Full disclosure: I am a gender-normative, neurotypical, mostly WASP woman from Oklahoma. I did not attend a women’s college (although I attended the dying remnant of one as it was being subsumed).
I’ve been watching the debate on whether transgender women should be admitted to women’s colleges. One of the chief arguments against admission is a view that the founders (such as Sophia Smith, for Smith College) created these colleges with a mission to serve women, with the implicit view that there is a specific experience associated with being a “woman”. From the blog of an alumna from the class of 2000:
Being a woman is not a spiritual or metaphysical experience. It is not a feeling and it is not a performative utterance. Being a woman is a lived experience with material consequences. Smith’s admission policy must reflect some clear limitations on male gender identification, lest the social category “woman” become entirely meaningless.
I’m fascinated by the assertion that there is a common “lived” experience associated with being a woman. When these colleges were founded, the attendees were almost exclusively white women of a certain class and station. They certainly had a somewhat common experience. But as time has gone on, these colleges have become more diverse (ethnic backgrounds, religious beliefs, economic and class situations, . . .) and, aside from biology, I think it’s inaccurate to say that all these women have had a common experience. Certainly there are themes but it’s presumptuous to say that those themes are exclusive to people with a specific biological configuration.
In addition, when my kids were getting ready to attend college, we visited a number of women’s colleges and the thing that struck me about those campuses was the fact they truly were diverse. On traditional campuses (I don’t like the word coed), women’s appearances tended to fit within a certain band of normality and societally-defined attractiveness. At the women’s colleges I visited, it was wonderful how the students were comfortable expressing themselves and not worrying about whether the way they presented themselves conformed to some norm. They looked as if they didn’t have much in common and they felt safe to say that.
So if the “common experience of women” is a fallacy and women’s colleges are safe places for diversity, why is it that an accident of biology is sufficient to say that someone shouldn’t be allowed to participate? If anything, transgender women have a lot of experience in those themes I mentioned above. Being unable to be who you are and having people discriminate and/or abuse you sounds like a pretty similar experience to me.