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Why Women's Colleges Need to Embrace Trans Activists—and So Does Feminism

A response to Monica Potts from a fellow Bryn Mawr alum

Bryn Mawr

I woke up last Tuesday to a deluge of emails, many from students who took my "Introduction to Trans Studies" class at Yale last semester, all pointing me to a New Republic article by Monica Potts: “Why Women’s Colleges Still Matter in the Age of Trans Activism.” Potts bemoans Bryn Mawr College’s recent decision to change its application policies such that feminine-identified or genderqueer applicants (trans and cisgendered women, and intersex people) are now eligible to apply. She describes efforts to make women’s spaces safe and accessible for trans people, and especially trans women, as having the effect of “pushing women’s champions out of the picture,” which, she argues, “will hardly go far in fighting any type of discrimination, but it will go a long way in setting back the fight against misogyny.” 

As someone who has found a home in dyke and queer communities since I was a teenager, I found Potts’s piece offensive but not particularly surprising. Debates about the relationship of trans people—especially trans women—to women’s spaces have raged at least since Janice Raymond's smear campaign in the early '70s against Sandy Stone, a trans woman, for Stone’s important work at Olivia Records, a lesbian-feminist music label. Women’s colleges, women’s studies classes, women’s music festivals—nary a women’s space has existed that has not, at some point, been importantly challenged on how it defines “women” and why, and trans people are frequently unfairly blamed for the fallout when this happens. 

Potts—a Bryn Mawr alumnus, as I am—finds symbolic meaning in the disappearance of women’s colleges. She reads the decreasing number of women’s colleges as portending the end times of feminism, as a decline that “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.” The piece is shot through with an ominous extinction narrative and claims that unless we renew our commitment to prioritizing women’s legislative and corporate equality (she cites the relatively few number of women in Congress and in the Senate, and Lean In “feminism”), then women’s colleges, and by implication feminism with them, will become “quaint relic[s] of a bygone era.” 

This extinction story about the slow disappearance of women’s institutions at the hands of trans people isn't unique to Potts’s article; putatively feminist arguments that equate prioritizing the needs of trans women with sideways or latent misogynist prerogatives are hardly new. A spate of recent stories about the slow decline of the women’s college index a larger conversation about where feminist work is located in our cultures, and who that work is intended to serve. In Potts’s piece, it is institutions—women’s colleges, Lean In “feminism,” etc.—rather than people or organizations that take center stage as the most critical forces in the advancement of feminist political work today. Instead of identifying with the priorities of those whom women’s colleges are intended to serve—ostensibly those most vulnerable to gender-based oppression—Potts seems to identify with Bryn Mawr itself, ostensibly because it has become a symbol of the prospects of feminist politics in the United States. But how did we come to see institutions as the target, embodiment, and proper home of feminism? 

Most of us identify with institutions in some way, whether we want to or not. It might be a political party, your alma mater, where you do (or don't) buy your food. In our neoliberal capitalist society, it is often difficult not to identify with the structures around which our lives frequently need to be organized. But according to Lisa Duggan, professor of American Studies at New York University and author of The Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy, neoliberalism has had a particularly devastating impact on the organization of liberation movements over the last 40 years. Instead of the redistribution of resources downward via grassroots political organizing, neoliberal economics advocates a redistribution of resources upward toward the state and private institutions. This has shifted the terrain of mainstream political work from coalition-based platforms organized around fighting the predations of structures of oppression—poverty, police violence, the prison pipeline—to more individuated, single-issue, or identity-based platforms fighting exclusively for the legislative and corporate enfranchisement of specific groups of people. As theorists and activists such as Sarah Jaffe, Nancy Fraser, Rahila Gupta, Michelle Murphy, and many more have argued, feminism has suffered mightily from this neoliberal reorganizing of its priorities, and the result of this is that we have come to think of mainstream feminism in corporate or institutional terms: Nike’s The Girl Effect, Half the Sky (“turning oppression into opportunity”), etc. The devastating effect of this trend is that “feminism” is a term that is increasingly associated with transphobia and racism, rather than liberation and coalition building. 

