The “experience of being a woman” and women’s colleges

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.

The “experience of being a woman” and women’s colleges

6 thoughts on “The “experience of being a woman” and women’s colleges

  1. Hello, Laura Trumbull. Thank you for engaging with this debate and referencing my Open Letter to Smith.

    You say: “I’m fascinated by the assertion that there is a common, lived experience associated with being a woman.”

    The common, lived experience I refer to is that of being pressed into the social role “girl” from birth. This is often referred to as “designated female at birth” or DFAB.

    Do you think that the social role “girl” doesn’t have a coherent, shared meaning? If not, how do you think it is possible for there to be such a stark disparity in power between those who are dfab versus those who are dmab? By disparity in power I refer to the historical and current conditions of women versus men, including but not limited to: land ownership, wealth distribution, governmental position-holding and decision-making authority, and bodily autonomy. There is objective, measurable evidence of women’s oppression in all of these areas of social power. How could a *pattern* of male supremacy emerge if there were no underlying cohesion to the groups: males/men and females/women?

    So in short, it is our *oppression* as “girls” (and then as women) that is our common, lived experience.

    As an analogy, we do not believe that there is no common experience for black Americans merely because shadism is in play. *Racism* is their common experience. Only those who deny the social oppression of black people would argue that black colleges are made largely irrelevant by the differences in lived experience between light skinned black people and dark skinned black people.

    Continuing with the analogy, but moving to the claim that discrimination of any kind is a qualifying criteria for admissions to a woman’s college: we do not argue that white people who experience other forms of hardships in their life, such as economic discrimination, are *also* the intended beneficiaries of black colleges. So why do we conclude that intersectionality of oppression is an equalizing force in the case of women but not in the case of other forms of social discrimination? This line of reasoning just doesn’t work out for me.

    Moving away from the race analogy, many many gay males have been bullied on the playground, rejected by peers and family, and subjected to homophobic hate crimes. This is not unlike the social treatment that many many transwomen experience. Yet, this is not sufficient reason to alter women’s colleges’ meaning of “woman” to include gay males. So there must be another level of distinction here between gay males and transwomen that is not articulated in the “discrimination on the axis of gender renders one entitled to attend womens colleges” argument.

    The other thing I’d like to address from your post is the reference to an “accident of biology.” Referring to your argument above that women have no common, lived experience; how could a male know that he is a woman if women have no shared characteristics? That doesn’t make sense in terms of categorizing people. If “women” are not a discrete class of persons, then it is not possible for anyone to join that group for it simply does not exist! Additionally, transwomen’s bodies are almost without exception genetically XY and functionally male (hormonally, by the structure of the genito-urinary tract, and usually reproductive functional as male as well). Where is the “accident”? Are butch females also an “accident” because they don’t act or look like a woman “naturally does?” And vice versa for effeminate males? A biological framing of transgenderism necessarily uses cis-sexist standards of “healthy” to establish the norm from which trans people deviate. Calling it a medical condition is deeply conservative; it pathologizes human diversity rather than celebrating it.

    I also encourage you to dig deeper into the science that supports the “accident of biology” theory of transgenderism. “Brain sex” hypothesis studies are plagued by small sample sizes, inability to repeat findings, low statistical power, and lack of control groups. Maybe even more importantly, a failure to consider the effects of neuroplasticity on brain structures further undermines their reliability. They also tend to make huge, unsupported leaps between apparent brain structure and brain *function.* It’s a classic “correlation is not causation” error.

    I’m not opposed to transwomen at Smith. I think we agree on that. I am strongly opposed to the “brain sex” theory of transgenderism, and at the same time, I believe that *lived experience* is the correct measure of social positionality. Therefore, transwomen who are living as women do have many things in common with dfab people in relation to their current and future social position. Transwomen who have NOT transitioned, however, and cannot demonstrate a consistent and prolonged *lived experience* as a woman, do not belong in women-only spaces and are not entitled to a place at womens-only institutions. It’s really that simple. Lived experience, not biology. Or identity.

    I hope this helped explain my reasoning in a bit more detail. And I’m sorry for writing a comment that is longer than your post. I am either way verbose, or the topic is way complicated, or a little bit of both. Thanks again for your engagement with these issues.


    1. I’ve dug pretty deep into transgenderism for reasons of my own and we could probably debate studies but I’m not sure that’s useful. I guess I’m curious about your assertion that you’re okay with “fully transitioned” transwomen attending Smith. How do you define the completion of transition? The individual who was rejected from Smith was living as a woman and her recommendations and school paperwork all referred to her as a woman but it was her FAFSA that tripped her up. Is she not a woman because a federal agency says she isn’t? How long does one have to identify oneself as a woman to count as a woman? For many transwomen, the ability to transition “fully” may be a question of access; do you really mean to say that someone has to be able to afford to transition or live somewhere where the resources are available to start the process in order to qualify?


  2. Yes, I most certainly do mean that: transwomen need to demonstrate commitment to and permanency of transition. I understand that there are bureaucratic hurdles, but to repeat what I said in the letter, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Why should I believe someone just because they “said so?” That’s faith-based magic that has no place in institutional policy.

    The duration could be a year. Two years is what is required in the UK for a Gender Recognition Certificate. The UK also requires an attestation of permanency. It takes more than one year to be change citizenship, get any kind of college degree, or to convert your religion. Why should being a “woman” be considered both a human right that anyone can claim… and so empty that we honor “women” who cannot demonstrate substantial lived experience as “women”? Being a woman is NOT a metaphysical experience. It is a lived experience with material consequences.

    I don’t know if Calliope Wong had a federal ID that designated her female, but if not, then no, she would not have “completed transition.” Again, social hardship is not reason enough to consider someone the rightful beneficiary of a women’s college. I’m sorry that it’s hard for transwomen, but if they want to be considered “women,” it should not be by performative utterance or emotional state-of-mind alone.

    Interestingly, Bryn Mawr’s recent change of policy has been heralded as a victory, yet it states (much as I have suggested) that the college may request evidence that “medical or legal steps” of transition have been taken.


  3. To summarize your points (and apologies for being simplistic), the criteria for having “completed transition” are:
    – Live as a woman for two years (re the UK standard) OR
    – Have a governmental identification that identifies one as a woman (although that gets a bit murky with the recent changes to passport and social security policy that permit issuance of such id upon the presentation of proof that one is “in transition”).

    In any case, it’s highly unlikely that either of us will succeed in changing the other’s mind. Our disagreement may well come from differences in our experience but you are certainly are entitled to your views. As am I.


      1. I’m sorry, I wasn’t clear about what I meant by “murky”. I was attempting to make the point that your criteria for someone having completed transition included a governmental id that would be granted upon the presentation of evidence that one was in transition. I’m absolutely clear on the policy itself.


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