Reconsidering Women's Colleges Through Butler, Barad, Kaleb, Dalke, and Ourselves.
Often, when writing a paper, I feel like I am travelling down a rabbit hole. I feel like I am being led, by the theorists and ideas with which I am engaging, into a strange and un-understandable world. In thinking about this paper, that feeling has been stronger and more pronounced than it has with any other project. Perhaps this heightened feeling of confusion and journey can be chalked up to the fact that I am writing it in a new place for me: a women’s college. Or, it could be because this paper is something of a quarrel with the idea that there is one way to be a woman, and, by extension, one way to be a women’s college. Alternately, it could be because I am writing about a topic with which I have nearly no personal experience.
I transferred to Bryn Mawr a few months ago. I had been trying to get into the school for two years. I had written essays, been interviewed, filled out dozens of little lines on dozens of forms, obsessed over my GPA and professor references, and worried continuously about my chances of being accepted. When I finally got the call that I was accepted, I was overwhelmed with the idea that I had been invited to study at a place with such a reputation for breaking barriers and offering young women the chance to grow in an environment where their ability to compete with men is a foregone conclusion instead of a continuous battle. Other people in my life were similarly impressed by the school’s reputation, though many were also confused as to why I would choose a “girl’s school.” They wondered if I would be allowed to bring my male partner to social events, and if I would have to contend with a stereotypical atmosphere of cattiness and competition. Some joked that I might be the only straight woman on campus. Though I would quickly dismiss those comments, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that at a least a small part of me was worried that the school would, at least, have a very competitive atmosphere.
Once I arrived, however, my fears dissipated pretty quickly and I was left with only my admiration for the school. I found an environment that was inclusive, supportive, community oriented, and cooperative. I was easy to fall in love with the school as a student, and it was easy to feel personally attacked whenever people criticized the school, and criticize they did. First came Vicky Chu’s scathing article about why she had transferred to a co-ed school, in which she claims that Bryn Mawr is some sort of filth ridden, tampon filled, atmosphere full of shrieking feminists. Then, there were endless articles weighing the pros and cons of single sex education. It was easier to dismiss Chu’s claims because I could see that there were no tampons on the floor anywhere on campus, and I could say that I had never once heard a group of students shouting about patriarchy. It was easy to ignore the claims that single sex education was a poor way to prepare students to compete in the sciences, since I am not a science major.
However, when a young woman on tumblr claimed that Bryn Mawr is a cis-sexist school, I found it much more difficult to ignore. I wondered how a school that was hosting Judith Butler and that had a variety of students with a variety of gender identities could be considered cis-sexist. The accusation left me feeling defensive and I felt the need to respond by explaining that Bryn Mawr is a very inclusive environment where many of the students I had encountered seemed to be open and accepting of those who identify as queer or trans. My response was full of assumptions and generalizations, but I persisted in the way that anyone who is love would. What I failed to notice, however, was that though the school may be inclusive to those who are assigned female at birth, yet now identify as male or off the binary, there doesn’t seem to be anyone here who was assigned male at birth.
Looking back on my response a few days later, and reading some responses from students who identify as queer, I began to question my own understanding of how inclusive Bryn Mawr is. I wondered why the school does not appear to admit students who were assigned male at birth, but are female. I also began to understand how little understanding I had of what it is be trans or queer. Though I had responded to the initial criticism’s call for Bryn Mawr students to be ashamed by stating that I rejected that request, but instead would be questioning, I was a little ashamed of my own quickness in responding defensively.
At the same time, a classmate was looking into Bryn Mawr’s admission policy regarding trans women, and coming up pretty empty handed as people continuously refused to allow her to quote them. They told her that all applicants are evaluated on a case by case basis, and that there is no defining policy outlining what to do if a student with a male birth assignment applied. One anonymous administrator stated:
“Unofficially, I would say that philosophically, I believe that the college’s intent is to educate students who were raised as female, experienced the world as female, and identify as female at the time of their education.”
This statement is problematic to me as it raises the question of what it means to experience the world as female, and as it seems to rest on the assumption the there is some universal way to be female. It also makes me wonder how far back this experiencing of the world as a female must go in order to qualify. Would a student like Nicole Maines, who began identifying as female at age four, qualify when she reaches college age? What about a student who began identifying as female in high school, or middle school?
As we have all learned from Judith Butler, both during her stay here at the college, and from her work on gender, gender is a performance that, though we may be conditioned to perform in a specific way, has no inherent right or wrong. It is porous, wobbly, subject to change, and subject to evaluation through a variety of filters, all of them subjective and none of them set in stone. And, as we have learned from Karen Barad, even the act of evaluation, as it filters one experience through another, creates via diffraction, an entirely new product. This leaves us, at the end of the day, with a wobbly performance of a porous idea, diffracted through a wobbly understanding of a porous idea, and creating a relatively unique understanding of what it means to be female. This isn’t to say that there cannot be agreement among those who form ideas about what it means to be female, but to say that there is no one way to understand femaleness or, for that matter, maleness or non- binariness. If we take this to be true, and I absolutely do, then where does that leave the stated criteria for admission?
