Monica Silny | staff writer and artist
For the very first installment of Feminist of the Month, a multimedia segment featuring interviews with and portraits of iconic on-campus feminists, I spoke with senior lecturer Beth Matway about feminism, gender and being a woman.
A Critical Writing and Gender Studies Composition Professor, Matway has been a part of the English department for more than 12 years, spreading feminist sentiment all the way. Here are the best parts of our conversation.
Q: First and foremost, do you consider yourself a feminist?
A: Oh, absolutely, yes. I have been identifying myself as a feminist for decades, but I think I was in my early 20s before I really knew about the feminist movement. That was second wave feminism.
Q: How would you define the term “feminist,” and what kind of value do you think this term might hold?
A: I think that a person who wants to claim affiliation with feminism is most likely to be egalitarian and be striving for a kind of equality that we haven’t yet achieved. I think that means a recognition that we haven’t yet achieved that equality.
I think there are many conversations about what ex- actly constitutes equality and what we mean by that, and those conversations are worth having. Those conversa- tions change with the decades.
I think the term “feminism” registers a recognition and a commitment to equality across genders. It’s important to me that what we think of as gender is not limited to what we now call the binary gender system.
When I first became acquainted with feminism many decades ago, I had no contact with nor imagination of the possibility and reality of genders outside of male and female. And so, in a way, that’s been a huge change for me when it comes to feminist movements. That’s one of the places where the striving is still very much alive and raw and difficult.
Q: Who and what influenced your feminism? Any theorists or writers?
A: The book Beyond Power is one I’ve really continued to think about for years and years. I suppose that was the place where I started to recognize and think about theories of power and think about these struggles as not just struggles for power. She distinguishes in that book between power over and power to, and her idea is that feminism is about struggling for power to do things, not power over others.
I think that sort of matches Mary Wollstonecraft who said, “I do not wish [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.” So that goes kind of way back, and then also as a young teacher, I got to know quite a few very strong and thoughtful and active feminist women both of my generation and the older generation who have been in the fight for longer.
Let me tell you a story that really brought me into the field of Gender Studies as it has emerged in the academy and elsewhere. For me it did not start in the academy — although I was a teacher at a university, it started in my life at home. I have twin daughters who are actually seniors here at Pitt, for anyone who knows them. Here they are [pointing to a photo on her desk] dressed for their senior prom in tuxedos.
Here I am, I’m a feminist liberal parent, working at bringing them up as best we can, their Dad and I, without the constraints of stereotypes. Trying to push against stereotypes, right? In the ways I think that liberal parents do. But, I think there was a lot I didn’t know and a lot I didn’t see.
When my daughters were four years old, one of them began expressing a really strong identification with things that were gendered male. It started one Christmas when Santa brought them each a kind of doll-house, not a Barbie doll-house mind you, but a little house with little elves and little tiny furniture and nice things like that.
Still, Lora, at four years old, climbed onto my lap and kind of touched down her head and said, “It was really nice of Santa to bring me a doll-house, but why didn’t he know I wanted a tool set?” I’m thinking, “Wow. I haven’t been paying attention.” I’m thinking, “I’m working against gender stereotypes, but I haven’t been paying nearly enough attention.”
So that was the beginning of recognizing there was more to a sense of gender identity than just resisting the stereotypes that go with your gender, so to speak. So, we kind of made a promise to ourselves to do the best we could avoid making assumptions about gender expression or sexuality. We sort of began to realize how much heterosexuality is assumed, and what that means if you are a child growing up outside those bounds of heteorsexuality, that you’re always up against assumption. That was something my children taught me.
So, we ended up as a part of a movement supporting LGBTQ youth as our kids were growing up. We were involved with organizations that worked with and supported LGBTQ youth. We have known a lot of young people who were transitioning. So that’s kind of like an advocacy and activism and involvement in the world that, I would say, is now another dimension in my sense of self as a feminist.
Q: Do you think it is important that students are educated about gender and sexuality? Why?
A: Oh yes, I do. I suppose for the same reasons I needed to be educat- ed. At the top of my syllabus for the gender studies class, there is a statement by Adrienne Rich, a writer and member of the second wave: “Until we know the assumptions in which we are drenched, we cannot know ourselves.”
It’s that sense that we are really so drenched in the set of things we take for granted about gender and sexuality, that they are almost invis- ible to us. Like anything else, education is about trying to make things visible that you do not see.
I think if we walk around trying not to see those things, we can’t change them. They get treated as the default setting and then we may apply these default settings to people around us unthinkingly, even if they do not apply at all. I suppose it’s partly about what Judith Butler is talking about in some of her work, where we have to have a sense of possibility. If you just sort of stay within the bounds of definitions that you take for granted, the possibilities aren’t visible and do not open up. So, in short, yes. [laughs]
I wish there were a way for everyone to have the education. We now have GSWS as a major, and people are flooding into it — it’s really exciting.
Q: As you worked your way up your career ladder, did you face any obstacles that were misogynistic in nature?
A: I would be careful with the term misogynist, partly because the more I have thought about these things — not only regarding gender but regarding race and other differences — there is a way in which things often are analyzed as hate. And that’s the definition of misogyny, to hate women, right? And, although at times I think there is something accurate about that as a description, I also think that as
a whole, thinking of it that way moves it into this category it’s actually much harder to fight against or make visible to people or make it something people are willing to work on. It makes our sexism or racism seem like a feeling instead of a set of institutional structures that we have internalized as a set of rules.
Does that distinction make sense?
Yes, definitely, yes.
So, if what we do is challenge people on, “You have this feeling,” it’s so much easier for it to just be deniable and so much harder to address.
So, to address your question, I cannot imagine a woman my age having gone through any kind of professional career or really just any work without encountering some of that institutional, or structural or even interpersonal resistance. I cannot imagine somebody not encountering it.
My struggle has been much easier, however, than women trying to break into the steel industry as engineers or construction workers. I mean, there are still so many fields where it’s way harder to be a woman than an English teacher or a writing teacher. I’d like to acknowledge that.
Plus, I’m a white middle class woman, right? Which also means that I don’t have as many obstacles as a woman of color, or a non-heterosexual woman, and so on.
You have been a delight. Any final remarks?
A: I don’t think I have any wise words to end this with, but, I have to say, I’m really excited and grateful to the people of every gender on campus who are really alive and active in various organizations to keep gender and its related issues and all their dimensions in front of us as important and immediate things to fight for. I appreciate your generation of students and the work you’re doing to keep these issues in front of us. ◆
If you know of an iconic on-campus feminist you’d like to see in The Fourth Wave, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.