By: Eileen Chen
Photo courtesy of: Dr. Emma Heaney
What is femininity, and where do trans women fit in? According to Dr. Emma Heaney, Assistant Professor of English literature at William Paterson University and author of The New Woman, there’s no need for trans women to “fit in,” because they have never been distinct from what constitutes femininity.
Although the definition of femininity is something we rarely have cause to think about, Dr. Heaney believes it is a rich topic worthy of unpacking. She gives the elusive term a working definition: “femininity is a variety of labours, qualities, and expressivities that have been associated with women throughout time.” And unlike what many cis people seems to think, trans women is not a foreign concept that needs to be integrated into an existing category because as The New Women demonstrates with historical citation, trans women have always been part of the category woman.
Belying this history, Dr. Heaney said that popular and expert sources has been announcing that trans women are new for three centuries. The title of her book, The New Woman, reflects this misperception, while simultaneously linking trans feminism with the feminist ideal of the “New Woman” from the same era, which is already widely acknowledged by our world. Her research on the subject stemmed from observations she made when studying canonical modernist works in her graduate years including those of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Jean Genet. As she dug deeper into her readings, Dr. Heaney noticed depictions of trans femininity 20-30 years before scholars claimed they existed, and sought to shed light on these depictions that generations of scholars have overlooked.
“Why are you tracing the figure of the trans woman in modernism?” Her graduate advisor questioned when she first proposed her interest in researching the subject. It did not take long for Dr. Heaney to prove that what she was doing was the exact opposite. By reviewing the works of sexologists, psychoanalysts, and modernist novelists from the late 19th century and early 20th century, Dr. Heaney found that the trans woman was almost always used as an allegory for something other than who she was – as case studies that explained how gender functioned in cis sex people. She juxtaposed these views on trans femininity with testimonies from actual trans women in history, and ascertained that many were content with their bodies, and that there was no uniform standard for trans women’s body perceptions. It was social expectations and the threat of violation (often legally sanctioned) that forced trans women into boxes and pushed many into hiding. Although attempts at analyzing the trans woman’s body and psychology were frequently motivated by benign intentions, Dr. Heaney emphasized that “sexology made sex cis” by erasing the variety of bodily experiences that trans women reported and define trans existence as the desire to change from one sex to the other.
As a scholar of Marxist Theory, Dr. Heaney believes that the connection between gender studies and Marxist analysis “has been inadequately trumpeted.” She said, “In the history of class struggle and gender antagonism, women sought to integrate the desire to be a part of the working class with the political necessity of being respected as people.” Of course, it goes without saying that what affects women in general affects trans women as well. While the Marxist feminist analysis is grounded in the economic theory of “reproductive labor,” this insight can have a much more day-to-day understanding. In short, women have long been assigned the role of the nurturer, and to this day, many women still experience that “profound feeling” of being stared at across the dinner table, expected to do the dishes. Nurturing people is a beautiful thing, but it shouldn’t be an “imposition.”
Dr. Heaney herself credited the achievements in her life to female role models around her: “Everything I’ve done in my life that has been good or successful has been because a woman said, ‘Yeah, you can do it!’” Dr. Heaney grew up in “middle-of-nowhere” Wisconsin, predictably around mountains of library books. The first episode in her life that clearly marked her zeal for feminism occurred when she was nine or ten, when she watched the Anita Hill proceedings in 1991 with her grandmother. As Hill faced humiliating grilling from a room of senators for speaking out against her harrasser, Dr. Heaney recalled hearing her grandmother say “I believe her.” From then on, “women believing in women” has very much been the basis on which Dr. Heaney’s feminist politics operate.
On the subject of the relationship between masculinity and femininity, Dr. Heaney said that the two concepts “name nothing material or eternal.” They are “words devised so that we can name a structure with real effects,” and historically, this structure has been that qualities associated with masculinity are considered important and praiseworthy in society. As feminist voices continue to grow bolder and accusations of misandry are thrown around on Twitter and Reddit, whether “toxic femininity” exists is increasingly disputed. Author Meghan Daum argues on Medium Magazine that it can be observed when women are selectively complacent with gender stereotypes to manipulate men, while Bust writer Katie Anthony denies that the term has coherent meaning, and suggests that it’s a manifestation of internalized misogyny. To this, Dr. Heaney responded that “men-hating and women-hating are not two sides of the same coin.” Men have benefitted from a “historical formation of power that has engendered antagonism towards women,” and this cannot be so easily cancelled out. Regarding feminism, “the question isn’t ‘has it gone too far,’ but ‘what more needs to be done?’”
To counter the imbalance in our system, Dr. Heaney believes in the power of the collective. “Every scrap of beauty and communal feeling, things that I love, have been won by struggling, […] staying together, and caring about the people in your community. That’s what I want my life to based around – the sense that it’s for someone, that someone will receive it.”
“What I think people should know is when you look at the history of women’s oppression and the history of class oppression empirically, they are intertwined and mutually sustaining. We are at a time where everyone needs to look at how we can work together to get what we want for our loved ones, our friends, our co-workers, and our students.”
After VACS’s recent roundtable event on the topic of “Female Nature” (see my article on Dr. Liliana Kleiner), Dr. Heaney provides a compelling alternative perspective by challenging the idea of femininity as being a “nature” at all, rather than an inherently historical construct.
You can learn more about or purchase Dr. Heaney’s The New Woman by following this link: http://www.nupress.northwestern.edu/content/new-woman.