The Transition of Feminism at Bryn Mawr College
Louisa “Weezie” Lauher
December 20, 2007
Critical Feminist Theory
Professor Anne Dalke
The Transition of Feminism at Bryn Mawr College
“As a mature movement, feminism has had to contend with questions that the trans rights movement, as a newly forming movement, has not. Most feminists agree that being a woman is not the same thing as being a feminist. In this sense, feminism as a political movement involves something different than being a member of a certain group- one chooses a feminist identity. One of the strengths of feminism has been its ability to adapt and to wrestle with questions of identity. It has grown from a movement that struggles to include a multiplicity of individuals with multiple and sometimes competing identities and realities of oppression. As feminism is forced to grapple with race, class, sexuality and gender/sex identification it reinvigorates itself, grows and remains relevant. The trans movement itself is also fraught with competing identities that are still struggling to speak… it has yet to separate in what ways being trans differs from being part of a trans movement- it means something to be trans, and it means something else to see that trans-ness as part of an ongoing political project.” (simpkins, Scott-Dixon, 79)
Bryn Mawr College is a women’s college that prides itself on its diverse community. A sense of pride and open-mindedness makes itself known through recruiting documents, the college website, and speeches delivered by administrators. Traditionally, this diversity is applied to issues of ethnicity, religion, class, race, or sexual orientation; however, recent events, including a visit from renowned transsexual scholar Susan Stryker and the development of a Transgender Task Force by President Vickers and Dean MacDonald-Dennis have raised the question of gender identity and expression being added to this list of diverse traits that Bryn Mawr holds dear as an institution. Due to the fact that I personally identify as a transgendered person, I have a vested interest in the development of a discussion of this topic on campus. More specifically, readings that I have been assigned in this course and others have sparked my interest in feminism in the transgender community. As a Bryn Mawr student who identifies both as transgender and feminist, I find myself at a great advantage to research feminism as it applies to and is defined by the transgender community. As a college student, I have access to texts, resources, and faculty that can help me explore this issue further, academically and personally; additionally, as a Bryn Mawr student, I have access to small and unique community- graduates of a women’s college who are now male. Having made their transitions, social and medical, in the years following their graduation from Bryn Mawr, these graduates have proved an immense resource for experiences, suggestions, and interpretations of the treatment and awareness of transgender students on campus. An interview with Dean MacDonald-Dennis and a close reading of textual sources have provided additional insight on the topic of transgender feminism at Bryn Mawr College.
It took an interview with the Assistant Dean and Director of Intercultural Affairs, to put the question of transgender presence and awareness into perspective in terms of Bryn Mawr as an institution. Dean Macdonald-Dennis has a great deal of interaction with the student body, especially in terms of diversity issues. The Multicultural Center on campus, where Dean Macdonald-Dennis works, sponsors the majority of on-campus groups related to sexuality, race, and ethnicity. During his interview, he stressed the importance of considering a future MTF community that could develop on campus. Similarly to J and D, whose opinions on the matter will follow, Dean Macdonald-Dennis communicated that, while it is important to consider the presence of FTMs on campus and ensure a safe space and resources for Bryn Mawr’s male-identified students, there should not exist any favoritism or special focus on the community that might detract from the student body as a whole. Dean Macdonald-Dennis sees the possibility for Bryn Mawr to become a feminist (third wave, “Or better yet, humanist…”) institution. In this way, there would be a standard set for acceptance and open-mindedness on campus, and perhaps transgender students and other students of minority and/or subordinated groups would feel less conspicuous.
I decided that the most valuable resource I have for this project is the alumni population from Bryn Mawr College that identifies as transgender. With the help of Ann Dixon, I posted a series of questions on Athena’s Web, the online alumni network. I developed three categories of questions for these alumni to answer: background, which had the responders inform me of how they identify, the point at which they realized they may be transgender, and steps they have taken toward transitioning, if they have chosen to do so; Bryn Mawr, which asked the responders to address their decision to attend Bryn Mawr, their favorite experiences, whether or not they came out as transgender while at Bryn Mawr, how they explain their Bryn Mawr degree in their lives, and changes they think could (or should) be made at Bryn Mawr in support of transgender students; and feminism, which asked alumni to define feminism, address the complications of identifying as both transgendered and a feminist, how the transition has affected their feminism, and whether or not the transgender community defines feminism differently than other communities. The responses I received include some supportive statements as well as some unanticipated reactions to what some responses referred to as a sort of alienation of the transgendered community, in spite of -or through- awareness.
