Trans*ing Feminism

by Z Nicolazzo

This morning, while scrolling through my Facebook feed, I happened across a post that brought a smile to my face: it now appears that Simmons is the third Women’s college to openly affirm its stance on accepting transgender (herein referred to as trans*) students (Rocheleau & Landergan, 2014). This announcement follows those made earlier this fall by Mills College and Mount Holyoke, signaling what I hope will be a sea change for not only Women’s colleges, but for all institutions of higher education. I agree that all institutions of higher education need to be considering trans* students more seriously, and have even mused why Men’s colleges have yet to publicly address the inclusion of trans* students. However, I think there are important questions to be addressed by the recent increase in attention on trans* students (lack of) inclusion at Women’s colleges, most notably, how does recognizing and affirming trans* lives shape the future of feminisms?

Previously, I have written about how Trans* Studies as a field enhances Women’s Studies. My thoughts on this subject are certainly not new, and are directly informed by the writing of scholars such as Janet Halley, Gayle Salamon, and Anne Enke, among others. However, for this post, I am more interested in thinking about how the recognition of trans* students on college and university campuses can inform the work we do as feminist student affairs educators. I take this focus not as a way to suggest there is not, should not, or cannot be overlap between academic departments and student affairs divisions. Much to the contrary, there is, should be, and can be more overlap.

My intent in focusing on student affairs practice in this post is two-fold. First, my decision is partially about audience, as I am assuming most people who follow this blog consider themselves feminist student affairs educators. Secondly, I want to focus on the doing of feminist praxis, or how feminism shows up in our work. As an academic myself, I very much consider the thinking and teaching I do to be work. However, I also think there is an everyday approach to feminism that I know I am sometimes guilty of overlooking when I enter into these conversations. Hence, the focus on student affairs praxis will serve as an important reminder for me not to stray.

Salamon (2008) wrote, “Feminism … has not been able to keep pace with nonnormative genders as they are thought, embodied, and lived” (p. 115). Far from locating this as an issue just at Women’s colleges, Salamon’s point suggests all feminist student affairs educators need to take seriously the trans* students, faculty, and staff in our midst. Furthermore, as Dean Spade has suggested, feminism is ultimately about gender equity, an issue of which trans* inclusion, justice, and recognition is very much a part. Therefore, recognizing the human dignity and worth of trans* students’ lives and incorporating trans* people and perspectives into one’s work are essential components of any intersectional feminist praxis.

In fact, thinking about what one means by uttering the word “woman,” or what it means to “be a feminist,” or how these words, phrases, associations, spaces, and identities (e.g., Women’s Center, woman, feminist, womynist, “this is what a feminist looks like”) are the very questions we need to be asking ourselves as feminist student affairs educators. By doing so, we make space at the table of feminist praxis for people of color, trans* people, people with disabilities, poor people and people with lower socioeconomic statuses, and people with a variety of religious, spiritual, and faith backgrounds.

Although I am loath to use the metaphor of waves within the feminist movement (a blogpost for another time), there is a conceptual link that can be found from the movement from “second wave” to “third wave” feminism. Put another way, just as “third wave” feminists insisted on the inclusion of race, class, and various other social identities as important positionalities to think about to recognize that a plurality of feminisms existed rather than there being just one unified version of feminism, so too is the bright potential of trans* identities and people to our work as feminist student affairs educators.

But, at the end of the day, what does this really mean for us as feminist student affairs educators? How does this happen “in real time,” or “on the ground” of college and university campuses? In other words, what is it we can do with this knowledge as feminist student affairs educators? What I suggest is that we need to change our outlook and approach to feminist work on college campuses. What I mean by this is rather than instituting additional programs (which is itself a noble goal and something that could be considered), we think about how we ourselves think about gender as well as how gender organizes the work we already do. In this sense, we will not be working more, but working smarter. To highlight what this all means, I offer some suggestions, questions, and areas for further exploration.

  • First, I suggest one should first think about the very definition of feminism. I agree with Dean Spade in forwarding the notion that feminism is about gender equity. Starting here, then, it is clear trans* inclusion is a necessary component of this definition.
  • Next, we need to do our own self-work and self-reflection. Gender inequity and trans* exclusion is not just something that happens “out there” on our college campuses, or amongst students, but within us and amongst our staff and faculty groups. For example, if your campus has an award that recognizes women students, I would suggest you challenge folks on what they mean when using the word “women.”
  • Furthermore, let’s all consider who is left out of that category (e.g., trans* women, people who do not fit normative standards of femininity), but should not be. I am not suggesting these awards are not important or should be eradicated or that Women’s Centers should be closed, or that conversations about sexism are not important. Not in the least.
  • Indeed, what I am suggesting is that we as feminist student affairs educators need to start with the most capacious understanding of feminism and center those who are most marginalized in collegiate environments in our work (something I have written about with Crystal Harris in a recent issue of About Campus, and which could serve as a useful article to promote reflection and discussion amongst colleagues).

By doing so, we will be able to promote the sort of “trickle up” approach (Spade, 2011) to feminist praxis that will invariably lead to progress for all people by advocating for the needs of those most on the margins.

 

References

Nicolazzo, Z. and Harris, C. (2014), This Is What a Feminist (Space) Looks Like: (Re)conceptualizing Women’s Centers as Feminist Spaces in Higher Education. About Campus, 18: 2–9. doi: 10.1002/abc.21138

Rocheleau, M. & Landergan, K. (2014). Simmons College welcomes transgender students. The Boston Globe. Retrieved from http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2014/11/07/simmons-college-becomes-women-college-announce-will-accept-transgender-students/znajJvxnxnt84Q0F9tCMiJ/story.html

Salamon, G. (2008). Transfeminism and the future of gender. In J. W. Scott (Ed.), Women’s studies on the edge. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Spade, D. (2011). Normal life: Administrative violence, critical trans politics, and the limits of law. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

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My name is Z Nicolazzo, and I am Doctoral Candidate in the Student Affairs in Higher Education (SAHE) doctoral program at Miami University.  Before coming to Miami University, I worked professionally in student affairs at both Dartmouth College as a Complex Director with a collateral assignment in the Co-ed Fraternity and Sorority Office (2006-2007) and The University of Arizona as a Violence Prevention Specialist in Campus Health Services (2007-2008) and a Coordinator in the Fraternity and Sorority Programs Office (2008-2011).  

My dissertation study is an 18-month critical collaborative ethnography in which I am working alongside nine trans* college students to explore what strategies they use to successfully navigate their collegiate environment.  My other scholarly interests include: activism in higher education; alternative epistemologies, methodologies, and representations of knowledge; and critical practice, pedagogy, and praxis.  Together, these interests coalesce in a research agenda focused on resistance, resilience, and representation in higher education.  

When I am not teaching, researching, or writing, I enjoy spending time with my Westie Grrtrude.  I also enjoy cycling, listening to music, cooking and baking, reading, catching up on my favorite television shows, and spending time with friends.  

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