The Femme Chronos: The Life and Work of Mina Loy
As a queer woman who loves history, I am constantly searching for people of the past who dared to write openly about their queer and feminist experiences. Even the 20th century contains only fragments of testimonies, art, and people who lived and reflected queer sexualities and ideological concepts.
I’ve been forced to improvise, finding queerness where other people only saw rebellion. Finding myself in artwork created by those who weren’t exactly like me, but shared commonalities. This is how I discovered Mina Loy.
A writer, painter, illustrator, and designer of lamps who was born in London, England in 1882, Mina Loy was an artist most known for her involvement with the Italian Futurists and the New York Dada scene. She was a Capricorn, like myself. This is not the only reason I share a deep kinship with her, but it definitely plays a large part. She was not queer, but her work still resonates with me as a bisexual woman.
While I could say I relate to her attraction to men, my connection to her is much deeper than sexuality. Her poetry embodies queerness as a concept, a catch-all for thoughts and feelings that are non-normative. She wasn’t a conformist, and yet she faced constant pressure to bend her will for the sake of survival.
“Her poetry embodies queerness as a concept, a catch-all for thoughts and feelings that are non-normative. She wasn’t a conformist, and yet she faced constant pressure to bend her will for the sake of survival.”
(click to tweet)
I first came across her poetry when researching Modernist writers while I was in college. Her work followed the avant-garde canon of being experimental in form, yet the subjects she wrote about drastically differed from her contemporaries. As most of them were men (at least, that’s what patriarchal historians want us to believe), they didn’t share Mina Loy’s interest in women’s evolving role in the early 20th century.
Interestingly enough, she didn’t consider herself a poet. She was an artist who used poetic form to convey lyricism, demonstrated by her famous quote: “Poetry is prose bewitched, a music made of visual thoughts, the sound of an idea.”
Loy’s writing was shocking to many for its frank explorations of sexuality, childbirth, and marriage from a feminist perspective.
Her work was praised by T.S. Eliot, Marcel Duchamp, and Ezra Pound but her name and legacy remains peripheral. Even gay icon Gertrude Stein overshadows her name, despite Loy being one of the first writers who expressed serious interest about her work.
It’s disappointing but not surprising that women artists and intellectuals are marginalized to the footnotes of their male contemporaries’ biographies. Yet despite this structural inequity, Mina Loy commanded attention with her bold presence.
Joella Haweis wrote about her mother’s demeanor in her memoir:
“My mother, tall, willowy, extraordinarily beautiful, very talented, undisciplined, a free spirit, with the beginning of too strong an ego; my father, short, dark, a mediocre painter, bad tempered, with charming social manners and endless conversation about the importance of his family.”
Many others who knew her described her in similar ways: tall, beautiful, strong-willed, and a creative powerhouse.
Yet the unconventional attributes she had for a woman of her time were constantly curbed by men. She married Stephen Haweis, whom she met at the Académie Colarossi in Paris while studying art after discovering she was pregnant. Fearful of losing her parent’s financial support, she began living with a man who she later described as causing the "parasitic drawing-out of one's vitality to recharge, as it were, his own deficient battery of life."
While the events in her life are influenced by her Victorian upbringing and her subordinate status as a woman in a patriarchal world, she was not defined by them. Her poetry and visual art pushed the limitations of a reality characterized by socially construed categories.
“Her poetry and visual art pushed the limitations of a reality characterized by socially construed categories.”
(CLICK TO TWEET)
One of her most well-known works “Songs to Joannes” (originally published as “Love Songs”) explores a failed relationship in a Modernist context: honest and bleak in its portrayal, jaded yet not entirely disillusioned. The piece was meant to be a satirized representation of the typical love songs written by men in a pre-Modernist era.
The excerpt below is from the 3rd section of “Songs to Joannes.”
While living in Florence, she was introduced to Italian Futurism by F.T. Marinetti, Giovanni Papini, and Carlo Carrà. It was artistic and social movement that centralized the importance of speed, energy, and dynamic movement in a modern world being drastically altered by machines. Electrified by this vigorous and powerful philosophy, Mina Loy explored concepts such as time and progress in poems like “Time-Bomb.”
The present moment
is an explosion ,
of past and future
those valorous disreputables ,
the ruins ,
in an unknown dawn
strewn with prophecy .
Only the momentary
goggle of death
fixes the fugitive
Despite her interest in the philosophies the Futurists upheld, Loy was jaded by their disregard for women’s issues. As concepts, time and modernity seemed to be a domain ruled by men. I am reminded of how time has been characteristically attributed to men, from the Greek god of time Chronos to the inventor of time zones, Sir Sandford Fleming.
