than that. Beyond wanting to directly shape the life you’ve created, many women actually find the process of nurturing self-actualizing. (Those who want to know more and consider how our society does women a disservice by discouraging women from pursuing a journey of hands-on mothering should read Maternal Desire by Daphne de Marneffe.)
Feldt may have some good advice for women seeking to reach the top of the corporate ladder, but by dismissing stay-at-home moms, she alienates many.