Girls will be boys ... at women's colleges?

Same-sex schools are struggling over the presence of transmale students.

By Tracy Clark-Flory
Published March 17, 2008 5:40PM (EDT)

Oh, boy. The New York Times Magazine has a piece on the growing number of young women who begin to identify as men in college -- and it happens that a lot of these transitions take place at women's colleges. This, of course, presents an interesting dilemma. As Alissa Quart writes, many women's colleges are "caught between wanting to embrace a campus minority that their own interrogation of gender roles has helped to shape and defending the value of institutions centered on the distinct experience of being female."

Indeed. I went to a women's college, where a handful of students bound their breasts, acted in a stereotypically masculine way, changed their name from, say, Kristen to Kris, and entirely eschewed gendered pronouns. For all our classes on the philosophy of gender -- a general education requirement, of course -- the issue of biological females who identified and presented themselves as male at our women's college was a contentious topic. Some students felt that transmales were unfairly infiltrating our school and didn't belong unless they identified as women. They were born female and brought up as females, and yet they were abandoning the sisterhood -- didn't this mean transmales were traitors?

In my experience, the women's college environment allows for a fluid spectrum of femininity. There were straight, lesbian, bisexual and omnisexual femmes; straight, lesbian, bisexual and omnisexual tomboys; and every imaginable gender presentation in between. That some biologically female students presented as male hardly seemed surprising. The Times notes that "transgender and genderqueer students could be said merely to be holding women's colleges to their word: to fully support women's exploration of gender."

Amid all that gender variety, what seemed most important to me was a common cultural experience -- growing up female. But should women's colleges admit women who identify as or are transitioning to being male simply because of their cultural experience of growing up as a girl? Should they make room for men who identify as or are transitioning to being female because of their cultural experience of living as a woman? I'm honestly not sure.

I'm sure on one thing, though: As feminist philosophy continues to loosen the belt buckle of gender, women's colleges will have to reevaluate their definition of womanhood -- and, even more critically, their raison d'être.

Tracy Clark-Flory

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