In a modern patriarchal world, time is the methodical organization of a cosmos constantly in flux. Masculine Time disregards a past irrelevant to the achievements and ambitions of men and tumbles into a future that maintains the stagnancy of their power. Masculine Time is a linear interpretation. It’s the clock-in/clock-out schedule, the deadlines for completing a project or product, the compartmentalized slots for meetings, productivity, and even down time.
What does Time mean for women?
Mina Loy was attempting to answer this question through her art, in direct and indirect ways. Her inquiries mirror my own, and I am astonished that our conceptual time-lines overlap. Even though she died in 1966, 29 years before I was born, the world she lived was charging headfirst into modernity. Unchecked capitalism, technological advances, and an impatient insistence on the benefits of material progress characterized both her context and mine.
In the preface of a section of poems in The Lost Lunar Baedeker, written between 1914-1920 and entitled “Futurism x Feminism: The Circle Squared,” she writes:
There is no Space or Time
And tame things
Have no immensity.
Feminist Time reflects time’s cyclical nature, respecting it as an ambiguous yet strangely repetitive system that exists beyond structure.
Mina Loy, alongside other feminists, queer activists, and general outcasts, was not a pliable cog in the machine. She stretched the limitations of the boxes society and people in her personal life tried to contain her in. For this, she is conceptually queer. Non-normative, rebellious, and living an existence that cascades into infinity.
Disillusioned by the misogyny of the Futurists and their dangerous leaning towards fascism, Mina Loy distanced herself from the movement’s leaders and wrote her own feminist interpretation of the Futurist philosophy. In 1914 she wrote “Feminist Manifesto,” a call to women everywhere to shed their conditioning and embrace independence. It remained unpublished until 1982, when it appeared in the reprint of her poetry collection The Last Lunar Baedeker. She never saw it published in her lifetime.
Her feminist manifesto articulates the various ways women perpetuate their own insubordination, such as depending on men to define their roles, identity, and value. She’s particularly critical of the construct of virginity, believing that it’s used to control women’s lives and personal freedom.
Her perception of the future as an opportunity for justice and liberation reflect many marginalized group’s attitudes towards its as well. In activist spaces that hope to create a better, more inclusive future, all present actions and initiatives orient themselves towards that goal.
Mina Loy was not the stereotypical freedom fighter and her identity as a middle-class white woman living in Europe and the United States allowed her privileges that many others didn’t have access to. But she was always sensitive towards the plights of those who faced oppression and injustice.
“Mina Loy was not the stereotypical freedom fighter and her identity as a middle-class white woman living in Europe and the United States allowed her privileges that many others didn’t have access to. But she was always sensitive towards the plights of those who faced oppression and injustice.” (click to tweet)
In the 50s, she lived in the Bowery district in New York City, preferring the company of people who struggled with addiction, poverty, and living in society’s margins over her Surrealist colleagues. Her artwork during this time reflects the search for meaning in a context that’s spiritually desolate.
Perhaps her empathic attitude towards society’s rejects reflects the way she felt growing up. Raised by a mother who believed imagination was sinful, Mina was constantly punished and derided for her creative spirit. No doubt this caused her pain throughout her life, even when she no longer lived at home. And yet, her poetry breathes with transformative vitality. She dares to imagine a world where women exist wholly as themselves, their value disconnected from the preferences of men.
In a poem based on her experiences with childbirth and her husband’s infidelity called “Parturition,” she writes:
She is not only a biological mother, but a mother of artistic creation. Her tremendous talent and imagination could not be curbed by a domineering parent or her mediocre male companions. She existed between pain and inspiration, infusing fragments of a self broken by tragedy with the catalytic healing of art.
For this, I hold Mina Loy in my heart as I write poetry about my experiences as a person who describes herself as “queer” and “woman” but doesn’t want to belong to a singular interpretation of them. Loy is one of many historical figures that shattered expectations and constraints, yet was pushed into the margins by a masculinized history. But in my narrative, she is a chapter of my own story, revealing and reflecting the cosmic conundrum of a Femme Chronos.
Cassidy Scanlon is a Capricorn poet and witch who uses her artistic gifts as a channel for healing herself and others. She writes poetry and CNF about mental health, astrology, queer love, pop culture representation, and how social structures shape our perceptions of history and mythology. When she’s not writing, she can be found petting the local stray cats, exploring the swamps of Florida, reading 5 books at a time, and unwinding with her Leo girlfriend.