J is an alumnus who graduated in the early 1990s. His transition began in his mid-30s and in the last two to three years he has been on consistent hormone therapy, had chest surgery, and has come out to all friends, family, and coworkers. J traces his knowledge of wanting to be male back to approximately age seven. At that point, genital reassignment surgery and other surgical opportunities for transgender people were only available in some European nations, and therefore did not enter J’s mind as viable options. However, after hearing about two other Bryn Mawr alumni who transitioned, J “realized it was something that [he] could really do and not ruin [his] life.” J’s choice to attend Bryn Mawr is something he describes as “funny.” In spite of adamantly refusing to go to an “all-girls school,” J toured Amherst, Smith, Wellesley, Mount Holyoke, and Bryn Mawr, was admitted to all of them, and chose Bryn Mawr. It was close to his family home in Washington, DC, it was an institution he was familiar with from having family in the Philadelphia area, and it was a place in which he felt comfortable. “I visited a couple of times and felt like there would be a place for me there. I hadn’t really fit in in high school, but I felt like I would at Bryn Mawr.”
J sites his involvement in sports as his favorite part of the Bryn Mawr experience. While J did not come out as transgender while attending Bryn Mawr, he admits that his gender identity manifested itself in some interesting ways. “I have to admit though -- I only played lacrosse because I was a goalie. NO way were they getting me in a skirt! I can say that somewhat in jest now, but it was absolutely true – if I had had to wear a skirt, I would not have played.” J graduated from Bryn Mawr with female pronouns on his diploma. When asked how he explains his Bryn Mawr degree, he admits to struggling a great deal with when and whether to tell people.
“I still have a lot of Bryn Mawr stuff (mugs, posters, t-shirts) and if anyone asks me about them, I can just say my wife went there, which is true. When I am with my wife and we are asked where we went to college, we say ‘Bryn Mawr and Haverford’, which isn't stretching the truth too much -- she did major at Haverford, and I took lots of classes there. If I'm talking to someone I don't expect to have much contact with, I just say I went to Haverford, and I don't feel too guilty about it. Once, when I was in a situation where I felt comfortable doing so (i.e. I would have been comfortable disclosing my trans status), I told someone I went to Bryn Mawr, and he replied ‘Oh, so it's co-ed now?’ Someone came along and distracted him before I could explain...”
While I found all of these responses and stories very interesting, the most intriguing and educational part of J’s responses came when asked what potential he saw for change in favor of supporting and better integrating the transgender population at Bryn Mawr.
“Having not experienced campus as a male student or alum, I don't have any specific changes to suggest. I haven't asked the alumnae office to change my records yet, but I hope they will be easy to work with. I have to admit, I’m a bit conflicted about transmen at women’s colleges. I have heard that Smith College is being very accommodating to its FTM students, to the point of changing all bathrooms on campus to be co-ed. I don't know if that's true, but if so, it seems a little overboard. I believe that women’s colleges should be primarily for women, and that male-identified people should be welcomed, but not catered to. That said, I also believe that women’s colleges should be supportive of those students and alums that come to realize that they are not in fact women, in terms of changing documentation, transcripts, diplomas, etc.”
Another interesting response that I received from J came when I asked what the complications are, in his opinion, of a transgender person identifying as a feminist. J sees the idea of gender as a binary and feminism pitting men and women against each other as the primary complication. The issue he finds with feminism is that it assumes that “women” and “men,” as groups that should be equal, are “…discrete, easily definable groups…” J prefers to think and speak in terms of all people being equal, regardless of gender. What makes him most uncomfortable as a female-bodied transman is people who claim the feminist label that view men as enemies. His transition has made him more sensitive to the divisive ways in which feminist ideas can be expressed. He states that he has “come to understand that progress will be a lot smoother if it can be achieved without alienating a large segment of the population.”
It has been immeasurably helpful for me, both personally and in terms of this paper, to have had this interaction with J. His status as an alumnus of Bryn Mawr helps to put his opinions into perspective and allows me to see the impact Bryn Mawr can have on a member of the transgender community. J’s opinions and experiences are applicable and interesting, especially as he was the first respondent to my questionnaire. I received another response a few days later from a gay transman, D, who graduated in the late 1990s. D offers a very interesting perspective on transitioning, sexuality, and the role Bryn Mawr played in the development of these identities for him. D identifies as “male. That guy who's into art and tech and who sometimes forgets to use his inside voice...,” though for medical purposes and emergencies he uses the term “female-to-male transsexual.” D’s medical transition began 6 years ago, although his social transition began about a year before that. Altogether, he has been living “socially unquestioned” as a man for approximately five years. When asked at what point he began to identify as such, D responded,
“Most of my identifying phrases were dependent on the words I had access to at any given time. While I was gender variant my whole life, my earlier self-descriptions were things like 'it would be more fun to be a boy' and 'I'm not much of a girl' and, when I got to college, 'I'm trying to define alternate ways to be a woman.' I started using the word transgender to describe myself when I was 23 or so, although I didn't figure out what I needed to do for another couple of years. A year or two after I started transition, I realized that transgender no longer defined my reality, since my internal and external experiences of my gender matched up a billion times more closely. At that point I happily let go of the word.”
