Ellen Watson (“Cattle Kate”) and Alice Huckert (“Poker Alice”) carved out lives on the Western frontier, rustling cattle and cleaning up at cards. Susan Cayleff carved out a life ensuring that we know about such women, who refused to conform to idealized gender roles. Other such women set legal precedents, reformed medical practices, championed the rights of minorities, and challenged social propriety.
Cayleff has been a professor of women’s studies at San Diego State University since 1987—chairing the department for nine years—and is the former director of the graduate program. She’s also the author of six books, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, an international speaker, and an instructor at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (for students age 50 and better). Her courses are so popular that they’re offered in two separate six-week sections. They have included S/Heroes of the Twentieth Century: Women Who Made America; Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: Women in Health and Healing; and Women in American History: Courage and Conflict, I and II. In fall 2014, she’ll teach Women: Outlaws, Radicals and Daredevils, which will examine the boundary-breaking acts of once-proper women who defied convention.
Cayleff is also the founder and co-chair of SafeZones@SDSU, which works to create a welcoming campus atmosphere for LBGTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, Queer and Intersex) students, faculty, and staff. She has also served as the faculty mentor/organizer of the Young Women’s Studies Club at Hoover High School for 22 years.
When did you first become aware of social injustice and/or gender inequality?
My mother and father were both deeply committed to Civil Rights, activism against anti-Semitism and Native American rights. My mother, born before women had the vote, was a deeply committed feminist. These topics were discussed at home and we actively engaged with the issues. Coming of age in the late 1960s and 70s, I became involved in lesbian feminism, the United Farm Workers movement, anti-racist campaigns, and class-conscious organizing.
You went from being among the first-generation of women’s studies graduates at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, to chairing the women’s studies department at SDSU. Can you take us on a brief journey of the in-between?
I often say I found my permanent personal and political home in women’s studies. I pursued a master’s degree at Sarah Lawrence College in women’s history working with some of the pioneers in that new field in the late 1970s. I then went to Brown University for my doctoral studies, majored in American civilization (elsewhere called American studies) and blended American social history, literature, the history of medicine and Afro-Latin and African American race relations. My first tenure-track job was at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas, 1983-87. I taught medical students and their clinical faculty. It was a time of great change in traditional American medicine: ethics classes were introduced (I taught that), and humane procedures for animal experimentation were just being instituted (I served on those committees). I also had the chance to design a core curriculum series for students and faculty in obstetrics and gynecology. There was great disconnect between the largely Mexican-America, African-American and Southeast-Asian patient population and their largely Euro-American practitioners. Now we would call this cultural-competency training.
How did you become involved with the Osher Institute at SDSU?
I learned of Osher through a colleague who had taught in the program and enjoyed it thoroughly. I scanned the catalog and website and found its mission, breadth, content and faculty completely engaging and applied to teach several years back.
What makes your women’s history courses so popular with Osher Institute students? What percentage of them are men versus women?
One of the aspects of my teaching that I enjoy the most is introducing students to the still largely unexplored world of women’s history. Curious and intelligent women and men are eager to learn about female pioneers, s/heroes, radicals, thinkers, activists, dissenters, and leaders. In my Osher classes, about four students are male out of 40. Interestingly, at the undergraduate level, about 10-15 percent of my students are male. Before the Women’s Liberation Movement of the late 1960s onward, women’s experiences and accomplishments were largely ignored by the academy. With the creation of women’s studies education and departments (SDSU’s was the first in the nation in 1970), diverse female experiences were studied and valued.
If you could go back in time and meet some of the s/heroes you’ve lectured about, who are your top contenders and what would you want to ask them?
Mary McLeod Bethune was a black educator and social justice activist in the early to mid-20th century. She accomplished a stunning amount that bettered the lives of black Americans and promoted racial harmony amongst all races. I would ask her strategic suggestions to create significant positive change in present-day race relations.
Wilma Mankiller served as the first female principal chief of the Cherokee nation in the 1980s-1990s. She successfully addressed deep-rooted native concerns: poverty, federal rights, reclaiming one’s history, mentoring youth and self-sufficiency. She built strong coalitions with other progressive movements such as feminism. I would ask her two things: how can tribal people work more collectively with one another, and how would she suggest that political activists care for themselves. Mankiller’s health was compromised greatly by disease, but also by the grueling schedule and agenda she set for herself. This is not uncommon among women leaders: taking care of oneself is often undervalued.
