The Feministing Five: Don McPherson

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.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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Join the Conversation

  • Surfin3rdWave

    Love it. I hate to say it, but my initial reaction to seeing a masculine cis-dude on the front page was to roll my eyes. So many men who ally themselves with feminism seem to take a patronizing “looking out after the ladies” attitude.
    I feel like an ass for being so prejudiced. My partner and our ComradeKevin seem to be among the only legit male feminists I’ve seen/read. I think I need to work on my misandry. =(
    Anyway, this guy seems awesome. Thanks for the interview.

  • Comrade Kevin

    So long as there is a belief among men that introspection and vulnerability is less masculine or even effeminate, there will always be a wall of separation between men and women. In extreme circumstances, like say, the death of a close friend or family member, these emotions are more acceptable, but the stigma is still strong.
    Some men can talk about matters of personal vulnerability without discomfort, but many cannot. A particular challenge I’ve noticed is that when I begin to cover particularly sensitive topics, men often abruptly change the subject. I find that men who are willing to “go there” experience their own discomfort, expecting that their words will be ignored or that they will be judged as less than masculine.
    And I have to say that I myself am often highly uncomfortable having such talks because I can observe much discomfort in men not used to them. This is even true with men who are receptive to these sorts of conversations. That is what must change first.

  • Sanderson

    Another thing to add to your comment Kevin, is that it is so good to see another male feminist who is NOT AFRAID TO BE A VISIBLE MALE FEMINIST. So many (would be) male feminists acivate their cloaking device of privelege when things get difficult, especially in the presence of other men. Even on this site, there are not that many regular male posters other than yourself, Kevin.
    It is very heartening to see men like Don McPherson discussing these issues with other men as an activist as well as on a website like feministing. Along with Al Franken, it is great to see these feminist male role models who are active in their communities. I hope to take a hint from these guys and get more active in my community (Edmonton)!

  • kaija

    Inspirational…what a wonderful ally and eloquent speaker on how the little boxes constrain everyone. I especially enjoyed his Yentl reference and ability to articulate how his experience as a black quarterback made him more aware of the limiting effect of stereotypes and expectations…intersectionality at work! Having someone like this, from the uber-macho world of sports, talking to men and women and spreading the message that “we’re all in this together” is powerful.

  • msmolly

    He was a customer at the dry cleaners I worked at through high school!!!!! He’s a really nice guy to dry cleaner workers too, I can tell you that much about him.

  • jgar6

    He sounds pretty awesome. I was apart of the MVP program for three years in high school,only it was expanded to include all men and women and not just male athletes. It’s a great program.

  • Jessica Lee

    It is so wonderful to see a man who is both an athlete and an activist, because it sometimes seems like men like that are hard to find. Not that every man should be athletic, but I have this idea in my mind that athletes are less likely to be feminists. I love seeing Don McPherson talk about gender roles because it shows that even if his former job was a stereotypically masculine one, he doesn’t think it’s just for men. Major kudos to him.

  • khw

    I wish I could ‘like’ this comment more than once!

  • Chicken_brothel

    So on his personal bio on donaldmacpherson.com there is a lot of vague avoidance of actually talking about what sort of activism he does (I assume it’s mostly about violence against women?) and the word ‘feminist’ is nowhere to be found. Just wanted to point that out.
    http://www.donaldmcpherson.com/about_bio.html
    Also, there are only 2 gender related workshops:
    Campus Programs
    Dating Violence: “You Throw Like a Girl”
    This discussion is directed primarily at men and focuses on language such as “you throw like a girl” that sets a standard on the narrow expectations of masculinity while simultaneously establishing an understanding that girls and women are “less than” men. The presentation focuses on nurturing positive language and understanding of masculine identity.
    Women’s Issues:”Men Have Gender Too!”
    For far too long “gender studies” and differences have been seen through the eyes of women. The lack of male perspective has led to a narrow view of men and how to communicate/work with them. As women assume a greater role in American business and culture, how they understand masculinity and their relationship with men become critically important to their success.
    I mean, it’s better than nothing, but really?

  • sammylif

    This guy is the real deal. He spoke during orientation week my freshman year at Syracuse (if I’m not mistaken, he does that every year for the incoming SU freshman), and I was so impressed by him. I remember almost being moved to tears, surrounded by strangers in the Carrier Dome. Also, seeing McPherson speak before I so much as walked into a college classroom showed me that Syracuse had something good going on, and I remember being impressed that they would make his speech mandatory and prominent (and in the Carrier Dome! I think his is the only speech I’ve seen in there).
    It also meant a lot to me that Syracuse understood the importance of a speaker like this, who transcends a lot of barriers. What I mean is that if they had a more “typical” feminist come and speak and about violence in the middle of orientation week, it would probably turn a lot of men off on some level. Having Don McPherson, someone whose feminism isn’t as well-known as his athletic accomplishments, allows his message to reach even further, I think. Either way, Don McPherson is awesome.