Discussing gender at a historically women’s college

BY CHLOE JENSEN '20

As a cis woman at Mount Holyoke and throughout the world, my privileges compared to my transgender and non-binary peers are undeniable and obvious: I have never been misgendered, I have never entered a situation where I had ask myself if disclosing my gender was unsafe, I have never experienced dysphoria and despite all the misogyny I may face, I have always known, whether consciously or not, that the world will validate my gender and that I will never have to actively battle to prove otherwise.

And at Mount Holyoke, cis privilege only seems to be further highlighted. Off campus, I am always perceived to be a woman, the gender I identify as, by most people. But at Mount Holyoke, I am not only perceived as a woman, I am perceived as a woman in a place that specifically caters to me and other cis women. I fit the traditional mold of a Mount Holyoke student, one that the school and administration plasters on their website and displays to their prospective students.

Historically women’s colleges focus on the needs of women played a huge role in my decision to attend this school. Originally, Mount Holyoke and other Seven Sisters colleges were founded to provide women an education to rival that of male-only schools such as Harvard, Princeton or Amherst. However, since women have been admitted into said traditionally men’s colleges, the role of historically women’s colleges has changed. Rather than attending a historically women’s college because we have to, we intentionally choose to.

At a historically women’s college, everything is specifically created for us; we do not have to carve a place for ourselves in a historically and traditionally male-dominated field, we have it by default. This is why I would much rather attend Mount Holyoke or another Seven Sisters college than an Ivy League institution. Even as far as we have progressed, the culture of misogyny still thrives, and I wanted a college experience where I knew I would be able to achieve my full potential without having to worry about competing with cis men, who still largely dominate many academic and professional fields today.

However, much as the mission of our school has changed from a place of purifying women to a place of empowering them, we must also change the way we refer to and acknowledge all of our students, particularly regarding gender.

Although a historically women’s college, many of our students do not identify as the women that the Mount Holyoke administration claims we all are. Regardless of the college’s previous and in some ways even current public image as a women’s college, many trans and non-binary students love and feel safe here, much like cis women.

Not only do some trans and non-binary students feel much safer at a school like Mount Holyoke, but many of them also love the school and what it has to offer. Today, Mount Holyoke looks very different from how it used to: we are school that now not only empowers women in the face of the misogynistic world, but also non-binary and trans individuals who face barriers from both having to compete with cis men, but also barriers from invalidation throughout their time here at Mount Holyoke.

While the presence of trans and non-binary students has increased, the Mount Holyoke administration has tried to downplay their significance and contributions to the community. Nearly every pamphlet I received managed to gender the entire student body with simple phrases like Once a student declares her major,” or “upon arriving to Mount Holyoke, your daughter will find that she has a world of opportunities here at Mount Holyoke.” Caedyn Busche ’17 pointed out that students cannot change their pronouns on diplomas, despite legal name changes, in their Op/Ed from the Sept. 29, 2016 issue of Mount Holyoke News.

These are just a couple of examples of the barriers that trans and non-binary individuals face on a regular basis on campus, in addition to misgendering and the general lack of validation and acknowledgment from Mount Holyoke administrators and staff.

 Mount Holyoke should help all students who face adversity according to their gender, not just cis women. They should ac- knowledge that our definition of what it means to go to a women’s college  has changed.

Rather than being a college that focuses on the sex of its students, we are now a college that focuses on students who have to compete with cis men. While Mount Holyoke certainly is a safer place for many trans and non-binary students compared to other schools, there is still a lot more that we as allies can be doing to ensure their safety and wellbeing.

How can cis students at Mount Holyoke ensure that they’re supporting and fighting for representation of trans and non-binary students? One of the basics is to ask for and introduce ourselves with pronouns when meeting new people. By introducing ourselves with our pronouns, we are not only letting trans and non-binary students know that we will acknowledge and respect their pronouns and identities, but that we are also normalizing this practice.

Often, trans students feel much safer when cis students do this, even if everyone else uses she/her pronouns. To trans students, it says that we support and stand with them. And for this to be most effective, we should make this a habit.

As important as it is to introduce ourselves with our pronouns to protect and respect trans students, it is also important that we use trans and non-binary people’s correct pronouns, even if they are not in the room. This is crucial because it not only shows that we respect trans and non- binary identities, but also that we are asking other cis people to respect such identities as well.

Furthermore, cis students need to actively correct each other when we misgender a trans or non-binary student. It may be uncomfortable and awkward, but in many cases, correcting misgendering can be unsafe for trans students, but it never is for us. Often, if someone uses the wrong pronoun, I will simply just repeat what they said but instead with the correct pronoun. Such a practice not only makes sure that trans students are always being respected, but also tells other cis students to continue such respect.

Besides pronouns, it is important that we promote and listen to trans voices, not belittle and talk over them. This means that we should believe trans individuals when they tell us about micro and macro aggressions they face both on and off campus.

Even for cis women, representing the students of Mount Holyoke as simply only women or ladies is gender essentialism, and reduces people to only their genitals, which is unsafe for everyone. Thus, cis women should challenge the social norms and status quo that Acting President Stephens told us to challenge at Convocation. In doing these things, trans and non-binary students will not only feel safer but the Mount Holyoke administration will be more inclined to respect and acknowledge the identities of trans and non-binary students on campus. 

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