Culture

Women’s Colleges Left Trying to Decide What ‘Women’s College’ Means

Army occupational therapist Sergeant Paul McCollough works with Zeke, a therapy dog trained to help soldiers struggling with combat stress, August 2011.

This kind of thing used to be pretty straightforward: Women’s colleges are for women. But as liberals go to great lengths to rid themselves of traditional binaries, schools defined by the gender of their students are having to decide what to do about applicants who define their gender for themselves.

This week, Bryn Mawr College, in Pennsylvania, decided it makes the most sense to simply take biological sex out of the equation and allow anyone who identifies as a woman to go. In other words: Even if you were born a man, you can go as long you identify as a woman now. On the flip side, if you identify as a man now, you can’t go even if you were born biologically female.

Some women’s colleges are leaving it even more open. For example, Simmons College, in Boston, allows not only those applicants who were born male and now identify as female, but also those who were born female and now identify as male. It also accepts applicants who identify as neither female nor male but consider themselves some combination of both genders or as “gender neutral” entirely. And others, like Barnard College, have no policy and are still deciding what to do. 

One thing is for sure: As “gender identity” becomes more complex, so do the decisions women’s colleges have to make. After all, even a decision like Bryn Mawr’s doesn’t cover every situation. For example: What if a student starts at the school as a woman, but midway through decides to start identifying as or even medically transitioning into a man?

In October, the New York Times covered how this specific situation was handled at another women’s college, Wellesley. One student had simply checked off “female” on the official application but then began to identifying himself as a “genderqueer” male named Timothy once on campus. Wellesley has had transitioning students before, so Timothy was not only allowed to stay but didn’t face any problems at all. That is, until he tried to run for class diversity officer and students started a petition saying he wasn’t qualified because he was a white man now.

Yeesh. Of course, this is just one example — there are endless scenarios that present questions about what to do now that people view gender outside of traditional binaries. Even apart from those who consider themselves transgender or gender neutral, there are also people who are “gender fluid” — that is, they consider themselves to be different genders at different times. What about them? 

It’s one thing to say that it is up to an individual to decide how to identify – after all, it’s his/her/eir/pers/their/vis/sir/[name]’s life, right? But what about entire institutions that have always relied on the idea of these binaries? 

Most progressive activists will tell you that the times are changing and therefore the institutions need to change too. But what seems to be less clear is how

That question is troubling many of the feminist alumnae of women’s colleges. Some say that turning someone away from an all-women’s school because of gender is obviously an injustice because Come on people, it’s 2015! Others argue that allowing men in any capacity into these colleges isn’t social justice but rather anti-feminist, since it taints what used to be a safe, women-only space and risks rendering it a male-dominated, patriarchal world. 

But if gender is a spectrum, what does “women-only” even mean? These colleges are being tasked with setting institution-wide, gender-based policies with specific distinctions, while also being told that gender is a spectrum and no real objective definitions exist.

Perhaps these schools will become “anyone-but-people-who-were-born-male-and-still-consider-themselves-male” colleges, or perhaps the idea of a “women’s college” will just become obsolete altogether. 

— Katherine Timpf is a reporter for National Review Online.

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