D was captivated by Bryn Mawr College for its architecture, its academic reputation, and
the financial aid package he received from the school. His fondest memories of Bryn Mawr include being a distraction to friends, causing trouble while avoiding penalty, and his classes in math and physics. D did not come out as transgender while attending Bryn Mawr, but he attributes this to the absence of terms and knowledge he needed “… in [his] toolbox of things that existed in the world! I didn’t quite have the vocabulary. I lacked role models, and I think I was subconsciously not dealing with it yet because I didn’t have the emotional maturity to face everything I would need to figure out, do, and tell people. Bryn Mawr was an incredible place for me to be blazingly gender variant, so it might have provided an environment in which I could safely put off dealing with gender stuff for a couple more years.” Like J, D socially says that he is a Haverford graduate.
When D was asked about the potential for change in terms of the transgender community at Bryn Mawr, he responded with a more general statement in favor of transgender awareness.
“… Any school should actively pursue nondiscrimination for any and all trans and gender variant students, faculty, and staff; make sure that plenty of bathrooms are available that can be safely used by trans and gender variant people; make sure that the health center is sensitive and responsive to T&GV (trans and gender variant) people’s medical needs; make sure that public safety isn’t harassing anyone; and generally not being buttheads. I think women’s colleges should strive toward being welcoming to trans female (i.e. MTF) students, especially since in recent years I’ve seen more people begin to transition younger and with family support- so hopefully more MTF children will be in positions to pursue higher education after they’ve begun to transition, and hopefully some of those kids will be drawn into women’s colleges.”
D’s definition of and experiences with feminism, like J’s, are arguably the most interesting response on his questionnaire. He defines feminism as “the radical belief that women are people,” a quote borrowed from Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler. While D would not use ‘feminist’ as a noun to “describe a primary aspect of [his] identity,” he does like to describe himself as a “feminist ally to women.”
“I think that trans people are far too different from each other for there to be any single set of even highly generalized relationships to or complications in relation to feminism… Most of my complications in relating to feminism these days are the usual complications that men face in relating to feminist. As a gay man with many interests that are stereotypically male-dominated, I live a pretty male-centric life… A lot of core feminist issues are far outside of my daily experience… My years at Bryn Mawr gave me a basic feminist theoretical underpinning… But in hindsight it feels like I was infiltrating.”
I found it extremely interesting to hear responses from two fully-transitioned male alumni of Bryn Mawr College that lean toward alienating feminism from their lives. It is an unfortunate stereotype of the feminist community that one must be a female-bodied, female-identified woman, preferably militant, eloquent, and incredibly angry in order to identify as a feminist. The discussion of feminism as it relates to the transgender community, and vice versa, is best addressed in the 2006 anthology edited by Krista Scott-Dixon, entitled Trans/Forming Feminisms; Trans-Feminist Voices Speak Out.
“Feminism isn’t just about fixing the situation for women. Feminist movements have also been concerned with issues of social justice for all. For instance, the early women’s movement was also concerned with issues such as the abolition of slavery and better working conditions for all. Presently, feminism represents a way of dissecting and challenging commonplace assumptions and ideologies, and trying to erase barriers to equality of all kinds, including the intersecting dimensions of race, gender, sex, ability, age, religion, sexual orientation and class. Feminism is about addressing and changing all situations where a group in power maintains its power through systematic forces that keep other groups disadvantaged.” (Scanlon, p.91, Scott-Dixon)
From this quote, it would seem as though feminism and the transgendered community would easily meet. If feminism “[tries] to erase barriers to equality of all kinds…,” there should not be a question of whether or not the feminist community is accepting of the transgendered people that identify as feminists and seek the support and resources that feminist organizations have to offer. Unfortunately, there is a definite backlash against the transgendered community from the feminist sphere. Theorists such as Janice Raymond refer to fully transitioned MTFs using male pronouns, addressing the desire of “male-to-constructed-female transsexuals” to join the feminist community as a virtual rape of women by penetration of the women-only spaces they hold dear. The questions rise time and time again: how can an MTF call herself a feminist, even if she has fully medically and socially transitioned, when she biologically comes from the experience of male privilege? How can an FTM ask to be a part of the feminist community when he is throwing away his experiences as a woman in asking for the removal and refutation of pronouns, the female body, and other uniting factors that women and feminists hold dear?
