She Fights Back

How to be the best troublemaker you can be

For too long women have been expected to be passive. Two recent books — No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think about Power (Seal Press, $24.95) by Gloria Feldt and Push Comes to Shove (MIT Press, 27.95) by Maud Lavin — champion and advocate driven and aggressive women. Push Comes to Shove discusses the current state of art and entertainment, while No Excuses offers a mixture of memoir, anecdote and advice on how women can step forward and take what is rightfully theirs.

Lavin, a professor of art history at the Art Institute of Chicago, acknowledges the negative side of aggression — how it can lead to violence and pain, but she concentrates on the positive aspects. “Aggression is, on one level, a drive, primal and dynamic energy. And this, stopping short of violence, I celebrate.”

Lavin gives the reader images of aggressive women, both factual and fictional, without ignoring the psychological dimension of aggressive behavior. She cites examples of female athletes, including boxers. In fiction, she considers movies with sports themes, like Blue Crush, and novels by erotica writer Zane, who, Lavin asserts, “encourages play,” which she views as another side of aggression. She includes a chapter on harmful violence, in which she discusses the Kill Bill movies and Marlene McCarty’s Murder Girls art series. Kill Bill is escapism that doesn’t hurt anyone. Murder Girls, however, is based on real-life female murderers. Though Lavin focuses on artistic interpretation of the artworks rather than the murderous girls themselves, this feels out of place in a book dedicated to exploring the positive side of aggression. Lavin’s thesis is that positive images of aggressive women are increas- ingly coming to us through entertainment and sports, and that society is accepting and embracing these images.

No Excuses is concerned with the real world rather than its artistic representation. Gloria Feldt, a former president and CEO of Planned Parenthood, stresses the importance of women seeking political and other leadership roles, working toward careers rather than staying at home. This enterprising lifestyle isn’t for everyone, but Feldt points out that many women earn college degrees they don’t use, or start climbing a career ladder only to quit early. Why, she asks, do so many women opt out? She cites sobering statistics about how few women are involved in American politics or high-ranking jobs. As of 2010, Feldt notes: “Women hold 25% of state legislative offices; just 3% of clout positions in mainstream media corporations, and 15% of corporate board positions — Feldt interviews many women, from household- name politicians like Hillary Clinton (“Women who value their autonomy have to step up and talk action”), to She Writes cofounders Kamy Wicoff and Deborah Siegel, to memoir author and journalist Sarah Saffian. Feldt also includes her own dramatic life story: She went from being a nice Jewish girl in Bible Belt Texas to a teenage mother who had to educate herself and build up a career. By twenty she had three children and had married her high school sweetheart, but she wanted more to life than being a homemaker and was able to go to college once the pill freed her from reproductive fears.

No Excuses packs quite a punch. Minibiographies of influential women and timelines of feminist activism indicate that, as Feldt says, women have plenty of ambition, but sometimes lack the resolve to make things happen: “[T]he real question is whether women have sufficient intention to start from the assumption that they can (and by all rights should) propel themselves to parity in elective office and have the will to stay with it until they do.” She also stresses the idea of “power-to” instead of “power-over,” reminding us that power should be used to help and not to oppress. 

Danica Davidson has published a few hundred articles on numerous topics, some of which are linked at her website: