Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2

October 19, 2011 by

A Conversation with Gloria Feldt

Right-wing challenges to women’s access to safe and legal abortion, and to other reproductive rights, are being mounted in many locations. Gloria Feldt (www.gloriafeldt.com), former president and CEO of Planned Parenthood, is a leading activist for women’s rights. Author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power, Feldt has some ideas about how we can seize back this important agenda.

How did your background as a Jewish teen mother get you where you are today?

When I was young, I felt different for being Jewish in a small town in Texas. I think that that feeling of differentness made me want to be the all-American girl when I was a teenager. And being the all-American girl in rural West Texas in the 1950s meant getting the boy, getting married, having babies, packing your husband’s lunch, having a picket fence.

I became pregnant. On one level, it was unintentional. On another, I think it was intended. I was conforming to the role society was telling me I should play.

As I became more mature, I began to reflect on my upbringing. I began to work to help other people get their civil rights, people who’d been treated as different. Fighting for other oppressed people began to give me strength. I became grateful for knowing what it was like to be different. I was also informed by the Jewish ethic, tikkun olam, even though those words were never uttered in our house, as far as I can remember. But once I came to understand that concept, I understood the Jewish imperative for social justice had influenced me.

What got you involved in women’s rights?

I was very aware the birth control pill gave me the ability to have a life of my own. It’s hard for me to explain what a radical change the Pill brought to women.

I knew how hard it was to be a parent when you’re just a child yourself. I knew I wanted my children to have other opportunities in life, particularly my daughters.

Thirdly, I had this epiphany that if there are civil rights for people of color, then there are civil rights for women, too, right? It was one of those click moments.

Then I was offered a position with Planned Parenthood. It turned out to be a perfect fit.

What are the best ways to mobilize Jewish women for reproductive freedom?

Many of the most dedicated, dependable groups of women who are involved in reproductive rights are Jewish women’s organizations. I serve on the board of the Jewish Women’s Archive and we were just talking about that yesterday.

The good news is a preponderance of Jewish women are very supportive of reproductive rights. The best way to organize anybody is to give them something significant to do. For example, when I was president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, I made sure we always were initiating legislation. We always passed more than we thought we would. We worked with Senators Olympia Snowe and Harry Reid on legislation to have insurance companies cover contraception if they covered any other prescription drug. That never passed; however, because we had that legislation in the hopper, the idea was out there. It enabled us to define the agenda. When there was the opportunity, a Jewish woman in the House of Representatives, Nita Lowey, was able to pass an amendment to the federal appropriation legislation, that required the Federal Employees Insurance Plan to cover contraception. It sets the pattern for many other insurance plans.

We didn’t have Facebook then; we didn’t have Twitter. We have many more tools now to get people involved.

Reproductive freedom involves all women, but are there any ways it particularly involves Jewish women?

The idea that sex is inherently evil does not exist in Judaism, whereas it does exist in Christianity within original sin. I think that that is one of the reasons why Jewish women and men have been so willing to be involved in reproductive rights issues. We don’t start with the bias against sexuality. It’s a different world view about the nature and purpose of human sexuality, and once you have that, it’s a different world view of women’s place.

Some people are saying we need a stronger term than “pro-choice.”

Choice is a good word because it’s an easy code word, but it’s not sufficient anymore. I don’t think it’s a morally strong enough term. We must develop a new legal and ethical construct to support reproductive rights, based in women’s human rights and civil rights. It’s not just about choice, as in, “Do I want chocolate or vanilla?” Within our culture, the meaning of choice has been dissipated. We should broaden it, and speak in terms of women’s moral agency.

I’m interested in advancing women’s equality on a bigger scale than just reproductive rights. One of the things I emphasize in No Excuses is the intersection between economic justice and reproductive justice. You need money of your own, and you need to be able to control your body. If you have those two things, you have power. If you do not have those things, you cannot have power.

My passion has always been for women to have an equal place in the world.  I don’t think the world will ever be perfect. But I do think everybody should have a fair shot. Women have to change how we think about power and take power for ourselves, not wait for somebody to give it to us.

It’s hard to change a culture while you’re living in it. I think that’s why we sometimes see women stepping back, and that’s part of why I felt it was so important to write a book like No Excuses. I have been told we write the book we need to read. It’s not like I’ve always understood the use of power. I’ve had to learn these things as I go. It’s a constant learning process.