San Diego State University Professor Doreen Mattingly on the True Idea of Feminism

headshot4Professor Doreen Mattingly is a Women’s Studies professor at San Diego State University with a strong passion for feminism and gender issues. She graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a Bachelor’s Degree in Geography and then went on to receive her Ph.D. from Clark University. Professor Doreen has been teaching at SDSU in the Women’s Studies Department since 1995 and has just recently been awarded the 2016 Teaching Excellence Award for the College of Arts and Letters at SDSU. Here at Lumière, Doreen generously took the time to answer a few questions about feminism in her eyes as well as feminist literature that she finds to be inspiring or interesting to read in her spare time. Doreen shares with us how she found that her true passion was to be focusing directly on women’s and gender issues, and she also offers a beautiful and unique perspective on what “feminism” truly means. 


In your previous interview with Female Gaze Literary Review, you stated that you feel “more at home” in the Women’s Studies department rather than Geography, and you said you wrote about women’s and gender issues in Geography. Do you think you had this interest since you were younger or was it something you found an interest in as you grew up?

Both. So, when I was young, I grew up in the 1970s in a small town, where the only single women I knew were nuns, so I wanted to be a nun. Because what I saw was, a lot of women lived pretty narrow lives in terms of their options and “feminism” didn’t really hit my small town. My mom and my sisters would say “you know, you’re never going to get married if you’re the smartest girl in the class,” and I would say, “well, I don’t want to marry these farmers!” So it was a different time in terms of what the constraints were, but I knew that I wanted a different life than anything that I saw. And I knew that the expectations of me as a girl – they didn’t interest me. I was just a rebel, you know, I became a vegetarian at 14, that kind of stuff. And then, I went to Berkeley and my rebellion found a lot of focus, but I didn’t really discover feminism until probably after I graduated from Berkeley, or I think it was maybe my last summer when I started reading feminist stuff and it was like the world fit into place. You know, up until then, I thought that it was me, that I was strange, and I took it personally, and then when I started reading feminist books, then I saw like, “oh, no, it’s structural,” and I felt normal for the first time in my life. So yeah, it has developed over time. Like when I did work in geography, I did work on gender, so I was happy to find a permanent home in the Women’s Studies department.

Do you find that students who take Women’s Studies classes for General Ed typically gain an interest in the subject as the semester goes on if they weren’t already interested in the beginning?

Oh yeah. I think with many people, it’s very unformed, what’s going to happen, and they might even be resistant to it. I have some students tell me that they don’t see themselves as a feminist and they think it’s going to be an awkward class for them. But it is because feminism is presented to young people mostly by people who aren’t feminists, and the information about women in the world is presented to them in a flawed way. So when people really start learning about women in politics and feminism as information, they see the real research, and so many of them really change their minds about a lot of things. A lot of students deal with a lot of rage the semester they take their Women’s Studies GE course, and the truth is, they should be enraged.

What would you say to someone who doesn’t think it’s something to really care about? For example, men who may not see women inequality issues as their issue. In what ways do you believe it affects them?

Well, it affects them in a couple ways.

When anybody’s rights are denied, everybody’s rights are marginalized, everybody’s rights are compromised.

Why wouldn’t you care about another human being and their rights being compromised? You know, this country made a lot of progress with white people understanding that racial justice is everybody’s issue. It seems to me that young people are understanding that the issues of queer people are of concern to everybody. But, for some reason, people are unwilling to take that step around women’s rights and around gender. And instead, there’s such a culture of blaming women for whatever happens to them. If you can say they had it coming, you’re making it their problem, rather than seeing it as a civil rights issue. It’s personalized and blamed, and it’s because of the way morality and ideals of how women should be in culture get utilized to individualize, blame and shame women rather than seeing it as a civil rights issue.

That’s one part of it, and another part of it is that I think gender is actually very violent and constraining to men. It keeps them in this box with the allure that they’re going to have power, but the truth is only some men will have power over some women, while some men will have a lot of power. But this myth that somehow masculinity is going to give them power puts them in this tight, angry box, which doesn’t make them good lovers or good fathers.

Why would you not want to be in support of a movement for full civil rights for all people?

