COLLEGE

How Students At Women's Colleges Are Working To Expand Our Understanding Of Gender

05/06/2015 07:33 am ET | Updated May 06, 2015
Samantha Lachman

CLAREMONT, Calif. -- The feminist heart of Scripps College, a women’s college about a half hour east of Los Angeles, is the Motley, a coffee shop that calls itself the “largest all-women student-run organization west of the Mississippi.”

On the walls, there are posters reading “FEMINIST: A Person who believes in the social political and economic equality of the sexes,” “Si se puede,” “Equal positions with equal pay” and “We All Can Do It!” (with black and Latina Rosie the Riveters). Destiny’s Child (“Ladies leave your man at home”) and the Notorious B.I.G. (“Don't let 'em hold you down, reach for the stars” … but also “F*** all y’all hoes”) are on the playlist, as students quietly tap away at their laptops.

Scripps spaces like the Motley are rarely inhabited exclusively by women. Since the school is a member of the Claremont consortium, other students from adjacent colleges like Pitzer, Harvey Mudd, Claremont McKenna and Pomona are free to stop by and enjoy an almond milk latte at the coffee shop or baja fish tacos at the dining hall. So, though students have compared Scripps’ lush green grounds to an insular convent, various genders do move fluidly around them.

Though Scripps doesn’t have rules limiting male guests in the dorms, students and faculty point out that they’re gender-determined spaces, in that the college’s famous rose garden and the pianos in each common room convey a certain understanding of femininity. (One student this reporter spoke to called this “gender infantilization.”)

On the wall inside one Alice in Wonderland-themed Scripps dorm is a telling decoration: Lewis Carroll’s hookah-smoking caterpillar, asking, “Who are you?”

This is the question women’s colleges are struggling with as they attempt to balance the understanding their alumni have of the school they attended with the wishes of current students, who want their schools to be welcoming to transgender and gender-nonconforming applicants. Scripps’ policy, which goes into effect in the fall of 2016, will admit students assigned female at birth and/or who self-identify as a woman at the time of application. Smith College announced in early May that it will admit transgender women, making it one of the last holdouts of the elite women's colleges to change its policies.

caterpillar

In a serene courtyard outside the Motley, next to a fountain of stone seals with water coming out of their mouths, senior Claire Hirschberg explained that while the policy is a move in the right direction, Scripps students overwhelmingly wanted a broader one that would also admit applicants who were assigned male at birth but identify as genderqueer or gender neutral.

“I’m not satisfied with the policy,” Hirschberg told HuffPost. “It’s a step in undoing the violence of determining who gets to call themselves women or marginalized genders, but it certainly doesn’t go far enough, and it’s not what students wanted.”

Hirschberg was referring to a petition signed by more than half of the approximately 1,000-person student body for a policy that would admit all applicants except for cisgender men, or those men who identify with the sex they were assigned at birth.

Scripps’ policy resembles the policy in place at Mills College in Oakland. But other schools' policies resemble the one Scripps students say they wanted. Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts announced it will admit anyone "born biologically female, regardless of how they identify,” and those who were "born biologically male or intersex (with both male and female anatomy), but identify as female.”

“Scripps doesn’t quite get to what Mount Holyoke does, but it’s a bit better than Wellesley,” Professor Piya Chatterjee, the chair of Scripps’ Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies department and a Wellesley alumna, told HuffPost.

And yet, even schools' good intentions can mess up in their execution, as Eli Erlick, a sophomore at Pitzer and a high-profile national activist for trans causes, pointed out. Erlick co-founded a youth-led organization called Trans Student Educational Resources to create a more trans- and non-binary-friendly education system. The organization also aims to educate the public and teach fellow trans activists how to be effective organizers. TSER released a model policy for women’s colleges in April that took Mount Holyoke’s all-but-cisgender-men approach, but used different language.

“[Mount Holyoke’s] language is really outdated, is my only critique of that policy,” she said. “‘Biologically born female’ is defamatory language for transgender people, but, on the other hand, it is the most inclusive policy.”

TSER will be tracking how many trans and non-binary students are admitted by women’s colleges to hold administrators accountable for their actions, Erlick said, watching how they're treated after they're admitted.

“A lot of these colleges are trying to supplement the actual education of people and broad policy changes with just a simple admissions policy change, which is far from enough,” Erlick said, citing housing and class registration as problem areas for a trans students. “So while admissions is being emphasized so much, in media and in activism, it’s definitely not the end. And once we get these trans students into the college, we have to think about whether they’ll be safe and whether they’ll thrive in these environments.”

erlick
Eli Erlick is a Pitzer College sophomore and co-founder of Trans Student Educational Resources.

