Blog or Not?

A statistically improbable polymath's views on politics and culture.

Friday, March 12, 2004
What makes you a woman in the eyes of Smith College?
Matt Yglesias thinks that women's-only schools are pretty much obsolete. This prompted a commentor to note that some students at most of the Seven Sisters, particularly Smith, don't identify as women. Then I started commenting... and realized that this really deserved its own post. (Part of this post was previously published in the comments section)

The front page in last Sunday's NYTimes SundayStyles was all about transgendered students at college, and how colleges are adapting. Apparently the students at Smith have voted to abolish the pronouns "she" and "her" from their student constitution, to be replaced with "the student". I'll paste it here because it's only three days until it's gone:

At Smith, the women's college in Northampton, Mass., students voted last year to eliminate female pronouns from the student constitution at the request of transgender students. "She" and "her" were replaced with the phrase "the student."

Laurie Fenlason, a college spokeswoman, said that "the vote was undertaken by the students as a gesture of good will toward a handful of fellow students."

But the change was not without controversy. "It contradicts the whole point of having a women's college," said Esi Cleland, a Smith sophomore. "I am opposed to it, because there's something to be said for a women's college, and a lot of us come here because we choose to be in an environment where women are the primary focus."

Since Smith is a women's school, I felt that if one went to Smith one was implicitly identifying oneself as a woman. I wasn't sure whether the transgendered students at Smith were female-to-male, male-to-female, or "genderqueer" (unwilling to acknowledge a binary-style gender identity)--a male-to-female student would probably wish to be addressed as "she", and a "genderqueer" student, if they* were attending Smith, they were probably biologically/legally female, and thus when averaging sex and gender would be included under the pronoun "she".

Completely confused, I went to and searched for their policy on transgendered students--I couldn't find an official policy, but I did come across the Smith transgendered association, which defends their choice to be non-female-identifying at Smith:

Many, perhaps most, of us came here identifying as women, and found that Smith has provided the environment we've needed to explore, acknowledge, and come to terms with being transgendered.

Smith is a "women's college," but this requirement is placed only upon biological sex, not gender identity or expression. If we are biologically or legally female--regardless of whether or not we identify as women--then we have the same rights to be at Smith as do female students who begin and continue identifying as women.

This brings up more questions:
1. If you attend Smith, which wears its "women's college" identity pretty firmly on its sleeve, are you identifying yourself as a woman? If you're a female joining an all-male group (the pre-20th century military?) disguised as a man, you're externally identifying yourself as a man but the internal self-definition is often female. But that whole bit gets into power struggles, and a man going to Smith College doesn't seem like a challenge to power-laden gender barriers.

2. Is Smith a college for biological/legal females, or a college for women?

3. If Smith is a college for women, as opposed to a college for biological/legal females, what is Smith's policy on male-to-female transgendered students? Another commenter claimed that the elite women's colleges weren't very welcoming to male-to-female students, but I cannot confirm nor deny this.

*If a king can call himself "we" and if the plural "you" in French is the same as the formal "you", I feel that "they" is being perfectly consistant. After all, if you don't know what sex (pardon: gender) a person is, either that person is not very ordinary or you don't know that person very well, in which case 'formal' address is rather appropriate. Now all we need is an honorific to use when you don't know a person's gender.

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