Don’t Knock ’Em Until You’ve Tried ’Em
An article published recently on Get Real. saw the author criticise the existence of women’s colleges for several reasons. I actually attend a women’s college (specifically, Murray Edwards) and want to clear up a few misunderstandings about women’s colleges, talking both from my own experience and from my own common sense.
Jas Rainbow suggested that women’s colleges exist to provide women with a safe space away from men. If this were true, students at women’s colleges would surely not be allowed to bring male guests into the college, and there wouldn’t be any male fellows or staff. This is not the case because that is not why women’s colleges exist.
The main reason that women’s colleges exist is to promote the education of women, since universities previously would not admit them. Some of the older Cambridge colleges did not admit women until surprisingly recently, and even now there are more men in higher education than women in some universities.
This disparity is particularly noticeable in the sciences, where women often make up less than a quarter of all students. As an engineering student I have personally faced sexist comments from fellow students and department staff and I have been grateful that many of my supervisions were college-based, where this wasn’t a problem.
However, that’s not to say that women’s colleges don’t also provide a safer and more relaxed atmosphere for women to live in. Comments about feeling comfortable enough to walk around in pyjamas are common amongst students in my college. This is not because, as was suggested in Jas Rainbow’s article, women feel the need to always appear attractive to potential partners. Rather, this is an effect of the society we live in causing women to often be less comfortable around men: not wanting to seem vulnerable lest they get put down, leered at, or otherwise objectified. Further, the idea that this leads to queer women “friend-zoning” (I hate that term) the entire college, or being friend-zoned, is absurd. If you’re a woman and you like women, it’s pretty likely that you like women in pyjamas as well.
All of that could be argued differently by someone else who has had a different experience of women’s colleges from me. The one thing that cannot be argued differently is the idea that women’s colleges might distinguish women by sex, rather than by gender.
At some point in my second year of being at Murray Edwards College, when I was the JCR LGBT+ Rep, I sat in the senior tutor’s office and made sure I knew the college’s policies on transgender students and applicants. I asked every irritating overly-detailed question I could think of, just in case I was able to unravel a web of transphobia and take the college down from the inside. But, honestly, I was almost entirely satisfied by what the senior tutor told me.
I can’t speak for any other women’s college in Cambridge, but Murray Edwards allows trans women into the college without batting an eyelid. This includes women who are not ‘legally’ women (in this case, it generally means women whose UCAS applications say ‘male’). Similarly, if a current student at my college comes out as identifying as male, then the college would do what it can to support the student. There are even systems in place through which someone can change college if that is what they want.
One thing that I agree entirely with Jas Rainbow’s article about is that women’s colleges aren’t very compatible with the concept of gender not being a binary. This is why I wasn’t entirely satisfied by my conversation with the senior tutor. Women’s colleges are very good at what they do, which is educating women, but they are reluctant to answer the questions posed by non-binary genders. The question often goes something like: “If you’re only excluding men, would you admit a student who was neither male or female?” The more controversially worded version is: “When is a person enough of a woman to go to your college?”
This is most relevant to women’s colleges, but this problem crops up in mixed colleges as well. For example, some colleges only allow you to share rooms with someone of the same gender; if you don’t identify with a binary gender then it’s unlikely you’ll find someone of the exact same gender as you, but it’s also unlikely that your college will be sympathetic to this and give you a double room to yourself.
In the society we live in right now, I can understand why women’s colleges don’t want to set down in stone any policies regarding people with non-binary genders. It’s becoming more and more relevant as society moves on towards fully accepting that gender isn’t even close to being a binary, but women’s colleges are probably scared they might get it wrong, and upset the people that they were specifically trying to include. As part of the trans community in Cambridge, I know first-hand that it’s incredibly hard to please all of us – all trans (including non-binary) people are, in fact, people. That means that we all have our own histories and opinions, and those opinions don’t always all match up. Much less importantly, women’s colleges are probably also aware that making any sort of progressive change is going to upset the less tolerant members of society.
Policies aside, I find that women’s colleges are not any more or less transphobic than any other colleges. Being non-binary in a women’s college doesn’t leave you ostracised because you’re not a woman. In fact, even being male in a women’s college doesn’t leave you ostracised. The students that you actually interact with probably won’t care in the slightest, and if they do, then it’s generally accepted that it’s their problem – and in my experience, there are more people that don’t have an issue with it than those that do. Perhaps I have particularly accepting friends within my college, but I don’t think it was ever really on the table that they might treat me differently because I’m not a woman.
At the end of the day, I actually agree that it’s slightly infuriating that women’s colleges exist. It’s infuriating because women’s colleges shouldn’t have to exist. In a perfect world, there wouldn’t be any discrimination in higher education based on gender. But we don’t live in a perfect world.
The basic concept of women’s colleges isn’t perfect either, but right now I’d say that they do far more good than they do harm.
Nate Dunmore (Comment Contributor)