graduates in cap and gown

No, trans activism isn’t threatening the mission of women’s colleges

Last week, Monica Potts wrote a piece in The New Republic initially entitled “Trans Activism is Threatening Women’s Colleges’ Mission: Campus fights to erase references to women are indistinguishable from old-school misogyny” and then, after lots of pushback, changed to: “Why Women’s Colleges Still Matter in the Age of Transactivism.” 

Regardless of the new headline, the piece does indeed argue that trans activism is threatening the mission of women’s colleges. The sum total of the evidence amassed to support this assertion is the New York Times Magazine article from last year about trans men at Wellesley demanding recognition and the fact that students at Mount Holyoke cancelled a production of The Vagina Monologues last month, deciding that it “offers an extremely narrow perspective on what it means to be a woman” that excludes trans women.

That both these examples are considered a threat from Potts’ perspective is very telling. She notes that four women’s colleges now admit trans women, that two now admit trans men (while more still allow trans men who transition during their time at college to remain), making nearly no distinction between the former, which involves opening historically all-women schools to men, and the latter, which involves opening them to a greater diversity of women. As Emma Caterine explains, “To feminists like Potts, trans…people seem to be a single gender group whose self-actualization undermines anti-misogyny efforts, instead of the incredible diversity of men, women, and many others who fall between or outside of those categories.”

If you properly understand that trans people include men and women and gender non-conforming individuals, then this all gets a lot more simple. Yes, trans men pose a “threat” to women’s colleges, insofar as women’s colleges that accept trans men, or allow them stay if they transition after matriculation, are no longer “women’s colleges.” By definition, they are now co-ed. Women’s colleges could deal with this dilemma in number of ways. They could require trans men to transfer in order to retain their identity as women-only institutions. Alternately, they could evolve from being a women-only space to being something else — a “college for people of marginalized genders,” for example, inclusive of everyone except cis men.

By and large, though, women’s colleges have taken a half-assed middle ground: allowing trans masculine students to stick around, but trying to retain their identity as a “women’s college” nonetheless. At Potts’ alma mater Bryn Mawr, for example, trans men no longer have to transfer but the school refuses to use gender-inclusive language or stop referring to itself as a “women’s college.” Implicit in this position towards trans men, of course, is an underlying — often unstated — belief that trans men are still somehow women enough to be part of “the sisterhood” — a belief that comes with a corollary one that trans women are not really women, which is why, until student activism started pushing them to change recently, most women’s colleges have discriminated against trans women in admissions.

It is also an inherently incoherent position to take, and a recipe for the absurd examples of male privilege demonstrated by trans masculine students that we saw in that NYT Magazine piece. As Caterine writes, trans men fighting for space in women’s colleges — to the point of shouting “Brotherhood” over women’s chants of “Sisterhood“ — “has nothing to do with them being trans and everything to do with them being entitled men.” I don’t disagree on that, and I also tend to agree with Dana Beyer that, regardless of the school’s policy, “trans men have an ethical responsibility to transfer from women’s colleges upon completion of transition.” But it’s also the schools’ own damn fault for “embracing” their trans male students while attempting to maintain an institutional identity that fundamentally erases them.

Meanwhile, Potts sees the cancellation of The Vagina Monologues at Mt. Holyoke as an example of the threat to women’s colleges’ mission posed by the acceptance of trans women, writing that “cancel[ing] plays where women’s bodies are celebrated, where women speak openly about abuse from men—is indistinguishable from old-school misogyny.” For one thing, if the biggest change that might come from women’s colleges’ opening up to trans women is that some students may miss out on Eve Ensler’s play, I’m pretty sure the feminist movement will survive. As Parker Molloy writes, “One college simply decided they didn’t want to perform a play that’s become increasingly dated as time goes on (as most artistic works set in the present do…), has been criticized for being reductionist, and has come under accusations of racism?” Instead, the student-run theater at Holyoke will simply put on its own student-written play about gender — hardly a “cruel” blow to feminist theater, in my opinion.

Potts notes that inclusiveness “needn’t involve erasing references to body parts held by more than half the population.” It certainly needn’t. But characterizing trans women as pushing to erase references to vaginas, willy nilly, is absurdly misleading. Caterine notes, “It is hard for me not to find this line of argument hilarious, considering many of the trans women I know are pretty desperate to get a vagina of our own.” Indeed, trans women weren’t even involved with the decision to drop TVM at Mt. Holyoke at all. And the objection of the genderqueer and trans men Holyoke students who were hardly seems to be that the play talks about vaginas but rather that it implicitly equates having one with being a woman. Ensler disputes this: “I never intended to write a play about what it means to be a woman.” she says. “It was a play about what it means to have a vagina. It never said, for example, the definition of a woman is someone who has a vagina.” And a monologue about a trans woman was actually added a number of years ago. And yet, the fact that TVM continues to be regarded as a play “about women” — Potts herself calls it “one of the few plays so explicitly about women.” — is a good illustration of the reality that we live in a culture that continues to locate gender in the genital region.

The context of that culture can’t be ignored — and not just because it underlies the deadly transmisogyny in our culture. But also because — as Potts’ piece so clearly illustrates — it undermines the potential for feminist solidarity between cis and trans women. Potts writes, “Transexclusion and transphobia are serious problems, but they are different from the problems most women in America…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.” That’s not untrue, but adopting this binary view in which the primary discrimination trans women face is imagined to be based on their transness, while the primary discrimination cis women face is based on their reproductive organs ignores the huge swaths of sexism we all face based on our gender — from street harassment to objectification to the wage gap to sexual violence to mansplaining dudes.

As Caterine writes, “We have far more ground for solidarity than for opposition.” But Potts can’t get there because she groups trans women with trans men instead of cis women, their transness entirely eclipsing their gender. Take her conclusion: “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.” Because she thinks championing women is “not about their fight,” trans women can apparently only be “allies” to the feminist movement. In reality, of course, few women have the luxury of only fighting on one front — trans women can no more privilege one aspect of their marginalized identity over the other than women of color, or poor women, or immigrant women, or disabled women, or lesbian women (all of which are identities also held by trans women) can in a culture plagued by multiple, overlapping forms of injustice.

And the great wisdom of intersectional feminism, which has pretty solidly beat out second-wave trans-exclusionary feminism at this point, has been the realization that the movement is stronger — and we are all better off — when it doesn’t ask them to.

Header image credit: Shutterstock

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has previously been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard. Before become a full-time writer, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

Read more about Maya

Join the Conversation