Lately, I find myself looking slantwise at everyone in public, wondering about empathy. About how much their hearts hold. About how much mine holds. Recently, in Great Britain and the United States, xenophobia has found many allies in pro-Brexit voters and the new Trump administration. Racial and religious prejudice is hardly a new problem for either area, but these past months have given it new power and boldness. Although we all benefit from listening to people with experiences different from our own, and I had already been planning to explore womanhood in all its abounding variety, now the project takes on a new urgency.

This time, I've spoken with my friend Maddie about her experience of womanhood. As a trans woman who began her transition recently, she grew up within masculine culture. Only in the past few years has she had the chance and challenge to forge an outer life to match her inner life.

Tammy: So, tell me a little about your family and being young. What examples of womanhood do you remember seeing growing up?

Maddie: The big one is your mom, right? So, my mom had severe depression from [when I was] like, ten years old on. And she spent most of my childhood on disability, incapacitated, and in and out of the hospital. For the most part of my childhood I grew up very quickly, taking care of myself, because my dad was on the road, and alcoholic. We were taught to use the washing machine at ten years old, and feed ourselves. So, I didn't really have a strong female role model, it took me going out and looking for them, and it really wasn't until adulthood that I did that consciously. Now, look at all the people I'm friends with, I have a lot of strong female role models.

T: I remember, after my parents divorced, consciously looking for relationship role models. I sought out couples to emulate.

M: I think that's a parallel. My parents are still together, a severely depressed wife and an alcoholic husband, (he's in recovery). I didn't really learn much, because my marriage failed terribly. Now I'm at the age where I dunno if I'm ever gonna do that [again]. I wasn't an authentic person until just a few years ago, and the kids were an excuse for not transitioning. Eventually they became the reason I had to, this wasn't the example they deserved. My overall lesson to them can't be how not to be yourself, which is what it was.

T: When you were looking for role models, tell me about aspects of womanhood that you admired.

M:: Honestly, it's like, it's not that different than the things I look for in dating. We're getting very Freud, maybe.

T: (Laughs).

M: Strong, fierce women. I want to be a fierce woman. I have so much respect, especially with the way society is stacked against them, for the women that don't even acknowledge the way things are stacked — and no one questions them. The strong, maternal presence. They command respect, and they get it, even though (like if they came up against a man, in a business situation, who would fully dominate over most women) he wouldn't even try. They have this force around them.... I think a lot of that is authenticity.

T: ‘‘Like they're not trying to convince anyone of anything.’’

M: Right, they just ARE, and that's how I've been trying to go about my transition. I lived so false for so long that once I made that decision to be true to myself, that I can't do anything less than 100%. It feels bad. Professionally, I worry about passing, but I don't pretend to be anything beyond what I am. I'm a trans woman, I don't hide that. It's not anything I'm ashamed of. If it comes up, I talk about it, that's just how I live and professionally I've had zero problems. Most of my working day is spent on construction sites. I do the controls for the heating and cooling systems. I don't know if it's me or the region I live in [Boston], probably some of both. There's nothing for them to challenge.

T: Tell me about something “womanly” that rubbed you the wrong way.

M: It rubs me the wrong way when women perpetuate oppression. When I voted, in the last election, there was a woman standing outside the polling place, like, out by the street, with a Trump sign [reading]: “These women voting for Killary need to get their heads out their asses [sic].” And I said: “Lady, you just don't get it. Look who you're supporting. Arguably, [he] ran on a platform of oppressing people, you're out here on the corner advocating for him. And you're putting down the women who won't stand for it.” I was very sick at the time, but I went to vote anyway, and I was like screaming out the window.

T: How does your womanhood inform your daily decisions?

M: Dating, do you disclose that you're trans? And I do. What you see is what you get. Also, I don't date men, so it's less of a risk for me. And where I am, in Boston, that shit wouldn't fly here. I've never not felt safe — until the election. And it's not over some specific incident, just fear over the normalized hate that's visible over the internet. I've never had anything that was outright name-calling or abusive or threats, it's been more like awkward moments, where they misgendered me, or realized [that I was trans]. And that's happening less and less, and people usually apologize. My biggest issue has been people who knew me before. My parents want to be supportive, but they're so used to thirty years of calling me by one name. The divorce, the trauma, spurred a lot of the thinking: “Who am I?” I think that led me to deal with a lot of stuff that I repressed for a long, long time. I said: “I'm transgender.” And [my ex-wife] said: “No.” And I'm like: “You don't get a say.”

T: Do people feel threatened, that they have to define other people?

M: Yeah, they do. They can't look at themselves.

T: What is something you struggle with?

M: A lot. This thought process is very new to me. Most women grow up their whole lives with this in their face. The fact that they're female, in their face. I grew up a privileged white male and completely unaware of my privilege, until I gave it up, until I threw it off, and through transition began to publicly become myself. That only started three years ago. So, it's been like three years since I started coming out to myself. I think when I first started admitting it to myself, I looked for a therapist that had some kind of LGBT background. I went to him and said: “Tell me this is not what's going on. Tell me it's ANYTHING but this.” I would have rather they told me I was psychotic and needed to be hospitalized, or put on some awful medication. But he couldn't, and he helped me accept it. Every day since then has been a struggle to see where I fall into womanhood, because once I made that acceptance for myself, the focus comes to being accepted by everyone else as a woman, and then at some point I think it turns around. Because you start accepting yourself as a woman, and then try to get everyone else's acceptance, you come back to yourself and wonder, well, why do you NEED everyone else's acceptance?

T: What would you say to yourself as a little girl?

M: “You ARE a girl.” I didn't have a girlhood. I think I would just try to tell myself that it is possible to be happy and be yourself, and not to be so afraid. Stop trying to live up to what you think people expect of you.

T: What's your hope for women in the future?

M: My hope for the future is that the idea of a non-binary gender system gets generally accepted. And the fact that it's a spectrum, and that everybody falls somewhere on that spectrum, whether they identify as male or female, and that none of that is relevant to career, politics, abilities. It’s just like, a hair colour.

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Tammy Bendetti writes and paints on Colorado's Western Slope, where she lives with her husband and two little girls. In her spare time she enjoys dancing badly and drinking dangerous amounts of coffee.