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.

Guest Writer
Guest Writer

One of Feminist Current's amazing guest writers.

Like this article? Tip Feminist Current!

Personal Info

Donation Total: $1

  • It boggles the mind to think of how many penisless people might have gotten into a really good college and received an outstanding education over the 400 years or so if they had only thought to “identify” themselves as men. Wow. Why didn’t they think of that????

  • fxduffy

    Transgender not only renders true women’s colleges pointless, but also feminism, and women-as-women.

    Transgender concludes that there is no women’s identity, and therefore no women’s culture, and no women’s history.

    Yet, they insist on being women… because that’s the most effective way to destruct the identity. Their method is as old as empire, as old as patriarchy, as old as males… it’s called colonization, forced assimilation, and forced dissociation.

    Women then must either get with the male supremacist program, or get displaced by their transgender superiors. Abstract culture trumps biology and lived reality.

  • Nan

    It’s a little off-topic, but I wonder why Cambridge University, which hosts such privileged students, would need single-sex colleges today. It’s just a vestige of the past to me.

    Look, I understand that women-only colleges were important in giving women access to quality education in an era when they were denied it elsewhere. But nowadays, women make up more than half of students in most western countries, and usually perform better.

    I also know that some women consider it a safety issue. It may very well be true in North America where the accounts of violence, rape culture and sexism on campus are widespread. But honestly, I’ve studied one year in a Scottish university, in a co-ed residence, and I’ve always felt extremely safe there. I can only imagine Cambridge being just as safe.

    Just to understand how far it was from the “daughter drop off” atmosphere, it seems that many students were shocked that my boyfriend slept in my room when he visited once, as we were not married. It was in the early 2000s… No one told me to my face that I was a slut, but my friends heard others talk about it.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Women and girls learn differently (or are free to learn differently) in female-only spaces. It’s not a safety issue so much as a reality that classroom dynamics change when men/boys are in the classroom, because they often take over, interrupt, speak out of turn, etc. There is plenty of research demonstrating this. This is not exactly the perfect example, but I loved PhysEd in high school and always did very well, grades-wise (and was not generally a good student…). As soon as Phys Ed went co-ed (in grade 11, as I recall), I hated it, stopped participating, lost confidence, and quit taking the class.

      I also did not start succeeding in school until I started taking Women’s Studies classes. Part of this was due to my interest, of course, but the other part was the fact that most (if not all) students in these classes were women. It’s liberating to not have to be with men.

      Surely you can imagine/understand the way that socialization would lead to a particular dynamic in the classroom that could harm women?

      • MotherBear84

        I saw that dynamic of male take-over even in my women’s studies classes in the early 2000s. The small handful of men in the class did a disproportionate amount of the talking, often speaking right over women. Not that this behavior is at all surprising, but that this happened in a feminist class . . . ! Unsurprisingly, they also tended to go on and on about how sensitive and non-traditionally-masculine they were (perhaps to explain why they had the “right” to dominate the room?)

    • Alienigena

      Are you serious about the ‘we have achieved all we need to achieve argument’? With trans activists and their allies attacking women and woman-only spaces, American law makers trying to restrict women’s access to safe abortions, the rates of violence against biological females downplayed (again by trans activists and MRA’s), unequal pay, and so many other issues still seemingly unsettled and women’s rights never really guaranteed (the women are less human argument is made daily on social media) we need woman-only spaces.

      I remember taking a course in post-colonial women’s fiction (really Commonwealth countries, so former British empire) over the summer one year and being in a small discussion group made mostly of men and having to listen to them kvetch about the course being about women’s fiction only. This was in the 1990’s but I believe the same kinds of arguments could be used by MRA’s and others today. We need these spaces just as we need feminist film festivals (and still need them to highlight the work of women, have you seen the stats on female representation in movies and tv, etc.). Women’s rights are never, ever a sure thing. Throughout history women have gained rights and subsequently lost them. Just view some episodes of the series “The Ascent of Woman” on Netflix.

