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Why Women's Colleges Still Matter in the Age of Trans Activism

Lee Balterman/The LIFE Premium Collection/Getty Images

Last week, Bryn Mawr College, my alma mater, announced that it would begin accepting applications from trans women, becoming the fourth women’s college in the United States to do so. Indeed, two other women’s colleges, Mount Holyoke and Mills College, have gone one step farther and begun accepting trans men. “A Mills senior and cisgender female ally recently spoke to me about a change she's seen at her school in the past four years,” Dr. Adrian Scott Duane, who identifies as a transsexual man and activist, wrote in The Advocate in October. “Mills, she said, was starting to feel like ‘a college for people of marginalized genders’—trans men, trans women, cis women, and nonbinary folks.”

Outside of Mills, the battles are more pitched. The questions over what to do about transgender students at women’s colleges, which have remained strictly single-sex undergraduate institutions until recently, go back to at least when I was at Bryn Mawr, from 1998 to 2002. At that time, most women’s colleges only accepted students assigned female at birth and would have told, and did tell, students who began to transition to men after matriculation they should transfer. In its announcement last week, Bryn Mawr said it no longer matters how students’ gender identifications shift after they’re admitted: They’re still Mawrtyrs. But the school was unwilling to make one concession demanded by some transgender activists, including on a petition: to use “gender-inclusive language” and stop referring to itself as a women’s college. “Bryn Mawr’s identity as a women’s college is fundamental to its distinctive environment, one in which women are central, faculty assume and expect excellence from women, and women assume positions of leadership,” the chair of the Board of Trustees, Arlene Gibson, wrote in a letter to graduates.

That stance is at odds with a growing number of women's college students. At Wellesley, as The New York Times Magazine reported last year, students have replaced references to the sisterhood with “siblinghood,” and, when one student said publicly that the benefit of attending an all-women’s college was seeing other women in leadership roles around her, a trans male student wrote to her in an email, “I am not a woman. I am a trans man who is part of your graduating class, and you literally ignored my existence in your interview. . . . You had an opportunity to show people that Wellesley is a place that is complicating the meaning of being an ‘all women’s school,’ and you chose instead to displace a bunch of your current and past Wellesley siblings.” At Mount Holyoke last month, students cancelled a production of The Vagina Monologues: “At its core, the show offers an extremely narrow perspective on what it means to be a woman,” students wrote in an email explanation. (The word vagina was also cause for concern last year when it was used in the title of a fundraiser for Texas abortion clinics: DrJaneChi, an activist for trans causes, tweeted at organizers that it was cissexist, saying the word “alienates trans people, & it's reductionist.”)

This might seem like a tiny, fussy battle waged only by overly politically correct liberals on a few college campuses and in other feminist spaces, the kind of intra-left fight where progressives eat their own tail. But it’s bigger than that, and has serious implications for the ongoing, uphill fight for women's rights—a fight that should be waged alongside, rather than eclipsed by, the one for LGBT rights.

Born when most institutions of higher learning did not admit women, many women’s colleges got their start as glorified finishing schools, preparing women for marriage. Bryn Mawr and others were more serious from the start. Established in 1885, it offered fellowships for women to pursue graduate studies, which was unheard of at the time. Its second president and patron saint, M. Carey Thomas, was a suffragist who lived in the deanery with a woman partner. She wrote that marriage was a “Loss of freedom, poverty, and a personal subjection for which I see absolutely no compensation.” There’s an apocryphal quote attributed to her, kind of an unofficial school motto, “Bryn Mawr: Where only our failures wed.” She likely said something less absolute but equally radical for the time: “Our failures only marry.” Bryn Mawr never wanted to coach women merely to be well-educated, amiable companions for their professional husbands, but professionals themselves.

In the 1960s, there were 300 women-only colleges. When other institutions began admitting women, many women-only colleges either folded, became co-ed, or reformed their mission. Most women’s schools that survived became explicitly feminist institutions, devoted to female leadership. There are only around 50 left today, and, one-by-one, they are becoming co-ed. Of the elite, wealthy women-only institutions once known as The Seven Sisters, only five remain as independent, single-sex institutions.

I found out about the Sisters somewhat by accident. In the late 1990s, I was attending a small high school in northern Arkansas, a place untouched by the Rights Revolutions of the 1960s. I had a science teacher who used to tell us, only half-facetiously, that women were better at doing dishes because the extra layer of fat on their bodies insulated them against the pain of a hot dishwater. The application materials for Bryn Mawr and similar schools drew out the nascent feminist in me, but I hadn’t even really had the words to describe my feminist stance. The campus felt, and still feels, revolutionary. I arrived shy and unwilling to speak, almost at all, in class; professors pulled me aside for private sessions on how to speak up. That women spoke openly about their bodies, sex, and what they wanted from both—and that this was encouraged by college leadership—was new to me, and I think is still new to many 18-year-old girls who grow up in this country. I was enveloped in support and encouragement. I see differences in my peers and younger women who went to co-ed schools or, especially, stayed in the South, and know I would have been less confident had I not gone to Bryn Mawr.

