Don McPherson is a former professional athlete turned educator and activist. McPherson attended Syracuse University, where he played quarterback, was All-American and captained the university’s undefeated 1987 team. Over the course of his seven years in professional football, he played for the Philadelphia Eagles, the Houston Oilers and for several teams in the Canadian Football League.
At Syracuse, McPherson became involved with social justice causes, and when he retired he joined the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University. It was there that he became interested in and committed to the issue of violence against women and served as the director of MVP – the Mentors in Violence Prevention Program. MVP works with athletes in high schools and colleges around the country to raise awareness about violence the problem of against women, and to train those male athletes to be a part of the solution.
McPherson is now a leading advocate for men’s participation in ending violence against women. He has spoken on hundreds of college campuses, testified before Congress and has worked with the Departments of Defense and Education in their attempts to prevent sexual violence in the military and in schools. I was lucky enough to hear him speak recently at the National Council for Research on Women/UNIFEM No Violence Against Women Conference, where he spoke eloquently about the need to reframe violence against women as not simply a “women’s issue,” but as a problem that affects men, and that men can solve.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Don McPherson.
Chloe Angyal: You’ve been doing feminist activism, and particularly activism around violence against women for quite some time. How did you get involved in it?
Donald McPherson: I was a student athlete at Syracuse University, and I was involved in a program called Athletes Against Drunk Driving, which got me looking at a number of different social issues like substance abuse, self esteem, drug use and those sorts of things. And the retired and went to work at Northeastern University at the Center for the Study of Sports and Society. It was there that I met Jackson Katz and worked with him on the MVP program, Mentors in Violence Prevention, and I just learned so much from him about the issue of men’s violence against women, and about men’s roles in preventing violence against women, and further looking at masculinity and the social constructs of masculinity. So it was really an evolutionary process that brought me here.
When I started doing the work and I started understanding the social justice perspective, and looking at where violence comes from and how it functions, and understanding that men’s response to violence is more violence, and women’s response to violence is peace. It was really understanding that the things that women have been saying, that feminists have been saying, for many years, are really needed in our world and have not been acknowledged or embraced in many ways. And then one day I saw a bumper sticker that said “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” And I’m OK with that. That’s my definition. And I’m a feminist, because I believe that. It’s interesting, because a lot of people have a very strange reaction to the fact that I identify as a feminist. I had a professor who said that men shouldn’t call themselves feminists because women have worked so hard to earn that, and I said to his students, “Don’t let him complicate this. Don’t think that you can’t be a feminist unless you go out and fight and day the way women did thirty or forty years ago to be heard.” You’re a feminist if you care about women and if you care about what happens in their lives. You’re a feminist if you care about women and the issues that women care about. It’s not that complicated.
CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?
DM: It’s Yentl, from the movie Yentl. When I was playing football, back in my pre-feminist awareness days, I used to listen to six songs before every game that were very inspirational. And unlike what people might expect, they weren’t stereotypically headbanging or hip hop. Two of the six were from the film Yentl. I was a quarterback, and at the time, being Black was not a popular thing to be if you were a quarterback. And so there weren’t many Black quarterbacks, and it was an issue. There was a real struggle for me, as a Black person who was a quarterback, to fight the fight, to fight the racism and to be something that people didn’t want me to be and do the things that people didn’t want me to do because I was Black. So I identified with Yentl. The film is about her questioning, and the questions of “Why have eyes that see and arms that reach unless you’re meant to know there’s something more?” It’s about asking “Why is it that I’m told that I can’t have everything I can see?” And so in that regard, it’s ironic that she’s my favorite heroine, someone who I identify with as a Black football player, this fictitious white Jewish girl from Poland.
I am very lucky to know some women, some well-known and some not so well-known, who have been real pioneers, not just in their work, but in general. There’s Mary Wilson, and of course Gloria Steinem, who I think is the female Martin Luther King. I always refer to the people who do community work, who work in shelters and on the frontlines as angels and warriors. There are some amazing women I’ve known over the years who are doing the work that’s so necessary but they’re doing it in the work of a culture that’s largely indifferent to what they do. I’ve been blessed to be around them and to learn from them and what they do.
CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?
DM: Not a day goes by that’s not frustrating. I challenge people when I go around the country talking about men’s violence against women. I say, “watch the evening news, and you will see.” Watching the news every single day, there’s a murder, there’s a rape, there’s a sexual assault, there’s a child molestation. All these things happen every single day and we just get numb to it. So when your eyes are opened, and your heart is opened and your spirit is open to this work, every day you want to scream. Every day you weep, because it doesn’t end. And then you look around and you don’t seem people getting angry. You don’t see people saying, “what?!” It’s a news cycle. And you put that up against the objectification of women and girls in so much media that we consume, like when you’re driving into the Midtown Tunnel and there are these billboards twenty stories high of a woman’s midriff, right next to billboards for strip clubs. Put that against all the other things I just spoke about, and it’s rather daunting. Every day, there’s another reminder of what we’re up against.
CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
DM: The lack of evolution of men. What I mean by that is that we’re in this together. Men and women, we’re in this together. I’m married, I have two daughters, and women are in our lives as men, they’re in our lives personally, professionally and socially. And whether they recognize it or not, women are increasingly in our lives because of feminism and because of feminists. Women didn’t evolve and all of a sudden become tougher and stronger and more athletic. Those qualities were always there, it was that women had people who fought for the opportunity for them to demonstrate those qualities. That’s the evolution of women to which I’m referring. On the other side, the evolution of men has no occurred, or it hasn’t occurred at the same rate. Men are not seeing themselves in that broader sense, we’re still living by the same paradigm of “I’m a man, I’m in charge, and I’m supposed to pursue women” and that narrative of relationships. That narrative is still being told, and in that narrative, men haven’t changed. But women have, in many ways.
CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you take?
DM: Steak, a good Cabernet and my wife.