“My own personal brand of feminism included mainstream women’s issues (like equal pay for equal work and reproductive freedom). But it had also morphed until it was about the right of every person to decide what to do with their bodies… the freeing of men to be feminine, to experience the full range of human emotions and of women to be masculine and aggressive and to learn how to fight; and a whole host of other issues that touch the lives of women and of all other people.” (Wyss, Scott-Dixon, 60)
I had an unparalleled experience in researching and interviewing for this paper. I initially anticipated that my position in this paper would reflect my personal identity and the transgender community that has been established on the Bryn Mawr campus. Since most of the discussions in class revolved around the presence of FTMs on campus (although our readings for the course were more well-rounded and representative of the MTF population as well), I expected to build off of the discord among my course-mates and defend the rights of FTMs to attend Bryn Mawr, examining the admissions policies and discussing the potential for raising awareness on campus. However, the interviews conducted with alumni brought me to an interesting point in my argument and in what I felt needed to be addressed in this paper. As an FTM-identified Bryn Mawr student, I personally would like to be recognized and valued by the campus-wide population. However, when it became swiftly and abundantly clear that this was too much to expect (both from the small FTM population, in being asked to defend and explain on behalf of an entire community, and from the campus community, whose opinions are impossible to guess and too varied to be anticipated), I shifted focus to the half of the transgender population that is not present on campus at all, to our knowledge; the MTF community. In an intense brainstorming session and impromptu evaluation of the campus climate with a close friend, I found myself raging in favor of the MTF community’s presence at Bryn Mawr. The final paragraphs are my immediate reaction to this discussion.
Bryn Mawr needs to become a space that is inclusive and respectful of female-identified people. Regardless of whether or not applicants are female when they apply and transition to male while in attendance, or biologically male but female-identified, Bryn Mawr must become a place where the students here operate as feminist, female scholars. Of course, the alums that I had contact with were FTMs, yes, because they didn’t transition and weren’t aware of their gender identities while attending Bryn Mawr. The majority of FTMs who began their undergraduate degrees at Bryn Mawr and came to the realization that they are men while in attendance transferred, because it is too much to ask a man to graduate from an institution for women. Both alums I spoke with lie, and say they graduated from Haverford. Perhaps the Bi-College Consortium can grow to allow students that begin at BMC to graduate with Haverford degrees. Perhaps the opposite can occur for Haverford men who want to be women. When considering Bryn Mawr as a feminist institution, the question that comes up in response to FTM presence on campus are a) “Why did you come to BMC?” and b) “Why are you still here?” Personally, I am in no position to tell anyone to do anything that denies who they are. If an FTM wants to live with a Bryn Mawr degree and explain it for the rest of his life, so be it. But why should BMC only allow half of the transgendered community admission to this institution? Changes must be made. Bryn Mawr must be a place where the people in the world who identify as women can live, learn, and graduate as such, regardless of their genitalia, chromosomal makeup, or biological sex. Yes, a space must be created for women who realize their male identities while at Bryn Mawr and choose not to leave. I personally will graduate with female pronouns, live in dorms with single-sex bathrooms, and exist with the knowledge that the speeches to the undergraduate community will begin with the address, “ladies.” This is the choice I have made, and I will never tell any FTM that they cannot be at Bryn Mawr. But why should any MTFs lose out when FTMs benefit from the supportive space that Bryn Mawr offers?
In my research, I was informed that in the 1990s, there were at least two (closeted) MTFs on campus, one of whom was a member of the faculty. As a trans-identified person, I know what it is to hide, and lie about oneself for the sake of fitting in. I cannot imagine being in a place such as this, being as comfortable as I am with the people on this campus and the professors that I learn from, while hiding my entire past, my name, my childhood. There is no reason for these MTFs to have had to sneak under the wire. Bryn Mawr is a women’s college. This title has come into question given the number of FTMs that have passed through this institution, and if the college community feels comfortable with gender-neutrality, in bathrooms or the Constitution, then so be it. I, for one, will not ask this entire college, the thousands of people it has graduated and the thousands to come, to change for my sake. If my identity changes or I come to understand more about myself as a trans-identified person, I will personally take steps to ensure my personal comfort. This may mean transferring, but it will have been a choice I make on a personal level; not because Bryn Mawr wasn’t the perfect place for me, not because this community is not equipped to handle an FTM in its midst, but because Bryn Mawr provided me with the safety and perspective to learn about myself, and the strength to choose what is best for me, my education, and my life.
Raymond, Janice. "Sappho by Surgery: The Transsexually Constructed Lesbian-Feminist." The Transgender Studies Reader (2006): 131-143.
Scanlon, Kyle. "Where's the Beef? Masculinity as Performed by Feminists." Trans/Forming Feminisms. Ed. Krista Scott-Dixon. Toronto: Sumach Press, 2006.
simpkins, reese. "Feminist Transmasculinities." Trans/Forming Feminisms. Ed. Krista Scott-Dixon. Toronto: Sumach Press, 2006.
Wyss, Shannon E.. "Sometimes Boy, Sometimes Girl: Learning to be Genderqueer through a Child's Eyes." Trans/Forming Feminisms. Ed. Krista Scott-Dixon. Toronto: Sumach Press, 2006.