• Motto

Gloria Feldt: Feminism Doesn’t Need to Be Palatable in 2017

7 minute read

Princess Leia: We have no time for sorrows, Commander. You must use the information in this R-2 unit to help plan the attack — it’s our only hope.

The untimely death of Carrie Fisher had me recalling her classic Star Wars lines. Though some of them were first uttered 40 years ago, their currency remains for the women of all ages reeling from the dream of a female president deferred while ugly racist, sexist streams within American culture were illuminated beyond denial.

Now, we have no time for sorrows. And I suspect that Princess Leia, like me, would have little sympathy for those who are focused on resistance, because resistance alone is a losing strategy.

The first question for building a smarter plan is on what side of the equation goes hope, and on what side despair?

Michelle Goldberg writes in Slate, “Instead of the year that the highest glass ceiling shattered, 2016 might go down as the year the feminist bubble burst.” But the truth is that the bubble she describes was superficial, celebrity driven and lacking in activist substance.

We will survive the bubble’s demise. And it’s our choice — those women and men whose core values include the simple justice of leadership parity — to see the opportunity in this moment of cultural and political chaos. To peer around the easy markers of progress to see where the hard and more intractable challenges can be jarred out of place by a new consciousness.

Out of the bunkers, please. On to the march but be sure to march for something, not against everything.

I’m distressed too, but not devastated at the setback of losing that long sought for pinnacle of equality. I believe, based on my study of historical patterns of the women’s movement in the U.S., that this loss can paradoxically provide the necessary energy not just to shatter that glass ceiling and many others, but to clean up the remaining shards of deep rooted biases and cooption that depress women’s own intentions to lead. I’m sufficiently optimistic that I’m devoting the rest of my life to achieving gender parity in leadership in order to normalize it.

I don’t mean blithely singing Monty Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” though optimism is the healthier alternative. From Rebecca Solnit’s pioneering work Hope in the Dark to studies conducted at the University College London’s Affective Brain Lab, it’s clear that seeing the bright side of what is possible and taking action on it is the choice most likely to bring about the results we want.

When I wrote No Excuses — at its core a study of women’s ambivalent relationship with powerI identified a pattern of women taking giant steps forward only to step back of their own conscious or unconscious volition. Usually the steps back were to let another group go first. From Abolition on, women put their rights second. Women’s suffrage was finally won when they gave up their progressive agenda and argued it wouldn’t matter because women would only vote like their husbands. And they did. Rosie the Riveter went back to the kitchen when Johnny came marching home. I remember many intense conversations a decade ago about women with Harvard MBAs who chose to stay at home and raise a family. But it would have been more productive to discuss how to change the organizational cultures that often forced them to leave their jobs behind in the first place.

“Someone has to save our skins,” Princess Leia says to Han Solo as she takes over the reins of her own rescue.

How often have women historically squandered or simply not recognized opportunities to save our own skins? Why during the Obama years for example was there no aggressive national attempt to pass the Freedom of Choice Act to codify reproductive rights? Why was there only one equal pay legislation passed, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act?

Just when women were on a roll again, married white women stepped us all back on November 8. Why would any woman support a candidate who is openly derisive of women and even admitted to grabbing and objectifying them? What does this say to their daughters? There’s much to mine here but they’re most likely driven by the same unconscious biases that shape so much human behavior. Perhaps they felt they would lose if they gave up their privileged position of supposed security within the patriarchy. It’s no different than the underemployed white male voter who wants to be the rich guy so he illogically votes for one. That they are siding with racists and sexists can’t be ignored even though they may feel exempt from such labels. The open secret is their alignment with who they perceive holds the real power will not protect them from reality.

But here’s why 2017 is a moment of opportunity to spark a new movement forward for women. With each setback, many steps forward remain in effect, so we start the next phase from a more advanced place. Even Disney Princesses have evolved from Cinderella to Moana, and Leia today is not such an aberration. That’s the first ray of hope I can give you.

Second, in the simple business proposition, as seen by Thomson Reuters’ formation of the D&I Index, the change we seek as simple justice is the best way to move the economy forward. The evidence is that when every race and gender has a place at the power table, the notion of what the “norm” is, shifts and everyone benefits. Our challenge is to change that perception on as many fronts as possible from the workplace to the local town office and on to the highest office.

The third and most important is that even during the worst of times, there is progress. Mettle gets tested and backbones of advocates get strengthened. Friction creates energy and movements are built on energy. Hillary Clinton herself once told me we shouldn’t be surprised at backlash because women have made such stunning advances in the last 50 years. Take its energy to propel ourselves forward to the next plateau.

Sometimes simply being there and prepared when winds shift is enough to propel an agenda forward. But if we’re not in the fray all the time, we keep being pushed back. As Jamia Wilson so eloquently writes in the Guardian, “Power is taken, never given.”

Much of the fashionable feminism of recent years has been easy to adopt. That won’t be the case now. The ranks will thin a bit but that’s OK. It leaves the path clearer for those of us whose intention is to keep moving forward no matter what.

Of such moments of chaos, new social movements are born. Let’s make 2017 the year when women rise and write themselves into all power sagas. When gender parity is so normalized within the culture that pay and leadership gaps become a historical artifact.

That’s how we’ll save our own skins, and America.

Gloria Feldt is the co-founder and president of Take The Lead and a bestselling author of four books. She is also the former president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

MOTTO hosts provocative voices and influencers from various spheres. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of our editors.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com