Monday, November 29, 2010

Book Review: No Excuses

So, I should preface this book review by noting that I generally avoid books and articles that, although largely well-intentioned, are of the Workplace-Tips-For-Women variety. Such advice, I've found too often, encourages women to adopt toxic hyper-"masculine" values, while failing to critique such values.

Ladies, the oft-repeated advice goes, it's time to "man up" if you want better salaries, more respect, and more executive positions. When a book takes this direction, it is assumed that more women in leadership positions is automatically good for all women (see, eg, Sarah Palin Feminism), regardless of the values these female leaders possess.

I was glad that Gloria Feldt's latest book, No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power, mostly refrained from going down that path. (All quotations from No Excuses unless otherwise indicated).

In a nutshell, Feldt, a feminist and former president of Planned Parenthood, describes No Excuses as "an urgent call to action" for "women to embrace their power" because there are "no excuses" anymore for women not doing so (9). That is, external barriers no longer exist, but "internal barriers" prevent women from utilizing our full political power (18).

My first instinct upon reading this recurring theme throughout her book was that it can come off as victim-blamey. However, Feldt does spend ample time deconstructing the gender role conditioning and social factors that train women to, above all, be nice, put the needs of others first, and to be self-sacrificing, all very real internal barriers, albeit caused by external factors. Where her book is most valuable is when she discusses specific ways women can transcend this gender role conditioning while also challenging dominant workplace cultures.

For instance, disagreeing with the modern notion that any choice is a feminist choice as long as it's a woman making it, Feldt takes to task those highly-educated and "elite women" who, rather than making the leap into leadership positions in the public sphere, instead opt for "traditional help-meet and stay-at-home mom roles" (27). Rather than challenging workplace cultures that developed when it was assumed that every worker was a man who had a wife tending to his home and children, such women leave the workplace altogether, leaving family-unfriendly workplace cultures intact. And, as long as it is primarily women who forego careers in favor of raising children and doing work within the home, such "women's work" will continue to be seen as "outside the lifeblood of the economy" (103) no matter how many male professional careers are dependent upon such work.

Then, Feldt encourages women to redefine power. While power generally has had connotations of "power-over" and "oppression" (66), Feldt emphasizes a shift in definition to "power-to," "which supports and enhances whatever power the individual brings to a project, workplace, relationship, or civic activity" (81). Rather than being coercive, "power-to" works by developing consensus. Citing examples of women who fail to run for office because they mistakenly believe they aren't qualified enough and who fail to ask for the high salaries that equally-qualified men ask for, Feldt encourages women to recognize our power and to use it.

I know, it's not always an easy feat for women to ask for higher salaries given that women who do so are viewed more negatively than men. And also, women who are strong and assertive are also framed as "bitches" and "aggressive." Here, perhaps Feldt would answer that women should "embrace controversy," which is her Power Tool Number Four (153), which is always easier said than done, and not always a viable option for women desperate for a job, dealing with sky-high student debt, or living paycheck-to-paycheck.

And on that point, while I appreciated the real-life profiles and anecdotes of successful and powerful women, some of the women's experiences weren't always the most easy to relate to. Two twenty-somethings profiled, for instance, were Lauren Bush (as in George W's niece) and Ellen Gustafson, who seem to be doing great work through the foundation they created, but how much of their success is due to their class privilege, expensive educations, and contacts with VIPs? I'm also not sure the average reader, if such a thing even exists, could relate to the experiences of Jennifer Buffett, the president of a multi-billion dollar foundation, who is married to the son of one of the world's wealthiest people.

Nonetheless, coming in at a rather long 354 pages, there are many solid take-aways from No Excuses. While the Just Do It sloganing can come off as cheesy to some (including me), I did appreciate her specific advice to women to speak up for ourselves, to support other women, to advocate for women's contributions being taught in history classes, to speak with authority, and to be good online citizens (like by chiming in to praise a feminist's article or blogpost, or countering asshole misogynist commenters, hint hint).

Someone relatively new to feminism and women's studies will appreciate and learn from the historical context she includes to help frame the opportunity she sees for women. Feldt is absolutely right that we need to know our history so we don't fall into the same cycle of voluntarily relinquishing our power to toxic ideologies.

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