Why have single-sex colleges if admission is based only on ‘self-identity’?

Murray Edwards College, one of Cambridge’s women-only colleges, has decided to open admissions to any student who “at the point of application identifies as a woman.”

Cambridge University Murray Edwards College (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

The Oxford college where I was an undergraduate didn’t start admitting students with vaginas until 1980. The Cambridge college where I took my PhD was marginally better, first offering places to those without penises in 1978.

If one goes a little further back in time, the picture is even grimmer. It wasn’t until 1948 that no-tails were permitted to study for full academic degrees at Cambridge, albeit with no associated privileges. In that same year Oxford, the oldest university in the English-speaking world appointed its first penisless person to a full professorship.

It’s bizarre to think that such venerable seats of learning could have spent so many years obsessed with the genitalia of students. Almost as though the problem isn’t actually the thing in itself, but the social status it signifies. Almost as though those excluded from education — and voting, and political office, and the legal and medical professions, and the military, and property ownership, and child custody — on account of their lack of penis constitute some sort of oppressed class, with resources that a dominant class might wish to appropriate and exploit.

If only we had a name for such people, this diverse group of humans, with their broad range of talents, interests and achievements. If  only there were some way to describe them as a political entity! Alas, there is no such word. “The penisless sandwich-makers” will have to do.

For many years, institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge had colleges dedicated to the needs of penisless sandwich-makers. These were known by many as “women-only colleges,” but obviously such a term was incorrect. We have no real way of knowing how many of the unbepenised attendees of these colleges actually felt like women and identified with femininity. Personally, I’ve long suspected Lucy Cavendish College of being a hotbed of raging femmephobes, but there’s no way I can prove it.

Thankfully, the Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, is setting things right.

The college formerly known as New Hall is finally dealing with the class formerly known as women. Henceforth, admissions will be open to any student who “at the point of application identifies as a woman.”

This has caused outrage amongst the usual suspects. Germaine Greer, wielding the unholy weapon of logic, has pointed out that “if [Murray Edwards] really don’t believe that gender is binary, then they really shouldn’t be a single sex college.” Once a college’s admissions policy is based on an unverifiable inner sense of self — the kind of thing non-sophisticates call “personality” — then it is no longer an exclusive space. Which is fine if you think any and all exclusion is bad, but ridiculous if you still want to cling on to an exclusive status.

According to Juliet Foster, a senior tutor at Murray Edwards, the change in admissions policy recognizes that “how we define women is changing… there is greater understanding of the complexities surrounding gender.” One might argue that, for those on the receiving end of Cambridge’s centuries-long, openly discriminatory policies, there’s nothing “complex” about having a door slammed in your face. No one has ever “identified with” not being permitted to take a degree or forge a career because of how the world sees people with female bodies.

And this causes real problems for those who are penisless sandwich-makers (who, incidentally, also don’t particularly identify with lacking penises or making sandwiches). How do we now understand the social and political nature of their oppression? How do we continue to set aside resources and opportunities that are just for them, if a term which once defined their social status now describes a nebulous feeling? Or do we simply not bother?

People — usually feminists — who care about such issues tend to be told two things. First, that they are being selfish for wanting any spaces all to themselves. Second, that discussing the biological roots of sex-based oppression reduces women to walking wombs. Neither of these things are true. The latter only works if you believe the category “woman” cannot be a category that includes full human beings, without the inclusion of people with penises. The former relies on the assumption that females are not a marginalized class in their own right.

I consider myself fortunate to have been born at a time when my biological sex did not prevent me from studying where I wished. That is not to say it didn’t affect my experience of university life — sharing a house with male students who divided all female students into slags and prick teases, ploughing through one pale, male, stale reading list after another, constantly feeling unsafe after my body finally developed, listening to jokes about female academics taking maternity leave while eight months pregnant at my graduation — but it didn’t stop me in my tracks. Being able to name and define what I was up against helped me a great deal.

And this is something that female students risk losing, in the misguided hope that if a group can’t be named it can’t be hated. Changing the definition of “woman” won’t change the treatment of those who’ve historically been treated as women, regardless of how they feel inside. Have we really won enough ground to start giving it away?

Victoria Smith is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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