And this is precisely what is going on in Potts’s piece. In the name of feminism, she identifies with the interests of a private, monied institution over the interests of the people most profoundly affected by gender oppression: women, yes, but especially trans women. In a recent op-ed in Time, Avi Cummings and Dean Spade remind us that “gender discrimination profoundly impacts transgender people in education and has severe consequences in other areas of life. A survey found that 78 percent of transgender people have been harassed in grades K-12. Thirty-five percent of survey participants had been physically assaulted in education settings, and 15 percent had dropped out of school because of their gender.” And one need look no further than the tragic recent murders of Bri Golec, Yazmin Vash Payne, Ty Underwood, Penny Proud, Taja DeJesus, Lamia Beard, and Kristina Gomez Reinwald—all trans women, six of whom were trans women of color, and all of whom were killed in the last eight weeks—for testimony to the myriad forms of structural violence that shape the lives of trans women. Supposedly “feminist” calls for the exclusion of trans people, and especially trans women, from women’s spaces envisions a neoliberal, anti-coalitional feminism that can accommodate transphobia, identifying the priorities of cisgendered women rather than the dismantling of patriarchy as its privileged object. In this misguided vision, feminism and trans liberation are defined as somehow incompatible or in competition with one another, rather than as two, coextensive struggles working against structural oppression and toward gender liberation. Potts’s article illustrates the degree to which mainstream feminism has been so thoroughly redefined in neoliberal terms. 

Like Potts, I arrived at Bryn Mawr in the late 1990s and graduated a year after her, in 2003. I applied both because Bryn Mawr was a women’s college and because I had come out as queer and wanted a college with a strong queer community. Women’s colleges, such as Bryn Mawr, have historically housed robust queer communities, and both current students and alums have sought access to women’s colleges as much for their queer communities and activist histories, as their feminist politics. Furthermore, women’s colleges have housed communities of trans men for decades now. Potts’s article cites a worried Mills College graduate who frets that Mills, one of several women’s colleges to invite applications from trans and genderqueer people, has become a college “for people of marginalized genders”—but what vision of feminism sees that restructuring as a failure, rather than as a success? These changes should be read not as evidence that feminism is becoming vestigial to the radical political body, but rather as hope for the future of a feminist politics that is intersectional and capacious. 

To imagine that trans people, and trans women in particular, are not similarly or more intensely impacted by patriarchal structural violence is to accept a transphobic logic, and to miss a critical opportunity for how, as RH Reality Check blogger Kyra pointed out recently, “addressing...transmisogyny can strengthen the mission of women’s colleges.” She also notes that simply changing the admissions policy to invite applications from trans people is not a commitment to making women’s colleges accessible and safe for trans women, either. This won't happen overnight, but I hope that these recent changes to admissions policies index a future where women’s spaces and feminist coalition-building might be envisioned more intersectionally and in more critical terms, outside of the context of private institutions. 

Don’t get me wrong: I loved my time at Bryn Mawr, and while patriarchy persists, I believe that it can be powerful to create spaces in which female- and feminine-identified people of all stripes can come together and organize against patriarchy. But institutions will not save us, and feminist justice cannot brook transphobia. Any institution built on a logic that pits the fortunes of cisgendered women against those of trans women, or the fortunes of feminism against any other anti-oppressive framework, is working against what it may otherwise claim to support. A history of feminist engagement is not a reason to sustain an institution if it cannot maintain that orientation in the present. Trans liberation needs to be at the heart of feminist organizing, not included as an afterthought or a lip-service concession. This is not a matter of political correctness, but a matter of committing to a critical feminist politics. When we begin protecting the prerogatives of institutions over the prerogatives of the people those very institutions make vulnerable, we’ve made an egregious wrong turn in the fight for gender liberation. Critical feminist politics and trans liberation are not at loggerheads; they’re siblings in the struggle.