My relationship with technology is intimate and deeply integrated in my thinking and view of the world around me.
In the mid-1990s, my mother started a company called CompuKidz, teaching children how to use computers. She recognized that technology would shape the future and we can best leverage that shift by supporting computer education for children. There was always a computer in our house loaded with creative games and educational programs. I would type stories for hours and then design accompanying illustrations. By the time my elementary school offered a computer class, I was already bored with the introductions. Didn’t everyone’s fingers glide across the keyboard without looking? Who needed help turning the computer on and finding Oregon Trail? Didn’t everyone have a computer in their house that they could use after their homework was done? The answer, I found, was no.
I attended a high school with a Science and Technology program, meaning that in addition to standard high school courses, the program offered specializations in biology, engineering, and computer science. I majored in computer science and learned to program.
Learning to code was a breath of fresh air. Understanding how to communicate with a computer was like learning to speak my crush’s language. We were both logical. We both broke big problems into smaller, sequential steps. We both processed information and assessed the solution. We were finally speaking the same language. Before, I was communicating at my computer but now I could communicate with it. I was in love. I wrote programs for fun, I thought about how everyday technologies were coded, I refactored my code to make it shorter and more efficient. This, kids, is your brain on code.
In my senior year I applied to a bunch of schools, got into them, and narrowed down to two. I could attend Carnegie Mellon University and study with some of the best computer scientists in the world for free, or, I could attend Wellesley and get an excellent liberal arts education, going on to become a lawyer or writer with tons of student debt. I visited Wellesley and knew this was where I needed to be. I made promises to study English and leave computer science behind.
I broke up with computer science in favor of being around an environment that motivated, challenged, and excited me. I vowed to do whatever it took to be around these brilliant minds that would change the world. (Spoiler: my personal mottos are “Why pick one when you can have both?” and “Treat yo’self”. I don’t do well denying myself things.)
Fast-forward to 2008. It was late in my sophomore year and I was preparing to tell my mother that I’d declared a major. Inhale. Exhale. Dial. “Mom, I decided to major in computer science.” I said as I’d been practicing.
"I thought you wanted to major in English and go to law school." She had a point. But how could I explain that I took a CS class to fulfill a requirement and free-fell back into the comfort of it. I felt guilty for ever having left computer science; you can’t deny a love like that. I couldn’t leave it a second time, so one required CS class turned into two CS classes, which turned into possibly minoring, which turned into majoring.
As my studies progressed, I became more fascinated in what coding could create. How could computer science concepts develop innovative softwares and solve important problems? Next time, I’ll tell you a story about the jump I made from programming to product management and how that journey is going.
For now, I’ll say that I’m lucky to have had the opportunity to identify and cultivate my passion so early in life. If you’ve identified something similar in yourself, we owe it to ourselves, and our respective industries, to never deny ourselves the pleasure of diving deep and not coming up for air.
— Monet Spells ‘10
Monet is a product enthusiast pursuing a MS in Human-Computer Interaction at Georgia Tech, to explore the ways in which technology can be more deeply integrated into our daily lives without disrupting meaningful people-to-people interactions. Check out her blog (http://www.monetspells.com/), personal twitter (@ohmonet), or her reading-and-recapping in tweets project (@booktwecaps).
I can’t remember exactly when it happened – I’m not sure if it can even be quantified as a moment, or a distinct point in time – but there came a time after I had been on T for a few months and my voice had lowered and I was passing pretty consistently when I realized something:
I’m a white dude now.
I really nailed that one. Seriously, hit it out of the park. Lucked out. Whatever you want to call it. For all the angst that comes along with being trans, I’m still able to regularly cash in on that privilege I am now rewarded, and it’s important to me that I am aware of that.
See, most people have never a met a trans person, at least not that they’re aware of. It’s just not something that registers for them. I’m constantly impressed at the mental gymnastics people will do to explain ‘inconsistencies’ about my history, my body, and my gender. I’ve had people tell me that they ‘just assumed’ Wellesley had gone co-ed, after I told them I had graduated from there, even after mentioning that I had women roommates all four years. Once, I had a guy see my top surgery scars and jokingly ask: “Damn, bro, did you get your tits lopped off?” He didn’t mean it to be offensive (or certainly not that offensive); it was just a joke for him. So when I replied, “Yeah, that’s pretty much exactly what happened,” he laughed again, because he thought I was playing along with him. The entire idea that I was born a woman was just too preposterous to entertain. It never even entered his mind.
Now, I recognize I may be unique in that this kind of stuff doesn’t bother me. I’m very fortunate that I can pass as a white dude almost all the time, so it’s my choice if I want to then explain my trans identity and educate. And, like people in other minority communities, I can take advantage of code switching. But because of my nice blue eyes and blonde hair and deep voice, I get an extra bonus: I can partake in frat boy brodowns and then, with a mention of my transition, join queer spaces with a relative equal degree of comfort.
This is an incredible privilege. One that I am constantly aware of, in awe of, and do my best to be respectful of. When I realized I was now seen by the vast majority of the wider world as a nice white guy, it was a little frightening. I mean, I had never seen myself as a white bro, but that’s how the world saw me now, so it was my duty, my responsibility, to be the best white dude I could be.