Well, to begin with, it places an applicant who was assigned female at birth, but identifies as male or non-binary in a very precarious position as it asks them to deny their own identity by claiming to identify with a specific binary understanding of female, as it relates to being male. It essentially asks them to either abandon their identity, lie about their identity, or to face being denied admission. Though denying admission to applicants who are not female is certainly legal, I wonder if it is ethical.
While I am not sure that Bryn Mawr was founded as a safe space for women in the sense of being a space where women are protected and free to be or do whatever they want as much as it was founded as a place where white women with a certain pedigree and level of social standing could access education to which they had previously be denied access, I do think that the school has taken on an identity that is closely aligned with the first. Over time, the school has expanded its acceptance to include women of a variety of means and backgrounds, and has also grown to include those who do not always fit into the narrow traditional understanding of femininity. Students here often talk about Bryn Mawr being a bubble of sorts, where they are free to explore themselves and each other, and free to grow safely, without being asked to cater to a male dominated community. When students who don’t identify as female are denied access to the college, they are being denied access to a unique community.
In addition to denying access to students who do not identify as female, it appears as though Bryn Mawr also denies admission to students who were assigned male at birth but identify as female. Again, this is not necessarily contrary to the college’s formal legacy of providing education to women, but it is problematic when one considers the underlying philosophy of providing safe and challenging education to those who have been traditionally denied access to it. Considering this, has led me to consider the fact that this school, which I love so much, may actually be failing to fulfill its own philosophical legacy.
In thinking about the way the college denies access to trans women, I also began to question my own understanding of trans and queer issues. As a straight, cis identified woman, I wondered if I could ever fully understand the challenges and struggles of being gender queer. I began to read and question. I read all of the trans woman who had initially criticized the school’s blog posts, I listened to my gender queer classmates describe their own experiences and react to those of others. I contacted the young woman who criticized the school and asked her to participate in a conversation with me as I began to question the school’s admission policies. She agreed, and the entirety of our conversation is available on Serendip, for anyone who wishes to join and continue the discussion.
Though I have always somewhat understood that those who identify as gender queer face a variety of struggles, including the one for understanding, I never fully understood how much of that struggle includes the battle for the right to simply appear. As I conversed with Autumn, I became more aware of how much erasure occurs when trans individuals and non-binaries are forced to deny their own identities. I learned that those who are trans and queer face increased risks of violence, both from other civilians and from those in power. They are, in many ways, forced to live in constant scrutiny, from using a public restroom to seeking acceptance in communities which traditional cater to cisgender individuals, trans individuals are constantly asked to justify their own existence. It occurred to me that, while it’s wonderful that Bryn Mawr’s community is accepting to those who are gender queer, the administration asks those students to accept that they cannot fully appear as they are during the admissions process if they want to be accepted. Again, I am forced to wonder how a school that has hosted a theorist whose work deals explicitly with the right to appear, and the type of precarity that those who are denied that right face, can refuse that right to those who may need it most. I think many of the students at Bryn Mawr like to think of the school as a trail blazing institution which seeks to recreate the world around it as a better place, and I wonder if we can continue in that desired direction if we continue to exclude those who do not adhere to outdated and impractical gender binaries.
Apparently, I am not alone in this, as many students have been discussing the issue of allowing trans female students to attend Bryn Mawr. Several have even posted projects dealing with this issue on Serendip, including the previously mentioned inquiry into the school’s policies and a vow to pursue a plenary resolution which will call on the admissions office to consider fully the applications of those who were assigned male at birth and now identify as female. I fully support these projects, and am willing to help with them in any way I can, but I would like to set them aside for the moment to address so questions that have come up as we discuss both the possibility of admitting trans women and the reality of the fact that there are students already enrolled at Bryn Mawr who do not identify as women at all.
Perhaps the biggest of those questions is that of what happens to a women’s college when gender changes from a binary to a spectrum. How does one objectively evaluate who is female enough to attend, and who is not? There are several ways to answer this question. The first is that the very act of being female is so subjective and self-driven that it is nearly impossible to determine what counts for female. Under such an understanding, the very idea of one being female becomes difficult to qualify, and possible renders the word itself obsolete. However, perhaps it might be more fruitful to consider the category of woman, as Judith Butler has suggested, as something that is more porous and wobbly than we might have previously imagined. Perhaps, being female is not a permanent state in one direction or another, but one that can be traveled through, inhabited, and sometimes even left behind. At first, this conception may seem, as it initially did to me, too loose to be useful in defining what counts as a women’s college. However, as I think about it further, it makes more sense than many other ways of defining the school. Yes, it can be unsettling to think of womanhood as something that is neither static nor inherent, but doing so does not mean that those of us who are cis-gender lose a thing aside from our own limitations. We are still women standing in some sort of solidarity while we are here, but we are now welcome to conceive of our womanhood, and that of others, as something that grow and change as we grow and change. If we understand college as a time for growth and exploration in all other ways, then why wouldn’t we also consider it as a time for us and others to grow in our understanding of gender?
