Yes, I made up “philactivist.” But what else do you call someone who combines philanthropy with political activism in a unique way, driven by her power of intention. Barbara Lee is one of the women I profiled in No Excuses because I so admire her drive, her vision, and her commitment to women’s advancement in politics. This continues my series of “She’s Doing It” columns in which I ask women what they have learned since I interviewed them.
Barbara Lee pictured with California Attorney General Kamala Harris
Gloria Feldt: In No Excuses, I asked, “When did you know you had the power to_____?”
What have you learned about your power to _____ during the past year or so?
Going to Girl Scout camp at age 12 was my first time away from home. I vividly recall the sound and smell of fresh pine needles crunching under my feet as I gathered twigs to build a fire to earn my campfire badge. I remember rubbing two sticks together for what seemed like forever and with each spark I learned more and more about the power of intention. I was determined to start that fire. It was the first step for me in knowing my own power. Ever since I have kindled my belief in myself and have used the power of intention to make the world a better place for women.
Barbara Lee: Was there a moment when you felt very powerful recently? If so, please describe the circumstances, what you did, and why you were aware of your power. Was there a moment when you felt powerless recently? If so, please describe the circumstances, what you did, and why you felt your lack of power.
Growing up, I was the shy girl who wouldn’t raise her hand in school—even to ask permission to use the bathroom. Public speaking petrified me and when the teacher would call on me to present to the class I would be close to tears. It was so overwhelming for me and I was always relieved when the experience was over.
So much has changed since then! Now I often find myself standing before groups of all sizes talking about women in politics or introducing exciting leaders.
Just recently I was invited to speak at Harvard for a screening of Miss Representation, a documentary by Jennifer Siebel Newsom that explores how misrepresentations of women in the media have led to the under representation of women in positions of power and influence. The theater was so crowded that some of the students were sitting cross-legged in the aisles. Afterwards, I was swarmed by young women and men who had more questions or who wanted to talk to me personally.
Now I feel joyful and energized, knowing I have the power to stand in front of an audience to connect with people about the things that are important to me. How did I find my voice?
Certainly, maturity and confidence had something to do with it and there was also a lot of hard work, determination, and the expert guidance of Chris Jahnke, my friend and author of The Well-Spoken Woman. Chris shares all her secrets to looking and sounding your best in this great book and I think everyone should own a copy!
GF: Which of the 9 Ways Power Tools have you used or do you particularly resonate with?
BL: Gloria, your Power Tool #7: Take Action; Create a Movement is ringing pretty loudly the moment.
I just wrote in Huffington Post about how when we were younger, wearing bell bottoms and platform shoes, it seemed that we were moving past this place of politicizing women’s health. After tremendous struggle, we saw a wave of landmark victories and the future for women seemed bright. Well, now the vintage fashion is back in style and so are the attacks on women’s health. On the one hand I am stunned that we are again fighting about birth control 40 years later…I am also hopeful that this will be the catalyst for a new generation of women to get engaged and become leaders. We can all start taking action today and help rebuild the momentum towards equality. It’s common sense and it’s time.
GF: For the first time in history, gender parity at work, in civic life, and in personal relationships seems possible—if we choose to make it so. That’s my take. What’s yours? What are the signs that tell you I’m right, or that make you think I’m overly optimistic?
BL: I am genuinely optimistic about gender parity. Turning Point: The Changing Landscape for Women Candidates, a report my Foundation released last summer, shows how 2010 was a turning point in our 12 years of non-partisan research on women’s campaigns for governor. We found that women candidates ran on a more level playing field than in past years.Women still faced barriers, they also showed distinct advantages over their male competitors. Voters wanted candidates who are problem-solvers, have the right priorities, and show strength.As one campaign consultant noted, “You know that [women] can manage things pretty well because they are moms and wives. I think that’s strength.”
What we are seeing is that women can finally be 360° candidates. They don’t have to hide their kids or deny their gender. If they use the full range of their professional expertise and personal experiences women have a broader range of opportunities to connect with voters. Now, more than ever, gender can be a strategic asset for women candidates.
GF: What other observations about women’s relationship with power or leadership do you want to share?
BL: I am very inspired by the women leaders who are taking bold action today. Including the group of Attorneys General who have led the way on consumer protections and won a landmark foreclosure settlement on behalf of homeowners across the country. Kudos to Attorney General Kamala Harris (CA), Attorney General Lisa Madigan (IL), Attorney General Martha Coakley (MA), and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto (NV).
Women in Congress have also been at the front lines, defending against attacks on women’s healthcare. Here are a couple of videos that show how vital the power of women in office is to all of us:
- Democratic Women Senators reject proposed 2011 budget cuts to Planned Parenthood
- Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) shares her own powerful story during February 2011 House debate over defunding Planned Parenthood
And of course, I’m a great admirer of Elizabeth Warren who is widely credited for the original thinking, political courage, and relentless persistence that led to the creation the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and is now running for the U.S. Senate in my home state of Massachusetts.