What’s the difference between Gloria Feldt’s ‘No Excuses,’ and Sandberg’s ‘Lean In?’

A couple years ago, I read No Excuses: Nine Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power by Gloria Feldt, the former CEO of Planned Parenthood. While reading the recent criticism all over the internet of Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In, I thought of Feldt’s similar book. I couldn’t remember a feminist backlash against that author. Was I remembering Feldt’s thesis incorrectly?


Here is how No Excuses is described on Amazon:

In No Excuses, feminist icon Gloria Feldt argues that the most confounding problem facing women today isn’t that doors aren’t open, but that not enough women are walking through them.


Whoaa– Feldt wrote about that? Did feminists freak out?


From the boardroom to the bedroom, public office to personal relationships, she asserts that nobody is keeping women from parity — except themselves.


OK, that’s not a true statement about the world, obviously, and having read the book, from what I remember, that is not what Feldt writes either. In the book, Feldt teaches women how to think about power in a different way in order to embrace it. For example, she talks about how women, having been on the bad end of the power spectrum for so long, often identify power negatively, as “power over,” as dominance. Feldt encourages women to, instead, look at power as “power to,” as competence.

The synopsis goes on:


Through interviews, historical perspective, and anecdotes, examines why barriers to gender equality still exist in American society and discusses how to break them down through organized efforts using movement-building principles.


Ah…this sentence seems seems more ambiguous than the last one. Barriers still exist. The book discusses how to break them down with organized efforts and movement building.

Feldt employs a no-nonsense, tough-love point of view to expose the internal and external roadblocks holding women back, but she doesn’t place blame; rather, she provides inspiration, hope, and courage — as well as concrete “power tools” to aid women in securing equality and justice for themselves — articulated with personal warmth and humor. No Excuses is a timely and invaluable book that helps women equalize gender power in politics, work, and love.


So does this thesis sound familar to you? Can you imagine if Sandberg called her book No Excuses? She’d be tarred and feathered, which she basically has been, in our contemporary way. Sandberg was quoted out of context in the New York Times and Washington Post, not to mention all over the internet, to make her seem like a selfish bitch.

The Washington Post piece is headlined:

Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’ campaign holds little for most women

Here’s the lede:

”She had it all — a husband, children, a beautiful home, a seat on the board of a billion-dollar company, a nine-figure net worth of her own. But there was one thing Sheryl Sandberg didn’t have. “I always thought I would run a social movement,” Sandberg said in the PBS/AOL documentary series “Makers.”

But Sandberg wasn’t actually saying she wrote a book because she wants a new toy. Her quote is from a documentary, “Makers,” when she was being interviewed about her career. Sandberg explained that she always thought that she would work at a non-profit and not in the private sector. Here’s the full quote:

I always thought I would run a social movement, which meant basically work at a nonprofit. I never thought I’d work in the corporate sector.

The New York Times printed a correction. The Washington Post has not.

As Gloria Steinem wrote on her Facebook page in her defense of Sandberg: “Only in women is success viewed as a barrier to giving advice.”

In the Guardian today, Jill Filipovic addresses the backlash:

Sandberg did what feminists are always asking powerful women in business and politics to do – stand up for gender equality – which is why it’s so disappointing to see many in the feminist camp essentially telling her to shut up and sit down.

Feldt started out as a teen mom from rural Texas. Most of us know Sandberg as a rich exec at Facebook. So is class bias a good reason to determine that Sandberg has nothing to say to help America’s women?  On the contrary. Didn’t anyone just watch “Makers” for goodness sake? History has shown that when feminism can’t overcome its own prejudices, the move forward is much slower than it needs to be.


6 thoughts on “What’s the difference between Gloria Feldt’s ‘No Excuses,’ and Sandberg’s ‘Lean In?’

  1. Thanks for making the comparison between my book and Sheryl’s. You hit the nail on the head in many ways. I’d just like to say for the record that since my goal is to move women forward toward parity in top leadership positions, I’m thrilled that a woman like Sheryl in a powerful corporate position is so willing to say these things.

    She and I have discussed that there is a need to be able to work in the system and to change it. I tend to come down more on the side of changing the system, but then movement building has been my career.

    And I’m doing it again with Take The Lead (www.taketheleadwomen.com, if anyone wants to check it out and possibly hop on board to help us reach leadership gender parity by 2025.

    • Dear Gloria,

      Thank you for your comment to Reel Girl. I’m grateful for your long career in helping women and happy that you wrote No Excuses which I learned so much from. I appreciate your support of Sheryl Sandberg’s book, though in some ways, your email perpetuates a misconception about “sides” that I want to address. You write:

      I tend to come down more on the side of changing the system, but then movement building has been my career.

      There are no sides here. Women can’t change the sexist system if they the lack basic skills do so. This may not seem like a huge deal in your comment, but this schism is presented and replicated all over the media when discussing Sandberg’s book, just last Sunday again on “60 Minutes,” and it can be distorting.

      In 1998, When I was 28, I cofounded the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership to address this lack of skills and also, the class divide in feminism. So many young women, including me, had big dreams, but little idea as to the practical tools of how to achieve them. It was like we’d missed out on a basic training course that the men had taken.