I think it’s easy to assume, from a perch in the liberal northeast, that this kind of openness is everywhere now, that we live in a post-"Sex and the City" world where women’s sexuality and economic power are taken as givens. But it’s important to remember that the Florida legislature decided in 2011 that uterus was a dirty word, and The Vagina Monologues, written less than two decades ago, in 1996, still fights the reputation that it is “viciously anti-male,” because many of the monologues are about abusive men. Right now, female bodies are ruled by male-dominated statehouses across the country intent on closing abortion clinics and outlawing late-term abortion with bills that consider fetuses people but women merely their “hosts.” This is the reality in America for many women, and it doesn’t allow the kind of open dialogue and encouragement found on women’s college 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.

It’s not as if the need to champion women, to encourage them to assert themselves, no longer exists: The defining act of womanhood is still often considered motherhood, a role in which society expects women to sacrifice everything for children. Women not only comprise fewer than five percent of chief executives of the country’s most powerful companies, but their roles in the workplace are still debated, and women don’t have parity in workforce participation. Many liberals hated Sheryl Sandberg after Lean In, as much as conservatives did for reasons that seemed to boil down to her power and wealth, and the ways she wielded both of those to make her difficult life work. While women outnumber men in college, it’s not as though that is translating into real gains after they earn their degrees: Not only does the pay gap still exist, it begins right after they graduate. Women hold about 20 percent of seats in the current Congress, a depressingly low historical high. In an otherwise touching speech in September, the actress Emma Watson, a United Nations Women Goodwill Ambassador, apologized that feminist was a divisive word, as if fighting for women’s rights was tantamount to misandry.

Why aren’t trans activists targeting those institutions men still dominate rather than fighting over use of the word "sisterhood" at campuses with a few thousand students? Largely because they can. When trans activists complain that use of gendered language makes them feel excluded, they aren’t doing it in explicitly male spaces: It’s only women who would respond “So sorry!” and retreat to the sidelines. Women aren’t supposed to talk about themselves, to champion their cause without reservation, to put their own needs above others'. We’re so uncomfortable with female power that we fight it on the smallest scales. Women, especially young ones, hold power so delicately and uncomfortably they’re ready to give it up as soon as someone accuses them of being selfish. There are plenty of small liberal arts colleges that are “safe spaces” for students who are questioning their gender and sexuality, many of them former women’s colleges. But colleges where women run the show are relatively few and we are only slowly making inroads to traditionally male schools—the current president of Harvard University, Drew Gilpin Faust, is the first woman to hold that position and was only named eight years ago. (Faust is a Bryn Mawr alum.)

What does it mean to be inclusive? As Eve Ensler, who wrote The Vagina Monologues, commented in Salon after Mount Holyoke students cancelled her play, it needn’t involve erasing references to body parts held by more than half the population. And since most plays, books, movies, and television shows are still centered on the internal and external lives of men, it seems especially cruel to stop production of one of the few plays so explicitly about women. Calling oneself a woman and noting that other women do, in fact, exist hardly ignores the existence of transgender individuals and other people who don’t fall neatly into either category. It’s just, in that moment, not about their fight.

Every single work of art—every single institution, every group—can’t be about every person. Inclusivity should mean that every person is allowed to have a dialogue with it, to interrogate it, comment on it, and have the space to create their own art or institution or group to stand beside it. (If you think The Vagina Monologues is terrible, write as many op-eds saying so that you want, but don’t stop its production.) It’s also true that every college can’t serve the needs of every single potential student. Women’s colleges are still allowed to exclude certain applicants based on gender because there’s still a need for their exclusionary existence. Transexclusion and transphobia are serious problems, but they are different from the problems most women in America—who are born women, raised in environments where people recognize only two genders, and are punished for the simple fact of their biology—continue to face. After all, those of us born with a vagina and uterus are the only ones who can be forced to carry a pregnancy to term by the anti-abortion laws sweeping the nation. Is that the sum total of what it means to be a woman? I hope not, but it’s an important part. Pushing women’s champions out of the picture will hardly go far in fighting any type of discrimination, but it will go a long way in setting back the fight against misogyny.

There will come a time when women’s colleges begin accepting men. But I hope it’s when the need for the women-only institutions has disappeared, and that it’s spearheaded by women who feel comfortable in their seats of power—long past the point where the idea of championing for women’s rights seems a quaint relic of a bygone era, the way finishing schools seem today. For now, though, women’s colleges should remain sisterhoods, primarily groups of women intent on working for gender equality in all its forms. Women-only institutions can welcome as many male or transgender allies who want to join, but they have to support the idea that sometimes women can come first.

Correction: A previous version of this story described DrJaneChi as a "transgendered activist." She is an activist for trans causes.