      • Nan

        Where have I said ‘we have achieved all we need to achieve’. I was just talking about access to higher education, for which undeniable progress have been made, especially in the UK, country of the university discussed here. See http://www.bbc.com/news/education-41066973

        I know women’s right are never a sure thing, but I’m still not convinced that separatism would reinforce them. Promoting woman-only education also means developing male-only education, which can only be sexist settings.
        Going back to your post-colonial women’s fiction course, I think it’s good that these guys had to read women’s fiction because of it, even if I understand hearing them whine and not getting it must have been annoying. I don’t envision female colleges where you read almost only women writings and male colleges where you read only men writings to be the best system to advance literature at country level. It is fruitful to be able to exchange ideas with people who are different from us, including of an other sex.

        • Hekate Jayne

          You said:
          “…..Promoting woman-only education also means developing male-only education,……..”

          What? So, women having opportunities forces males to create male only spaces?

          You do know that ALL education was available to only males for a very long time, because the males said so. Was this also the fault of women?

          It is not separatism for women to have their own colleges. You don’t seem to be concerned that males are taking over female spaces at all, which is what this article is about.

          Way to keep males front and center. All female colleges hurt the feelz of males, and we really shouldn’t forget who is really important here. And as you are reminding us, it ain’t the women.

    • Hannah

      Well why is the fact that YOU felt safe important? That’s great for you but it’s not the case for many women. The amount of sexual assault reports from my school is disturbing.

      • FierceMild

        Also, I’m not sure why we speak about this in terms of feeling safe when the feeling of safety is not necessarily related to actually being safe.

  • Meghan Murphy

    What you have decided you personally feel about your experiences in co-ed classroom has little impact on the reality or broader dynamics of male power in the education system.

    I know lots of women who attended all-girls high schools, and they never saw the ‘other sex as mysterious radically different creatures.’ That is ridiculous.

    Until boys are socialized differently, it makes perfect sense, to me, to offer women-only classrooms as an option to women and girls. I wish I’d had that option myself. (Unfortunately in Canada all girls schools are private schools, and my parents were working class and could never have afforded such a thing.)

  • Sure. Thanks for asking.

  • Rachael

    I am seriously raging about this. How bloody dare they? Well they can fuck right off, we are not going to shut up and accept this erasure.

  • FierceMild

    Thank GOD dicks will finally be welcome in academia. It’s been such a hard-won battle for them!

    • Morag999

      Oh God, how they’ve suffered!

  • Alienigena

    “They gave me the idea that segregation creates on both sides an unhealthy vision of the other sex as mysterious radically different creatures”

    In what universe? A good number of us have siblings, male siblings and of course male parents, we interact with the male parents of friends, with male teachers, etc. Are you talking about residential single sex schools? Again those girls have male parents and siblings (in some cases) as well as exposure to other males in society. Single sex schools and classes are not hermetically sealed off from the world. In addition, the literary canon until very recently (and still does) consisted of the work of mostly male authors, so girls are constantly exposed to the ideas of males. The making of history was seen and taught as a mostly male enterprise. There are so many examples of how immersed girls are in the ideas of men.

  • Alienigena

    In woman-only spaces there is generally less fear of violence. Allowing trans identified males (who are biological males) into the schools will increase potentiality for violence. Given the recent events at London’s Speaker’s Corner where a trans activist attacked a woman for filming events there is no guarantee that TIM’s will not attack women who they perceive are ‘looking at them funny’.

  • Rich Garcia

    This is a male masturbatory fetish taken to it’s full political conclusion: unlimited access to females anytime, anywhere. The younger the better. And I know this has been said countless times before, but nothing that these “activists” (more like cultists) do is for the benefit of social change, since their goal is to stigmatize the definition of female and male outside their rigid ideas of gender, and censor the discussions around sex and gender by interchanging these words and their definitions.

    Decades ago it was widely acknowledged that men like this were mentally ill and sexually deviant (for the most part). Now we use phrases like “gender identity” or “self-identity” to mask and normalize their paraphilia, rebranding their dangerous behavior as progressive identity politics. Language is the medium in which people with an agenda use to confuse and transfix the masses. And using “gender” over “sex” to describe human beings based on their sexual dimorphism was bound to create confusion.

  • FierceMild

    This argument is male-centered. Girls and women, whether in single sex or coeducational environments or even in a completely sex segregated society, are constantly presented with the humanity and dignity of males. Through media, through carricula, through societal mores, and through family dynamics. It is males who view the other sex as a different and unrelatable species. It’s because Patriatchy tells them women and girls aren’t people. Allowing them to discover (and more often to not discover) the humanity of girls and women through sharing a dorm hasn’t helped those girls or women yet.