I think it also has to do with this day and time, with this version of sexism and hypersexuality, such as how women have to be attractive to all people at all times. That’s a particular form of sexism that keeps women in a box. And so, young women don’t want to identify as something that they think will put them in a group with women who are less attractive than them. And how to break that down, so women can see how that’s constraining them from identifying with each other and taking any real action in their own life, I mean, that’s the challenge of today’s young feminists.

How would you define feminism to young adults?

Feminism means a lot of different things to a lot of people, and the dictionary will tell you that it’s just about equality, but I actually think it’s more than that. I think it’s being willing to say that how society has defined what it means to be women and men are insufficient and constraining and having a commitment to try to change that. I think part of the problem when you try to define feminism is you say what the constraints look like, but I don’t know what the constraints look like for all female identified people.

I don’t think “equality” is the right word because it assumes that we are the same.

Justice is more than equality.

Women have kids and men don’t, women give birth and men don’t, it’s different. So what it means for justice for women, for full participation in society, means that the concerns surrounding getting pregnant or how kids are raised, that’s all needed for full justice. So to say, men and women are equal, nobody gets subsidized childcare, doesn’t make it just. So, “equality” is too limited for the full citizenship of women. When I think of feminism I like to think of full inclusion, rather than just equality.


Do you currently have any favorite female authors? If so, how or in what ways do they inspire you, or why do you like them?

So, I read a ton of fiction. Right now, I’m just reading Agatha Christie. However, Karen Joy Fowler is somebody who everybody should read. The first thing that inspires me is a book that turns off the world, that’s number one. Without that, there’s no inspiration possible. But Karen Joy Fowler’s most recent book is We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, and she has a way of letting it be messy and letting people be complicated but being very kind to them. To be able to put forward non-traditional stories and non-traditional female characters and neither want to put them on a pedestal nor have unrealistic expectations of them. I really appreciate how she does that.

Do you have any books to recommend to young readers that focus on feminism?

Well, there’s Elena Ferranti who wrote My Brilliant Friend, which is the story of these two girls who were friends and grew up and had very different lives after WWII. Her books really show the kind of tensions around women becoming themselves and female friendships. Marilynne Robinson is another really brilliant writer. Oh, but my favorite book would be 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino. This one is about a whole series of events that converge at 2 AM at this jazz club called The Cat’s Pajamas with a number of different characters, particularly this young girl. It’s just a delight, she has such a light and gentle touch with her characters so that you can go into all these places that you normally wouldn’t go and think about people in a different way. A writer that doesn’t get enough credit would be A. M. Homes. Her books are kind of dark but just so exceptionally written. And there’s a kind of whole tendency now, women writing men, and she’s one of them, who writes men in this interesting way.

What are some of the main issues with women’s oppression today that you are either most passionate about or working to fight against or both?

Well, you know, reproductive rights and justice is always one. I feel most passionate about trying to get young women in position to do something about it because it’s such a young woman’s issue. I would say mobilizing young women so they can fight for their reproductive rights. I would also say childcare is an important issue that is constantly brought up. I think right now it’s more about trying to protect some of the gains that have been made.

In what ways can young men and women participate in women’s activism? How can they get involved in peacefully and effectively fighting for equal rights for women?

So, you know, men are welcome to join women’s activism, but I really think it needs to be women-centered. Part of the way that sexism works is that men speak over women and women don’t get to speak, and when men become the experts on women’s issues… You know, the challenge for men is learning to be a supporter, an ally, and a collaborator, but not be in charge of it. I’m all for people collaborating but I really want women to envision themselves as the center. All the techniques are available but they’re all collaborative. And this is where I think modern culture is very isolating because we’re communicating through these little bits of information but it doesn’t actually help you be connected. And so there’s a paradox of connectivity right now, where people are hyper-connected but isolated emotionally, and I think whatever happens, people have to find a way to actually come together in physical space, and be together and work together. The Internet is not a substitute for face-to-face collaboration. I think that’s the first step that people have to figure out, is how to change their lives and come together with people. One of the problems is that the women’s movement has become so institutionalized that people want the institution to fix all their problems for them.

It takes a sustained effort, it takes a commitment.


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