Not every trans or non-binary student agrees with the policy TSER has recommended, however. Mills senior Sonj Basha, who identifies as genderqueer, told HuffPost that since applicants assigned male at birth who identify as non-binary may carry male privilege, Basha thinks those students should not be eligible for admission to women's colleges.

“There is a bit of a gray area and that comes into play when thinking about trans men who have fully transitioned both with themselves and society; they also function with male privilege,” Basha said. “Not to conflate the two, but the idea is that we’re not creating a space for people who fall within the category of male privilege.”

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Despite the dissatisfaction with Scripps' new policy, students, faculty members and administrators believe it could be broader in the future. Those changes could come as the college’s understanding of the gender binary begins to take on more complexity, Adriana di Bartolo, the director of the Claremont Colleges' Queer Resources Center, suggested to HuffPost. Rather than using the LGBT acronym to refer to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals, di Bartolo prefers using LGB and TGNC (transgender and gender nonconforming), because “we talk about LGBT and we end up just talking about gay white men and we forget the T at the end.”

“We have to stop using the acronym, because every time we use that stupid acronym we conflate gender and sexuality, and if we continue to do that we think that serving a lesbian or gay student is exactly the same as serving a trans or GNC student,” she explained.

Some Scripps alumnae were deeply upset that the new policy admitted transgender students at all. In a letter to the trustees, more than 100 raised the concern that these changes are part of a "systematic erasure of the female identity from women's colleges,” a charge that has been echoed in media outlets like The New Republic. A student editorial in the Claremont Independent, a conservative publication run by students from Claremont McKenna College, also questioned whether Scripps could “survive the politics of transgenderism unscathed.”

“It’s hard for folks who graduated in the ‘60s and ‘70s to wrap their head around, ‘What is happening to my campus?’ because we don’t have a broad understanding of gender,” di Bartolo said. “It comes down to a dynamic and complex understanding of gender -- the minute we pull gender apart, it rocks people’s personal foundations, because they’re like, ‘What do you mean, my gender is fluid?' I know students want change and they want change now, but we have to think about the pace of the institution.”

Since admitting trans and non-binary students is just the beginning of making women’s colleges welcoming spaces, Scripps students and Claremont administrators have identified various areas in which the colleges could be more inclusive.

“When a trans woman comes out, she has to go through these processes -- changing her name, changing her email address, figuring out where are the safe places to pee, what does housing look like, how am I going to navigate this campus?” di Bartolo noted. She emphasized the importance of sending messages that aren't reactive, but proactive, and that make a student feel supported to disclose. “And I’m not saying disclosure is the answer, but it helps with student engagement, how do they then think, ‘Actually I can navigate this, I know who to talk to.'”

Hirschberg said that while Scripps has taken some positive steps, like setting up an online portal for students to submit their gender pronoun to their professors and change their name on documents, and changing the student government constitution so it uses gender-neutral language, some community members still struggle with pronoun usage.

“I’ve seen in student organizations that people will be talking about preferred gender pronouns but won’t respect them, or they’ll make light of the significance of acknowledging someone’s true gender,” she said. “If we know about gender pronouns but aren’t talking about them in a serious way then we’re committing a real violence, by thinking ‘I know about this but I am going to choose to make light of it.’”

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As this more complex understanding of the gender binary begins to catch on, it's possible women's colleges' self-identification will evolve to accommodate it.

“The day these spaces start calling themselves feminist colleges is the day we’ve done something,” Chatterjee said. “However contested that term is, you’re signaling a politic and not an essentialized identity.”

The Motley is already there. Aron Macarow, a trans man and Scripps alum who graduated in 2007, noted in a blog post for attn: that the coffee shop provided “a safe, supportive environment in which to explore my gender as one of their baristas.” The staff decided “that the reflection of the organization’s values was not in being all-women but in being feminist,” changing the Motley's mission statement and other language to be gender neutral.

“While challenging, the entire process demonstrated to all of us the power of continued personal and institutional evolution -- that the only constant is change and that we could honor our values and build supportive community by engaging in thoughtful dialogue,” Macarow wrote. “To be an organization working against sexism did not require the Motley to be an organization composed entirely of women; it did require an overarching commitment to feminist principles, perhaps a common lived history of gender marginalization, and the desire to wrestle with gender injustice in all of its forms.”

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