The Women’s College Experience – Part I: Who Can Have the Women’s College Experience?
Scripps’ Admissions policy for applicants brings into light the question of what it means to identify as a woman. This is a two-part series, with this article being part one.
Check one: M or F.
If you chose F, congratulations! You may apply to Scripps College! Whew, that was simple.
But was it, really? Let’s look at the question, first. M or F. Male or female? Male or female sex? Or male or female gender? What are they asking for? Is there a difference?
The student body of Scripps, with its unique gender diversity, reminds us all that yes, there is a difference. And yes, it is a very important difference.
Well wait, what is the difference?
Let’s start with the definitions of sex versus gender: sex, or biological sex, refers to what is assigned to an individual at birth based on a person’s genitalia, chromosomes and primary sex characteristics. Gender refers to how one identifies oneself. The physical body may influence gender identity, including how one’s gender identity is expressed, and how gender roles are exhibited and played out.
But one’s gender is not necessarily one’s biological sex. Gender is internal; it’s that feeling of being comfortable in one’s own body and being able to express that comfort through one’s clothes, way of speaking, and general behavior. While not all women wear high heels and make-up, women are comfortable knowing that they are still women without heels. While a woman may moan about their menstrual period, it is not something that makes her feel alienated from her body.
Someone who is biologically female but does not identify as a woman may find high heels and the menstrual cycle to be sinister reminders of a body that does not reflect one’s gender identity. Instead of making the individual feel comfortable in their own skin, it makes the person feel as though they are trapped in someone else’s body. Having a gender identity that does not align with one’s biological sex has an identity: transgender.
Generally, someone who is biologically female and identifies but presents himself as a man is referred to as a transman. A transgender woman (transwoman) is biologically male but identifies as and presents herself as a woman. Each individual, regardless of how they express their gender, is the gender with which they identify. We all have a gender and a biological sex, and it is everyone’s responsibility to respect both identities in all people.
Which brings us back to Scripps College and its boxes. Are they asking for sex or gender? How does Scripps respect and acknowledge gender in a women’s college setting?
I asked Vice President of Enrollment Victoria Romero for an answer. As I went into her office, I was prepared for complexity—legal definitions, possible confusions of sex and gender, and so on—but was met with,
“If a student self-identifies as a woman on the Common Application, then they may apply to Scripps. We admit women. We graduate students.”
I could feel the air slowly escape my lungs; I could breathe again. An admissions policy that acknowledges gender identity as self-identified? One that implies that gender identity may change, but the desire to attend and relevancy of attending a women’s college may not? A policy that accommodates for the fact that a woman’s identity may not necessarily fit the legal definition of “female”? It was such a dramatic difference from what I’d expected. It was refreshing and welcoming. But this policy still requires, like everything, scrutiny.
For one thing, I’m left to ask: who else can be included in the definition of “women”? Who isn’t included? What does it mean to be a woman?
If Scripps is a space for transgender men and women, as well as cisgender (not transgender) women, then that means that both the biological and gender experience of being a woman are included in the definition and, most importantly, in the Scripps community. This is a policy that has recently expanded and changed to reflect the student population.
“It’s important to have an environment that allows you to explore your identity in a supportive community,” Romero said. “It allows education within the community, and brings perspective in classroom discussion and in conversations outside the classroom.”
Which leads to another important question: how are administration and students at Scripps College providing and fostering an open community in which gender diversity is respected, discussed and acknowledged? Not just emotionally, but practically with living situations, student health and the basic right to use the bathroom.
“We have looked critically at the bathrooms in the residence halls and have identified areas where we can create gender-neutral bathrooms,” said Dean of Students Bekki Lee. “The Tiernan Field House has single-user bathrooms on the main floor. We are also fortunate to have private changing areas adjacent to the showers in our residence hall bathrooms. This allows for a higher degree of privacy for all students, including students whose faith requires a high degree of modesty.”
Lee said that the QRC is now a 7C resource, has strong alliances with Scripps, and is reaching out to all campuses as a resource that not only provides support and programming for students, but also offers training for staff on how to create safe spaces and foster discussions that promote a better understanding of gender identity.
The Scripps Associated Students (SAS) legislation and staff and faculty training materials have also been revised to include more gender-neutral language.
“I am conscious of [using gender-neutral language] in letters to the student body,” Lee said.
Emphasis on gender-neutral language and training may seem unnecessary or exhausting to some, but they are crucial first steps in a process of creating a more inclusive community; much of what is currently being done breaks the surface on the topic and creates visibility.
“The administration continues to learn. We’re educating ourselves on this topic to make sure that we can help support the students in our community,” Romero said. “Discussion has to be prompted by the students, it’s your community, and it’s always going to be your community,” she added. “I would appreciate the opportunity to sit down with transgender students and ask about their experience. If something could be different in the admissions process or elsewhere, what would that be?”
As administration asks what more they can do, it is also important to ask the student body what more can we do to maintain the discussion with administration and with fellow students. The conversation should continue, and while discussion is definitely not over, it certainly is off to an inclusive, encouraging start.