In the decade since I left my large, co-ed university, I’ve grown envious of the women I’ve encountered who matriculated at traditional women’s colleges. Far from the tea-sipping institution that my mother attended — and hated — in the ’60s, many of these “single-sex” institutions have boomeranged back towards a progressive purpose. To me, they have seemed like feminist incubators of “strong [insert school here]” graduates who mentor each other, get each other jobs, and emerge into the world unafraid.
But that nurturing tradition, on these campuses, has intensified the debate over transgender admissions. It highlights one of the big splits in traditional feminism. To put it in simple and perhaps reductive terms: Is feminism about breaking down gender binaries and gender roles, or is it simply about standing up for one gender, against the oppression of another? In the new New Republic, a provocative piece by Monica Potts asks: Is it possible for schools to be inclusive of trans people while also nurturing women in a world of misogyny?
Potts writes about trends like performances of The Vagina Monologues being discontinued, and the effort to change references to gendered words like “sisterhood,” on all-women’s campuses: “To me, fights on these campuses to erase references to women — and cancel plays where women’s bodies are celebrated, where women speak openly about abuse from men — is indistinguishable from old-school misogyny,” she writes.
Unfortunately, what Potts doesn’t ask is why a trans or genderqueer or questioning student (and let’s be clear: trans women are women, full stop) might be offended by the word sisterhood or the performance of The Vagina Monologues on one of these campuses. Probably not because the word “sisterhood” is deemed evil or mentions of vaginas are permanently verboten. My guess is it’s this: If you attend an institution whose trustees are reluctant to grant you or your friends admission based on your actual gender identity, a word like “sisterhood” becomes an emblem of a lack of safety. And The Vagina Monologues being staged as the flashpoint for feminist activism reinforces your sense of invisibility.
It’s a mistake, albeit a tempting one for those of us who love language, to focus too much on the angst around language itself, rather than the exclusion that it’s built upon. Many of these schools still don’t admit trans women, because by 18, applicants haven’t legally changed their gender yet. My hunch is that on a campus with a genuinely welcoming and inclusive attitude towards all minority gender identities, the linguistic issues would still exist, but might work themselves out more easily.
In fact, in the New York Times‘ fascinating look at trans male students at Wellesley, we learn that Mount Holyoke has agreed to admit anyone who is not a cisgender male, but administrators still often use the word “sisterhood.” Meanwhile, at Wellesley, where trans women are still not admitted, the Times shows students struggling deeply with words like “sister,” “sibling,” and “brother.” “Changing ‘sister’ to ‘sibling’ didn’t feel like it was including more people,” a student named Beth told the Times‘ Ruth Padawer of her initial objection to the switch. Yet: “After thinking about it, Beth concluded that she was connected to her classmates not because of gender but because of their shared experiences at Wellesley.” At campuses like Wellesley and Mount Holyoke, students’ gender expression varies far beyond cis, trans, and genderqueer. It’s multifaceted. The effort to have more inclusive language is an avenue for pushing towards deeper change.
Potts also falls into what I’ll hereafter call the Chait trap, which assumes that the internecine strife of progressive groups is necessarily damaging to “the greater cause.” In fact, while these struggles can lead to burnout and disengagement, they more often produce the opposite: awareness. Isn’t it possible that the future female senators who were touched by these intense debates at Mount Holyoke or Bryn Mawr will be more mindful of their trans brethren (or sisters, or siblings) when they do go out and occupy the leadership pipelines into which women’s colleges feed? And vice versa, for the pioneering trans senators? These students may not ever drop the word “sisterhood” entirely, but they may reexamine what it means. They may still enjoy The Vagina Monologues, though maybe they will be mindful that it’s not a universally female piece of art, but rather a piece of art that applies to some folks who are women. And that will signal progress.
Finally, Potts implies that trans inclusivity is a frontier at women’s colleges because feminists are pushovers. But it’s a frontier everywhere. I have covered transgender kids at sleepaway camp, which isn’t exactly a feminist institution. It was the “hot issue” in camping, officials told me and my fellow reporter.
Now, it’s true, for instance, that specifically anti-woman misogyny should be called out. The GOP state legislators attempting to get women out of the workforce by busting public sector unions, cutting birth control access, and closing abortion clinics are acting out of a broad, gender-essentialist misogyny. And that misogyny can gain power if it isn’t explicitly named. Indeed, we know a phrase like “War on Women” was politically effective because there have been multiple failed attempts to co-opt it for the other side. And yet, if we really think about it, all this institutional misogyny is not directed only at cis women. As Parker Marie Molloy wrote in response to the New Republic piece: “One needs to be truly oblivious to how the world treats trans women (not ‘transwomen,’ Monica) to act as though we’re somehow immune to sexism, the wage gap, difficulty obtaining positions of power in large companies, etc. Actually, fact is, things are just as bad (if not worse) for trans women in all these categories.”
Gender oppression and trauma are so deep within our social structures that we almost cannot have this type of discussion without upsetting someone who has been wounded by an iteration of misogyny or gender-based exclusion. But doubling down on exclusion is rarely, if ever, the answer. It seems that these once-all-women schools are slowly headed in the direction of becoming safe spaces for everyone who isn’t a cis male. At that point, they will have to continue examining the way that gender hierarchies are replicated on a gender-inclusive campus. But that is work that always must be done, feminist utopia or no.