Which historical figure do you think you would have hit it off with?
I wrote a biography of Babe Didrikson Zaharias, the woman the Associated Press and ESPN News chose as the Outstanding Female Athlete of the 20th Century. I was drawn to study Babe’s life because of my own love of sports competition, our similar working class backgrounds, and the norms she intentionally denounced. Her struggle with her sexual identity was also crucial for her personally. She was a character of the first degree—and while she was not an ideal teammate (something I valued highly during my playing days) she was a fun-loving pioneer who devoted herself fiercely to hard work and athletic excellence. We would have spent hours trying to best one another—and she would have won each time, but I would have given it everything I have!
Your biography, Babe: The Life and Legend of ‘Babe’ Didrikson Zaharias 1911-1956 was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. What does that amazing honor feel like? Do they call you? Send a letter?
Babe…being nominated for the Pulitzer Prize was a tremendous honor. My publisher selected it and put it forth for consideration. When I received the letter from the University of Illinois Press, I was stunned—I called to see if I was reading it correctly, which of course I was. It speaks to the high regard in which the research and the book were held. It was also the first time that Babe’s complex private life was discussed and validated.
Babe is also contracted to be a film. How’s that coming? Will you be involved in the writing of the screenplay or serve as a consultant in any way?
The screenplay has been written by Donald Martin, a notable Hollywood and Canadian figure; his accomplishments are prodigious. Things are still moving along, albeit slowly. Should it come to fruition, I will be on set as an advisor. I had the opportunity to review and suggest modification to the screenplay as well. I think that’s imperative when an author turns her work over to a screenwriter.
One of the topics in your Osher Institute course, Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: Women in Health and Healing, addresses why some female healers were seen as heretics and dangerous. Why were they?
Women healers, midwives among them, were seen as threatening because their skill challenged male authority on matters of health. They possessed knowledge that could rattle an entire community (who had fathered a child, if a pregnancy had been aborted, if a husband was abusing his wife). For these reasons their moral characters were extremely important. Witches and midwives were historically linked with knowledge of medicinal plants. Witches practiced pagan traditions and in that way the church and state often persecuted them for heresy—beliefs that threatened church and state hegemonic power and authority.
When did women’s studies start to go global? What changes in the world have you seen as a result?
Each nation has a different historical timeline in regard to women’s studies. Beginning in the 1960s individual faculty, then courses, then departments and programs emerged. Scholarship focused on women’s lives in the industrialized world and economically emerging nations. For example, in 2000, three of us from the SDSU Department of Women’s Studies went to Chengdu, China to help institute a women’s studies curriculum at Sichuan Normal School—it was the first in southwestern China at the time. We have since collaborated with colleagues in South Africa, Sweden; and universities and activists in India, Jamaica, Guatemala, Turkey, Europe and elsewhere. There is a vibrant and growing international community of women’s studies scholars, students, and activism. These liaisons have resulted at times in public policy changes, girls’ education, economic strategies for women’s self-sufficiency, efforts against global sex trafficking and much more.
Any new Osher Institute classes for you on the horizon?
After offering Women: Outlaws, Radicals and Daredevils—which looks at women who deliberately defied, complicated and rejected idealized female behaviors—I’d love to teach a course on “body politics.” This would look at ways in which women’s bodies have been regulated and impacted by cultural, racial and social class norms and expectations; how women have utilized their bodies as sites of resistance; different beautification ideals and their implications; race and heterosexually-based beliefs, and so on. It’s absolutely fascinating material both historically and in the present day.
What do you like most about being an Osher Institute instructor?
The students!! What could be better: interested learners with life experiences, eager to learn and discuss new material. It’s every professor’s dream scenario!
Why do you think students come back again and again for courses, lectures, book clubs and other Osher offerings?
It’s a wonderful environment at Osher: genuine bonds are built between students and faculty, and amongst students. It’s a place to learn and grow with subject material you choose and are genuinely drawn to. It’s an adult environment geared to value life experiences and shared knowledge.