  • Christopher Lord

    There is no such thing as gender. It is a euphemism introduced around the time of the second world war as the word ‘sex’ came to seem naughty and not respectable. It comes from French ‘genre’ which means ‘kind’ as in ‘this kind of thing’ – ce genre de truc – and is an unexciting grammatical term like case, tense or aspect. The proof that it does not have the sexual meaning mistakenly attributed to it nowadays is that ‘it’ has a gender of its own in English. ‘It’ is clearly not a sexual category, but rather a category of non-personhood or, less precisely, of the inanimate. In other languages – like French – inanimate objects have gender. It just doesn’t mean anything. So the claim to be ‘transgender’ is preposterous.

    • FierceMild

      There is such a thing as gender. It is a system of domination and control and we live under its tyranny every moment of our lives.

  • Wow so much hatred in these comments and only a few people willing to accept that change is not always a bad thing. “This terrible thing will happen if we change!” “No this terrible thing will happen if we change!” It’s spooky how many people sound exactly like the men who prevent women from access to opportunity because of their fear of change.

    Oh well, here’s to hoping the next generation is a little less close minded than the ones represented in these comments.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Framing efforts to maintain spaces for women as ‘close-minded’ strikes me as rather manipulative and short-sighted…

    • Morag999

      “It’s spooky how many people sound exactly like the men who prevent women from access to opportunity because of their fear of change.”

      That’s a humdinger of a reversal, Tami. How you say that mean women are trying to stand between a man and his education, because of our “fear of change.” What a whopper.

      You know what’s “spooky”? How certain men have found an inventive way to prevent a woman from accessing an opportunity: by taking the very opportunity, which was expressly reserved for her, for himself. It’s “spooky” how a man can do this by donning a pathetic disguise and simply declaring a subjective feeling of diffuse femininity.

      Spookier still, is how we mean women are instructed and coerced into viewing the regressive and aggressive acts against us as socially “progressive.”

  • Meghan Murphy

    If you genuinely want a dialogue, you need to argue/engage in good faith. Try again.

    • Evan Allison

      Ok, you are right. My post was not as diplomatic as it should have been. I let my emotions get a hold of me. I will try again.

      When I was in college, I had a friend who was a lesbian. She received quite a bit of hate and fear from the other women in her dorm. She was locked out of group projects and socially shunned. One of her room mates even said that she should not be allowed to stay in the women’s dorm because she wasn’t a “real woman”.

      It really bothered me to see someone I care about being maligned and hated and feared in this manner. I feel the same way about the transwomen I know. Every single one of them has been a victim of gender based violence in their lives. Every single one of them knows what it means to be vulnerable and afraid.

      Just as with my friend from college, it makes me genuinely mad to see people say hateful and fearful things about people I know and love. An you understand why the nearly constant anti trans sentiment on this site might cause someone to get frustrated?

      If there was a better way to open this discussion, please do tell me what it would have been. Because all I have gotten is insults and profanity, which if you look at my original post are both things that I somehow managed to refrain from using and this was when I was writing in defense of people I care about who are under attack from people who are objectively fearful and hateful.

      • Meghan Murphy

        I think the more productive way to have this discussion is to try to understand what feminists are really saying about ‘gender identity,’ rather than simply accusing them of hate. You have to understand that even just asking questions about the notion of gender identity and suggesting that while trans people deserve rights and respect, that shouldn’t come at the expense of women’s rights results in threats, smearing, ostracization, bullying, etc etc. We’re trying to have conversations about women and patriarchy and when people simply accuse women of ‘hate’ for trying to talk about this stuff it shuts down conversation.

        Thank you for your efforts, in any case. I appreciate it.

      • Reality is sweet

        Being hated, feared, or a victim of gender-based violence does not make someone a woman. There are solutions to hate, fear and violence that do not involve reclassifying males as females. This entire piece speaks of the harms to actual women that come from that reclassification and yet your main concern is men. Gee, I wonder what societal forces might be causing you to prioritize their feelings. /s Also, spare the handwringing about lesbians. I’ve been an out lesbian for decades and know up close and personal what homophobia is and where it comes from. People hate lesbians precisely because we are women who dare to love other women. If people thought we were actually men, then nobody would object, now would they.