      Woodhull’s mission was to train women ages 22 – 35 in the skills they too often lacked. We saw this age period as crucial for women to lay the ground work for successful careers, a time where they needed support and training that they weren’t getting. There weren’t non-profits that focused on career development of this demographic, so we created Woodhull.

      Modules at Woodhull included: media training, negotiation, advocacy, how to get published, financial literacy, how to write a business plan, and public speaking. Every Woodhull module included a component on ethics. There’s no point in becoming a leader if you can’t be an ethical one, give back, help people, and do your part to change the world for the better.

      Woodhull also provided graduates with an on-going support network and mentorship. Woodhull graduates include Lateefah Simon, who went on to become a MacArthur Genius, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, who went on to co-found Miss Representation, and Courtney Martin, who went on to publish Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, among many other Woodhull success stories.

      Woodhull ran into challenges raising money. Foundations wanted to give money to non-profits that served 100% inner city/ low income women. Even when 2/3 of Woodhull constituents came from inner city/ low income and were scholarshipped, foundations weren’t interested in that ratio. Woodhull didn’t want to adapt to funders, because part of the reason Woodhull was founded was to bridge the class divide. Women who came to Woodhull valued that diversity. Many said they had no other place to address class differences and similarities openly and to learn from each other. Again and again, we witnessed that young women, across the board, whether from the richest or poorest families, didn’t know basic financial literacy or had difficulty receiving applause without flinching.

      Then and now, I’ve got to wonder: When women with access to money and power aren’t achieving, how does that affect all women? Where are women in power? Why are they so invisible? How can we change that? What happens when a rare woman gets to the top, writes a book about her view from up there, and gets attacked for it? As Gloria Steinem wrote, “Only in women is success viewed as a barrier to giving advice.”

      You don’t get much more privileged by birth in America than me. My great-grandfather was Charles Merrill, the founder of Merrill Lynch. He was an early investor in Safeway stores, and my grandfather became CEO of that company, building it into the world’s largest supermarket chain. My father was also a CEO of Safeway until he left the company to buy the San Francisco Giants. I think that part of the reason I became a feminist so early is because in the world that I grew up in, the gender disparity was huge. Sometimes it seemed like all of the men were running the world and all of the women were dieting.

      Following my college graduation, many of the privileged men I had grown up with went on to start their own companies, open restaurants, publish novels, and produce films. Most of the women I knew, who were smart, creative, and had a sincere desire to have a positive impact on society, took low-paying, low status jobs for big corporations or non-profits.

      What I also noticed in these women, and not the men, and an issue that you address in No Excuses, was a profound ambivalence towards success and power, basically what it means to be successful and powerful as a woman in America. For all of these reasons, I founded Woodhull.

      The class divide among women, whether it manifests as the stay-at-home vs working mommy wars or feminists against Sheryl Sandberg, is the major challenge keeping women from achieving parity. Even the foundation and non-profit worlds systemically reinforce this fatal gap. If women can’t bridge the class divide, we’ll stay stuck, but if we can overcome it, nothing will stop us.

      I can’t wait to check out http://www.taketheleadwomen.com


      Margot Magowan

  2. (I am writing this as I work through the article.)

    Went to read the Jodi Kantor article as I had no idea what you were talking about. It seems that from the beginning, Kantor is resistant to the idea that Sandberg has a plan for “educating” women. The tone reminds me of the way people criticize self-help or diet gurus. Then she appears uncomfortable with how calculated the concept seems. To me, the article is sending the message, you can’t be motivated by altruism or principles if your revolution includes “a spread in Time magazine and splashy events like a book party at the foundation offices of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg”.

    “Even her advisers acknowledge the awkwardness of a woman with double Harvard degrees, dual stock riches (from Facebook and Google, where she also worked), a 9,000-square-foot house and a small army of household help urging less fortunate women to look inward and work harder.” I think people with this argument have a legitimate point. Not knowing anything else about her personal background, from this description, I would question how much she can relate to “less fortunate women.” There is a reason there are different branches of feminism that take into account the diverse backgrounds that women come from. Yes, sisterhood and all that but you can’t deny all the other parts of your identity when you enter into a discussion on gender and feminism. Ignoring the differences that make us who we are has unfortunate implications of its own.

    From the description of the program in the article, I can foresee how it might not be practical or even ideal for someone’s lifestyle. And I think the latter half of the article continues to make some good points.

    But this was my favorite part.
    “Instead, Ms. Sandberg, Ms. Slaughter and many others are arguing about the best strategy for fulfilling feminism’s promise. “If you tell women to look inside themselves, you’re letting the corporations and government off the hook,” said Ms. Spar, the Barnard president, and “if you focus on the corporations and the governments, you’re not being realistic.”
    As long as a lively, reasoned debate is happening (where neither side tries to shut down the other) I do believe that something good can come out of it.

  3. I have yet to see the Feminists who are criticizing Sandberg. I’ve only seen support and agreement from Steinem, Valenti, Filipovic, Orenstein and you!

    • OK I read the piece in Daily Beast. M Dowd will likely do a follow up piece and that should be interesting. I think with Steinem’s endorsement– will change the perception.
      I still say most prominent feminists are supporting Sandberg.

    • Hi Aitch,

      Melissa Gira Grant (washington post) and Jodi Kantor (new york times) who write those articles I think of as feminists. All over FB and Twitter, comments about Sandberg’s staff etc.


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