Do you have a fun or favorite Osher anecdote to share?
I can share a weekly sensation that I love. When I walk into my Osher class, I feel that I have come home, just as I did when I first discovered women’s studies so many years ago. Our shared experiences and genuine fun make each session one I treasure.
Tell us about the Young Women’s Studies Club at Hoover High School, which you direct.
The YWSC is in its 24th year and I bring 14 SDSU undergraduate women’s studies students there each week and with the skilled work of a graduate student coordinator, we offer activities that thrive on active mentoring across generations. These include: building cultural competency, speakers, activities for Black, Native American and Women’s History months, work on self-esteem building, goal setting, college mentoring and creative projects such as quilt making, photography, collage-making, drawing and analysis of hip hop and rap music lyrics. It pulls together all of my various commitments to social change and improving the lives of girls and women—with creative activities at the center.
In addition to your work at Hoover High, and founding/co-chairing SafeZones@SDSU, you volunteer with Project Wildlife, transporting injured and sick animals to care facilities. Your compassion extends to literally every being. Where does that come from?
These projects come from passion and commitment. All creatures need a healthy environment and care. My work with LGBTQI communities stems from my deeply held belief that dignity, families of choice, and whom we love is a right that must be fought for and protected. LGBTQI people often face countless daily struggles that their heterosexual family, friends and neighbors do not: access to housing and jobs, legal protections, safety on the streets and in their homes, a welcoming religious community, appropriate health care and so on. These are fundamental needs. My work with Project Wildlife, which is in hiatus for a while now, came from a similar ethos: we are all connected. The survival of one is interdependent with others. Animal species need us to work on their behalf for habitats, health, and basic survival. The loss of one diminishes us all.
Listed among your non-academic interests on your website is “Boston Red Sox baseball (understatement).” How did you become a fervent fan?
I could talk about this for days!! When you grow up in New England you get a Red Sox pacifier and bib! It’s the life-blood of the region. It’s about a sense of home, of tradition, of belonging, of collective memory. My parents listened to the games on transistor radios growing up. We watched the games on TV as a family and went to Fenway Park on very special occasions. I remember painting signs with my favorite players’ names in the 1960s and proudly hauling them around Fenway one beautifully clear day. I’ve gone to spring training in Florida for a decade, go East for home openers, have satellite TV for daily games, and of course go to Fenway when I am on Cape Cod for the summers. The three World Series championships have changed the region’s identity. People actually brought the newspaper headlines and left them on a deceased beloved-one’s grave. It’s so much more than a game. It’s a shared and time-honored set of traditions, memories and defeats and hopes.
You also have an art business, “Wild Things: Outsider Art.” When did you begin making art and what does “Outsider” refer to?
“Outsider Art” refers to those who create art outside of the established art scene. I’ve been doing this since I was quite young: collecting natural objects (bones, feathers, shells, wood, antlers) and assembling them in mobiles or installations. I also paint and do theme-based assemblages on flat or in three-dimensional boxes (themes include: affordable housing, generational differences, commodification of spirituality, the need for community and so on). Many of these have a social critique aspect and are quite funny. Some represent native ways of being or regional fishing traditions. Recently I’ve been doing “One Days.” I go someplace, collect items along the way, and make an assemblage just for that place and time. All of these offer me a tremendous balance with my academic life. I love to be surrounded by beauty and these creative pieces afford me that privilege.
How has teaching Osher students inspired you?
Teaching Osher students has inspired me intellectually to revisit materials that I have taught before, in a new way. It has allowed me a class setting that is sophisticated, warm and friendly with curious and eager students. It also inspires me to extend my work to an adult audience—a wonderful opportunity after decades of working with college-age youth.
What would students be surprised to learn about you?
Hmmm … I share this with them already: I love to go to pow-wows, be with my partner and our two dogs (Black Eyed-Pearl the Pirate Wonder Dog and Jake Duke of Chowdah), drive cross country, take mystery rides where I’m not even sure where we’ll end up, and snowshoe in the winter.
Is there anything you’d like to add that I didn’t ask?
Thank heavens for Osher Institute! I think all of us in the class relish our shared knowledge, experiences, and the genuine fun bonds we build.