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Matt Ezzell, Professor of Sociology at JMU

 

As a loyal Her Campus JMU reader, you may be saying to yourself, “I came to HC to read about make up tips for graduation! What is all of this feminism crap?!” Here at Her Campus JMU, we have an answer for that. This week, we’re trying to spread awareness about just how freakin’ awesome women are and how we can spread the word to the rest of campus, including some of our not-so-enlightened classmates. We caught up with this week’s campus celeb, Matt Ezzell, JMU sociology professor, and asked him to explain some feminism basics, talk a little bit about his uh-mazing career, and spill the details on how we can make a positive change at JMU.

 

HC: Could you please provide a brief career bio? 

I graduated with a degree in women’s studies with honors in creative writing from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1999. I then worked as a full-time staff member in the rape crisis movement for three years as a community educator and crisis advocate. I began graduate studies in sociology in 2002 at UNC-Chapel Hill with a focus on symbolic interactionism, the sociology of race/class/gender inequality and feminist sociology. I defended my PhD in 2009 and began work as a faculty member at JMU.

HC: What is the most rewarding work you’ve done in the course of your career and why? 

This is a hard question to answer as there have been rewarding aspects of all of the work that I have done up to this point: giving back to the community, providing direct-service to people in need, doing activist work to change the structural relations of power, engaging in research related to issues that matter, working with dynamic and engaging students … What really connects all of these things is direct work with people who care and who have cultivated a passion for engaging the world around them. For example, the opportunity to work directly with the student population of JMU is far and away my favorite aspect of the job of assistant professor.

 

HC: Can you explain what radical feminism is for Her Campus readers?

The word “radical” gets misused in much popular discourse. Most often, we hear it used to mean “fringe,” “extreme” or “out of touch.” However, the word “radical” comes from the Greek word “radix,” which means “root.” As such, any true radical analysis is one that seeks to understand the root causes of social problems.

A radical feminist analysis, then, is an analysis that takes gender inequality and sexist oppression to be real and institutionalized within the culture. More, it seeks to understand the social underpinnings of that inequality. This necessitates a socio-historic and political analysis of the social world. Nothing that we confront or in which we engage occurs in a vacuum. It is always already occurring within a larger context that provides shape and contour to our experiences. Our interactions within that context act back on it. In this way, we are both shapers and shaped.

A radical analysis matters if our goal is to address social problems. If we don’t understand the root of the problem, then our solutions will be short sighted and reproductive of the status quo. 

 

HC: Why do you consider yourself a radical feminist?

I was first drawn to feminism because I started paying attention to the world around me. The more I looked underneath the taken-for-granted explanations of why the world is the way it is, the more I realized that there was something else going on. I started listening to the women in my life, and I realized that my life was shaped in different ways from theirs based on our gendered identities. I also realized how many of the women in my life had experienced violence at the hands of a man or men.

I wanted to know more, and I started taking women’s studies courses. These courses not only made more sense of the experiences of the women in my life for me, they made more sense of my life as a man. As I learned more and looked at the data that emerges from an empirical analysis of social reality, I realized that oppression is real and normalized.

More, I realized that, as a member of multiple privileged identity groups within the culture, I was the beneficiary of others’ exploitation and subjugation. I wanted to do something about that, and I knew that in order to be an effective agent of change I needed a thoughtful and critically engaged analysis of what was going on. Radical feminism is the path to that. At its core is the understanding that we are all human, that we are equally deserving of dignity and respect, and that we are equally capable of developing our full humanity. 

It is ironic that feminism is so often dismissed in popular discourse as being somehow “anti-male” because it is feminism that argues that men are capable of humanity, decency and [being] engaged and empathic kindness. The truly “anti-male” ideology in our culture is the one that argues that “boys will be boys” and, further, that being a boy means being violent and aggressive, suppressing empathy, cultivating a predatory sexuality and developing a sense of entitlement to privilege bought at the expense of so many others. I have a much higher expectation for and belief in boys and men. 

HC: In what ways do you hope to see the JMU culture improve, and how do you think we can work to make those changes?

There is much to laud about the culture of JMU, but taking honest stock of gender inequality here is sobering. Of course, this isn’t a “JMU issue,” but a much larger cultural phenomenon. JMU is no exception to that larger phenomenon, though. Like so many other colleges and universities, we have a problem related to interpersonal violence that is too often ignored, normalized, or justified.

What passes for “normal” is reflective of a rape culture — a culture in which women are systematically targeted for acts of violence and in which men’s violence against women is excused and taken for granted. In a rape culture, regardless of the numbers of women who actually experience a rape or attempted rape, 100 percent of women experience the threat of rape. This means that, in a rape culture, every woman’s life is constrained and shaped by the threat of men’s violence.

Ask any woman on this campus what she does to protect herself from being sexually violated on a daily basis and she will likely have a laundry list of daily activities: checking the backseat of her car before getting in; holding her keys between her fingers as a weapon while walking to her car; avoiding parking decks at night; avoiding running at night; not going out by herself if she can help it; watching her drink at a party … and on and on. Ask a man the same question and you will most likely get a blank stare. Men don’t think about this because we are not systematically targeted for sexual aggression by some other group. It isn’t part of our daily consciousness because it doesn’t have to be. But, this is just daily life for women. That is a rape culture. It is neither natural nor inevitable, and we can change it.

There are many things we could do to dismantle the rape culture, involving large and small things. Interpersonally, we need to cultivate a norm of enthusiastic, active consent for sexual relations. The absence of “no” does not mean “yes.” Only “yes” means “yes,” and we should hope that all partners in a sexual encounter would be actively excited to be a part of it, not resigned or just too exhausted or scared to say no. 

We could also do seemingly “little” things that enable the subjugation of women. For example, we could avoid sexist language (think about words and phrases like “freshman,” “congressman” or even “you guys.”) We could avoid pejorative phrases that are based on misogyny and homophobia. Think [of] the ways to put down a man — most of them involve saying he is in some way “like a woman.” People think these issues don’t matter, but they are some of the ways that women are erased within our shared meaning systems, and that is one of the steps necessary to institutionalize a system of inequality. Woman becomes the “Other” in part through language patterns. 

We could also look for larger solutions like the creation of a staff position on campus whose sole responsibility was coordinating campus prevention efforts. There are many, many, many other things that we could do as well.

The problem is huge and the various aspects of the solution(s) are numerous — too many to recount here. But, it is vital that we remember that there is nothing natural about the patriarchal oppression of women. If we can imagine a different world then it is possible to create it. Let’s be creative.

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