While the question of what it means to be female and its answer above can speak to the idea of allowing trans women into the college and how such a change would affect the definition of the school as a women’s institution, it doesn’t speak to the question of what it means to allow those who do not identify as female into the college. It is here that I find myself the most troubled and confused. During our conversation, Autumn put forth the idea that those who enter the college under the fact that they were assigned female at birth despite not identifying as such could be contributing to their own erasure, and also helping to reinforce the policy of not admitting trans women. Though I responded to that idea by stating that I do not think the college should deny access to those who identify as male or non-binary, and that I welcome those who identify as such into the community, I did wonder if allowing male assigned at birth individuals would challenge the school’s definition of women in a way that would force the college to re-define itself as something other than a women’s college. I initially liked the idea of a school for those who are gender marginalized, but that definition is extremely shaky and I imagine that it will be quite some time before anything of the sort exists. It also ignores two key things. The first is that Bryn Mawr already exists as a women’s college, and the second is that defining the college as a place for those who are gender marginalized might actually reinforces the idea that there is a cause for that assumed marginalization. I’m not sure if reinforcing that is what we want to do, and I am not sure if doing so would be an effective way to address the larger imbalances in society at large. In short, I kept coming up lost as I tried to reason out what would happen if Bryn Mawr began to admit those who were either assigned male at birth, or those who openly identify as male.
It wasn’t until I attended my final writing conference with Anne Dalke, and read her comments on my and Autumn’s conversation, that I considered a fact that I had roundly ignored in all of my previous thought and discussion: Bryn Mawr already allows cis male students to enroll in undergrad classes, major here, matriculate as graduate students here, teach here, work here, and even live here. Though male students are not allowed to matriculate at Bryn Mawr in the same way that female students are, they can attend the college in much the same way that the female students do. Under our current policy, it is possible that, though technically a student at Haverford, a cis male student can live in our dorms, eat in our dining halls, attend our classes, and join our clubs. Though it seems as though not many men take advantage of this arrangement, and it is my understanding that there are no cis male students currently living on Bryn Mawr’s campus, it has happened in the past without undoing the school’s definition as a women’s college. Knowing this has caused me to question if a women’s college is actually defined by having a solely female student body.
If we consider the fact that no one here would deny the fact that the school is still a women’s college despite the inclusion of males, cis or otherwise, then it seems to me that a female student population is not the actual criteria we need to define ourselves as such. I understand that the college was founded at a time when young women were denied access to college simply because of their gender, and I also understand that, though women can now study at almost any school, there is still an imbalance in both numbers and treatment of women at co-ed schools which reinforces the need for schools like Bryn Mawr to exist. However, to pretend that the college operates now as it did when it was founded, would be to erase not only those who attend who do not identify as female, but also to erase those who are not white, not American, not rich, and not of a certain pedigree. If the school still adhered to its original practices, a good percentage of us, myself included would not be here today.
Perhaps, then, it is not the fact that our student body is all female that defines Bryn Mawr as a women’s college, especially since we do not have an all female student population. Perhaps it is, instead, the fact that the school is a place where women and other students are free to study without the pressures of competing with a dominating class of men. Perhaps it is the fact that our student body is mostly female, and that our student body has the ability to define for ourselves what it means to be or perform being female. Perhaps it is the fact that we have all come here as students, to question these definitions and to pull apart the assumptions that have reinforced the marginalization of others. It is probably all of these things, and if it is, then the answer to the question of what happens to a women’s college when it admits those who perform gender differently than we might expect is that nothing happens unless we decide that it does.
With that in mind, I call on the student body as a whole to decide that Bryn Mawr can and should admit trans women, students who identify as gender queer, and trans men. I call on all of us to work together to make the campus a safe and inviting place for everyone to grow, and I call on all of us to continue working to grow and learn together as we move out beyond our bubble and into the larger world. As my classmate, jfwright, has said “Activism begins at home.” And our home is as much in need of it as any other.
jfwright. “Activism Begins At Home”. Web. http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/11439. accessed 12/12/2011
aybala50. “Moving towards a right relationship between Bryn Mawr College and Transgender Students”, web, http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/11468, accessed 12/12/2011
Butler, Judith. Flexner Lecture Series, Bryn Mawr College
Barad, Karen. Lecture. Bryn Mawr College. 11/8/2011
English, Bella. “Led By The Child Who Simply Knew.” Boston Globe. 12/11/2011