Feminism needs a face lift. While the mere suggestion of plastic surgery, even a in metaphorical context, might send shivers up the spines of the movement’s hard line, the sentiment holds true for many working, voting, mini skirt-wearing women, to whom bra burning just sounds like a waste of a perfectly good La Perla. In an era when women are breadwinners in a third of American homes, many modern women seem to view feminism as quaint at best, and shrill at worst.
But Erin Matson, the action vice president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), might be the woman to change all that. As one of NOW’s youngest ever national office holders, Erin isn’t out to “fight the man,” nor is she overeager to see patriarchal conspiracy in every slight. Instead, she wants to celebrate women for all that they are, and remind them that no one should stand in the way of their becoming even more. For Erin, there are no man-hating diatribes or sarcastic smirks at women who highlight their hair. Instead, her work is driven by the simple, if occasionally radical, notion that women are people too – and that they should always be treated as such.
Q: What first drew you to feminism, both personally and professionally?
I had been politically interested and active from an early age. I staged my first protest in my parents’ living room in elementary school over declawing our cats because it was an injustice! I won that battle.
I was very interested in progress politics, so I started phone banking when I was 11 for progressive candidates. I was very involved in [Minnesota senator] Wellstrone’s campaign – I would skip school to campaign for him.
When I was a senior in high school, I developed anorexia and nearly lost my life. I fought tooth and nail to save my life. I didn’t intend to do it, but I woke up one day and way unable to get up on my own. The doctor gave me one week to live. Coming out of it, I vowed that I world do everything I could to support other women.
Eating disorders are often trivialized as emotional imbalances. I made the connection that eating disorders and pressure for women to take up less space is more than just shape and size. We see it in the underrepresentation of women in political life and at the top of corporations, in the devaluation of work within the home, in the lack of support for parenting. I shifted my progressive political activism to something that was purely feminist.
My career path is untraditional. I majored in women’s studies and all I wanted to do was work in a women’s nonprofit, so I got a part time job doing communications and fundraising for a women’s non-profit. I also worked part time with an entrepreneur out of his basement. I scanned freedom of information requests from the SEC, prepped his research. I loved it because I am entrepreneurial and creative myself, so it was interesting to be with someone who had built a business out of nothing. There isn’t much paid work in women’s nonprofit advocacy, so it’s very normal to take a second job to support the do-gooder job.
Next, I took a full time job that was for profit, but felt like a nonprofit, which matched mentors within C-Suite. It was a phenomenal experience for me. I was able to work with amazing women who changed my life. One of my bosses had to translate a face-to-face program into a virtual program, so we worked hand-in-hand. She treated me as a partner and a team member – I was 22 – and we built the program from the bottom up. It was 2002, so online meetings were a novelty – it was intense and so cool. I learned how to work collaboratively and how to work in a business setting.
I had so much fun with the new product development that I realized I loved creative work. I decided I wanted to go into advertising. I went to advertising school and some corporate communications and worked at a few trade agencies.
Working in advertising, I remember walking into offices where the ad concepts would be naked women splayed out with their heads cropped out of the pictures, glistening with arched backs. It was interesting shift for me having been environments about empowering women. Suddenly, I was in a frat house. I had a great time, but it was different.
Q: You moved up the NOW ranks very quickly: you were the president of Minnesota’s chapter by age 23, and now you’re one of the youngest national officers ever. How did you earn such an impressive title at such a young age?
I went to Georgetown and while I was there, I was fortunate to work at Feminist Majority as an intern volunteer. I moved back to Minneapolis after graduation. I was devastated because I couldn’t figure out how to be a feminist if I didn’t work in LA or New York or DC. But then I found NOW.
I took leadership roles in the state chapter. I wrote fundraising letters, stuffed envelopes, went to events. I became program chair at started working on birth control refusal. I became state president when I was very young – 23. The joke now is that if you go to the bathroom during a meeting, you’ll be elected to a position. Fortunately for me, I was actually present.
