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Can we reconcile feminism with transgenderism?

she, her, hers

Let’s consider Nancy. She was a healthy baby born to adoring parents. The doctor said, “it’s a girl!” at birth. The parents raised her with all the love in the world, dressed her in pink frocks and purple ribbons and ensured that she had everything that any girl her age would want. Suppose Nancy grew up feeling increasingly disassociated and dissatisfied with her gender, but she kept quiet about her feelings for as long as she could. Suppose Nancy applied to study at one of the best women’s colleges in the country and got in. While at college, suppose Nancy discovered that she really ought to identify as male and found the courage to make the transition to Nathaniel.

Good for him. More power to him. We need more stories like that of Nathaniel.

However, the situation does raise interesting questions, from institutional and ethical standpoints, about what Nathaniel’s transition means for the university community he belongs to. If you were the Dean of the school, what measures would you put in place to accommodate a trans man in an all-women’s school? Should you? What does it mean for the other female students on campus?

This situation manifested multiple times at Massachusetts’ Wellesley college in the recent years. Wellesley, in 2014, was one of the only colleges in the country that would allow transmen to continue their education despite being an all-girls’ school. This brought forth a whole horde of challenges.

Students who apply to women’s colleges typically do so for a nurturing environment with female role models, authority figures, alumni and leaders. Colleges like Wellesley have a strong culture of sisterhood and women empowerment as part of the student community. The presence of students who identify as male challenges (and some argue, diminishes) the female focus on campus.

Having a trans man on campus poses other challenges. Terms like “sisterhood” need to be readjusted to “sibling-hood.” Administrators need to account for growing resentment among the student body when leadership roles meant for women are held by men. Infrastructure needs to accommodate gender neutral restrooms. There is also a need to reevaluate the school’s identity — is it a women’s school but with gender non-conforming students? Is it fair to terminate a newly transitioned man’s education at a women’s school? Does it tie in with the role women’s schools play in the fight for gender equality?

Historically, the feminist movement and the transgender movement havebeenat oddsfor decades. Critics argue that the transgender movement reinforces conventional and traditional gender roles; if trans women were initially “men” who “felt female” irrespective of social conditioning and growth environment, then it implies that the differences between the male and the female are biological alone. They argued that transgenderism perpetuates the notion that “female brains need to stay female, and will not be happy in conventionally male pursuits.” From this point of view, it seems as though transgenderism promotes the gender binary.

The backlash was particularly harsh from radical feminists toward transgender women, who were perceived to be men encroaching upon women’s safe spaces and claiming to understand the feminine experience. It began to be perceived as a form of male entitlement, remnants of which survive to this day among radical feminists.

On the other hand, transgender activists have argued for years (and I tend to agree with this view) that the similarities between the women’s movement and trans activism today are too large to continue in mutual exclusion. Transphobia also stems from the same kinds of traditional, non-progressive, patriarchal attitudes that characterize misogyny. Transwomen face higher rates of hate crimes, abuse, violence, discrimination and poverty than other groups in the LGBTQA spectrum.

Trans students at Wellesley, for instance, have argued that they bring diversity and perspective to the all-female campus, that their struggle for recognition is as significant as the story of any other woman fighting the sex-based discrimination. While being apologetic about involuntarily contributing to a system that propagates male privilege and entitlement, insights from trans men at schools like Wellesley (and Mills College, Oakland) show that the courage to make the transition from female to male came to several of these students due to the presence of a safety net at an all-girls environment. With the majority of the country still scrambling to get on board with trans activism, and with most public and private co-ed universities lacking trans friendly resources (like gender neutral restrooms, for example), single gender schools are relative safe havens for trans students.

As the human understanding of gender changes from the binary to that of a fluid spectrum, our policies, governments, universities and healthcare systems remain too far behind in shrugging out of conventional schools of thought. The issues brought forth by the growing visibility of the trans movement are too complex and overwhelming to be fixed with a single law or decree.

However, there are lessons to be learned from the progress already made. Wellesley, for instance, is a great model for how a school can adapt toward creating a more tolerant environment for its students. Four out of the school’s seventy R.A.s were trans students. Student organizations installed best practices that included starting meetings by asking everyone for their preferred pronouns. In March of this year, Wellesley announced that it would admit transgender women, making it only the third women’s college in the country to do so. Mills College, Oakland, has changed its application questions to include those who were “not assigned female at birth but self-identify as female” with few stipulations.

If some of the best women’s colleges in the country can come forward with ways to accommodate transgender students without displacing the existing feminist culture, then it is no longer impossible to reconcile feminism with transgenderism.

It may not be much, but it is a great first step in the right direction.

Nandhini Narayanan is a student in the Master’s of Engineering Management program. Her column runs on alternate Fridays.

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