  • Meghan Murphy

    Why is it important that men be accepted as women? How do you define ‘woman’?

  • FierceMild

    A woman is an adult human female; not a deeply held and sincere inner feeling a man experiences.

  • FierceMild

    We are all socialiazed not to challenge men – the sex-class to which Kat Blaque belongs. Part of that socialization includes violent reactions from some men (including transwomen) when challenged. I am not assuming Kat Blaque is violent just because Kat Blaque is male, but I’m also not assuming otherwise.

    Women are browbeaten and threatened into silence around the maleness of transwomen through social pressure, such as you are trying to bring to bear right now. We are also socialized not to challenge men through violence or threats of violence.

    I do not see why, in order for you to listen and consider another woman’s point of view, she should be required to have that view vetted by a male (in this case a trans-identified male). Can you not engage these points yourself from your own mental powers? I believe you can. Why do you require an emotional appeal to sympathy with a group of men? I posit it is because you have no actual answers to the points given.

    You should consider why you, like many right-wing women, deem the thoughts and feelings expressed by women invalid until blessed by a man in a dress (whether it’s Pope Francis or Kat Blaque), and why you are perpetuating the custodial relationship between men and women. Your mind is not a ward of the trans movement, it is yours. Claim it.

  • Kiwipally

    Why do women have to give up their spaces? Why not organise against the men who still hold the vast majority of privilege. Why can’t trans organise to have their own spaces, which they extract from other men? Your misogyny is showing.

  • kfwkfw

    Why isn’t the aim to make Trans Spaces? Men are finally colonizing gender, that’s why. It wouldn’t be worth it to start something new, cuz then they couldn’t take over and dominate something else.

  • Morag999

    Women should listen to Kat Blaque? Snort! Sure, sure, women should let a man tell them what this womanhood thing is all about. Over a cup of tea.

    Your comment is offensive and stupid. You haven’t the slightest clue what’s happening, and you obviously have no intention of finding out.

    All you know, in your soft and sentimental heart, is that women’s voices, our concerns, our analyses, mean nothing. And that’s what you came here to tell us. That we should shut up and be nicer. To men.

    Thanks for the idiotic advice. Asshole.

    • Meghan Murphy

      I, too, snorted at the Kat Blaque suggestion. Like, feminists should all be paying more attention to some anti-feminist 20 something youtuber. Please.

  • Meghan Murphy

    Hmmm no? Transwomen are male. That’s why you are referring to them as ‘trans’.

  • Meghan Murphy

    What is a man? What is a woman?

  • will

    Nice dodge. I’ll repeat kfwkfw’s question: Why isn’t the aim to make Trans Spaces?

    Could it be because bullying women in to affirming you feelings is a higher priority than establishing safe spaces for your yourselves? (Guessing)

  • FierceMild

    A woman is an adult human female. A man is an adult human male. Transwomen are adult human males.

  • FierceMild

    Women are female, Transwomen are male. Unless you can provide a logically coherent definition of woman that isn’t based on stereotypes and includes Transwomen you must accept this definition. Therefore your comments are all gibberish.

  • FierceMild

    A female is a human being whose body is equipped to produce the large gamete called an oocyt. Transwomen produce the small gamete called a sperm; that makes them male.

  • Omzig Online

    Circular logic. Try again.

  • Omzig Online

    Let me know if you think these are “healthy practices” in designated women’s spaces. It’s a long list, but worth the read.


  • Omzig Online

    False equivalency. You are comparing apples to oranges, and then trying to prove your flawed argument by comparing apples to apples. You could probably benefit from an online tutorial on logical reasoning.

    Meanwhile, do you think this person should be allowed to share a locker room with my 13 year old daughter?


  • Omzig Online


    It appears that you need to start with some of the basics of human anatomy.

  • Meghan Murphy

    The problem is that transwomen are male, and so women’s concerns about trans identified males entering into women-only spaces are valid… In fact, it’s not “trans people” who are being “painted as rapists and murderers,” it’s just men…

  • Kiwipally

    Your misogyny is showing, you can’t stand women saying “no” and resort to slurs. MtTs are not women, and never will be.

  • Reality is sweet

    Then riddle me this: what makes them trans? What quality do 100% of them share?