It was a labor of love on nights and weekends. I worked 40 hours a week. The fact that I was freelancing from home allowed me the flexibility to interview people or to testify against a bill. I became involved in NOW nationally and founded my own chapter. I set up a discussion series to draw in younger women.
Some of my biggest projects have been campaigns on birth control and HPV. I also got active with the Young Feminist Tack Force because I wanted to move feminism forward in my generation.
Q: What are the benefits and challenges of working for an advocacy organization?
In the past, I got myself into unsustainable situations with employers a few times because I am an extremely hard worker with huge dreams. I was expected to work 80 hours a week forever. Few supervisors will tell you that they don’t want you to work this much. It can be hard to advocate for your own boundaries.
But, I have found doing what you love and finding work that you love is inspiring and exciting. To be able to get up everyday say ‘what’s next’ is a joy. I thought I had to do everything perfectly when I started out, but life is messy, with kinks and curves. There are opportunities everywhere. Ultimately, the world is run by people who show up.
Q: What motivates you to keep fighting on behalf of women?
There’s a huge amount of pressure on young women’s appearances and pressure to be a certain type of woman. The pressure isn’t always what I felt, which was to be thin, but there is so much emphasis put on women’s appearance in society. Simply talking about it is huge, especially with younger women. We’re made to feel bad if we admit we feel bad.
Another issue I want to highlight is being comfortable taking up space. Having self-confidence and believing that you belong in a room, not feeling like I have to be nice so everyone will like me, believe that you have something worthy to say. Everyone has three things that they do really well. We’re trained to think that believing that is boastful or brash.
Q: How did you come up with NOW’s Love Your Body campaign and what do you hope it will accomplish?
The Love Your Body campaign started in 1998. It is a forum for women to take action and sound off against advertisers for the unrealistic expectations they represent in the media. It’s important for young women to remember that the problem is not with them, it’s with unrealistic expectations. We’ve had a blog carnival and Twitter chats to spread that message.
This issue is something that younger women really connect to. Women often come up to me and thank me for Love Your Body. Breaking the silence is powerful.
Q: What goals do you have for yourself and for the future of your career?
I have big dreams and big goals. I would love to help – leadership is working through other people. I believe in a leadership model that is teaching other people and helping them work together to bring about mainstream level conversation about women.
I want to organize more than a million people on the Washington Mall for reproductive rights. I will work like the dickens to make it happen – I don’t know when and how, but I want to work with and gather as many people as I can to make it happen.
Q: How can women support each other and advocate for their rights in their day-to-day lives, especially in the workplace?
Activism can occur at a person-to-person level. I would advocate talking to others around you. Insert the gender lens into conversation. Speak up for women when people make bad jokes. Do what you can to lift up softer voices in the room. If you see someone isn’t being called on as much, reach in an say, “We haven’t heard from Jenny yet. Let’s hear what she has to say.” Try to elevate the status of women in your own conversations.
Activism is power. I would urge people to find others – a formal group like NOW, or an informal group like Twitter. Some people like political activism; other like direct service work, like helping out in shelters. Everyone is different, so don’t think there is just one path. Find people and activities you enjoy.
I would like to say one thing about feminism today and how it is different than it used to be. The most common way women are held down today is by accusing other women of having personal defects rather than saying women as a class are bad.
Women continued to be paid less. You hear, ‘She didn’t know how to negotiate,” ‘She chose the wrong career path,’ ‘She took time off for kids.’ You don’t hear about the institutional deficiencies that keep women’s pay low.
Women as a class are devalued a discriminated against. When a woman is raped or beaten(and the stats on rape and violence are shocking – one in three women will be a victim of sexual violence or partner violence), we ask, ‘Why did she get into that relationship?’ or ‘What was she doing out that late?’ We have a public health epidemic of sexual violence.
And women are discriminated against in reproductive issues, too. The medicine for a sore throat is $3. The pill is $70. What’s up with that? And for advocating for birth control, Sandra Fluke was singled out as a slut as if birth control use were a personal defect. The fight over birth control is framed as though there is something wrong with women.