My time at Wellesley, as well as the large chunk of my life spent living as a woman surrounded by strong, smart women, gave me the foundation and the education to be able to use my newfound privilege for good. It makes me feel like some kind of secret agent, a spy working from the inside of the patriarchy. Because, whether I like it or not, my voice means something different now just because of my perceived gender and the color of my skin. When I talk now, people listen because my voice is deep. And, by contrast, if I’m riding the train home late at night and the only passengers are myself and a woman, it means something different to her if I smile at her, or try to strike up a conversation. That camaraderie we would have once had when I was read as a woman isn’t there anymore, and my actions are seen as potentially predatory (though they clearly are not). I’ve gained many things from my transition, but I’ve also lost some too. To borrow a quote from Hedwig: ‘in order to be free, one must give up a part of oneself.’
So what does this all have to do with the whole trans issue at Wellesley? I’m getting there. It’s a little tough for me because I realized I’m falling a lot more on the conservative end of the spectrum here and that’s a very different experience for me – being conservative – so I’m still sort of working through it myself.
See, the thing about being transgender is that there are just not that many of us. And that’s okay – I would never wish the struggle and anxiety that comes along with being born in a body that feels so wrong on any other person. For those of you who are comfortably ciswomen, I am overwhelmingly happy for you. For all the privilege I do now receive in the world, this is still my personal struggle, and while I ask and expect to be treated with kindness and respect (like any other person), I do not expect the world – nor Wellesley – to change to accommodate my needs specifically. There are a great many other issues facing Wellesley that I would rather talk about first, that affect a much larger portion of the student body – financial aid, mental health resources, increased support for all LGBT-identified students, to name a few. Do I think there are ways Wellesley could help improve life for trans students? Sure, absolutely. But there’s a big difference between being listened to, as one voice among many, and being catered to.
I don’t want to look at numbers too much here, because gender is something that’s very hard to quantify, but I think it’s important we get a sense of scale. The entire College is comprised of roughly 2500 students, with about 600 students per class. Out of those 600 students, how many would identify as male, trans* or otherwise gender-nonconforming? This is where things start to get tricky, and there’s certainly no good way to quantify things. I’ll speak from my experience and say that in my time (2006-2010), I knew roughly one to three, maybe four, people per class who I knew were openly and actively exploring their gender identity while at the college.
That’s about 0.5% of one class. 0.25% of the school.
So it seems presumptuous to demand that the College change its very raison d’etre for me, for us. Certainly, there will be the few of us who are transgender at Wellesley, and while it’s important that we feel safe in this space, we are still men in a women’s space. All I’ve ever excepted is to be respected and treated like human being, and Wellesley has never been anything but accommodating and respectful of my transition and my gender identity and, honestly, I don’t know what else I could ask for. The rest of our lives will be spent as men in a man’s world, so why not use this time at Wellesley to listen to the voices of our sisters, to learn how we can one day promote positive change and gender equality in the wider world?
As Caleb Wolfson-Seeley put it so eloquently, this is not about us. Wellesley is an institution that has a long important history of empowering strong women, and, as a man of Wellesley, I could not be more proud of my alma mater’s commitment to single-sex education. It is the reason I am aware that my male voice carries a different weight and can be louder, and easier to hear, than others. But the very fact that such a privilege exists is why we need places like Wellesley for women.
This is the third in our Open Letters to Wellesley College series, commemorating Wellesley Underground’s five year anniversary. If you are interested in writing your own Open Letter, please email firstname.lastname@example.org!
Dear Wellesley College Science Center,
I thought I’d feel overwhelmed and anxious the first time I came back to visit you after graduation. It had only been a year since I had left and the memories of stress-filled studying in Sage and frustration over confusing lab results had yet to fade. But as it was at the time, I was looking for some advice on what to do (the “I-feel-so-lost-and-confused-about-the-future” phase that everyone goes through after college) and it was to my science professors I turned to. By unfortunate circumstances, all the professors I normally turned to were all out of town and since I was visiting from California, I couldn’t reschedule a time to meet.
I ended up walking around rather aimlessly myself. It was such a strange feeling to be back there, Science Center, when no one was around and all the anxious energy seemed to have disappeared. Walking through Sage and the labs, I was hoping to find some sign or something to help guide me, but found nothing except the leftover yellow streamers and bead necklaces from senior prank. It was like the homework-related stress was replaced with real-life-related stress. If you, Science Center, couldn’t provide me with answers, then who could?!
Fast forward three years. I just finished a PhD in environmental science and came back to visit my science professors again. You were looking good, Science Center! The climate change monitoring garden is an awesome addition and I was so pleased to see some of the literal fruits of labor from the edible ecosystem research garden that yours truly helped plan four years ago. The new café area would have been much appreciated if it had been there in my time. I was less enthused about the replacement of the computer area with offices and the removal of the science library journal archives. Yes, I know everything’s pretty much online in databases and looking up things on paper was kind of a pain, but I really hope they’re letting you keep the library space because seriously, what’s a science center without a science library? Where are the students supposed to study?
I almost got lost trying to find my thesis adviser’s office this time around. It’s one of those offices tucked away in a corner behind a set of fire doors, almost like you’re trying to deter the ones who will give up easily. Guess that can be a metaphor for a lot of things, like my current state. Incidentally, I’m still in the what-to-do-next stage (hello, job search!), but now, I’m walking around with a better sense of self. If nothing else, I’ve figured out I’m capable of switching fields several times, picking up programming skills, publishing research, and dealing with the unknown future with optimism. And you know what, Science Center? I learned a lot of that from your halls. Nothing says Wellesley scientist like a broad scope of experience, a lot of rigorous training, and a drive to do something meaningful and impactful.
The new (or new-ish at this point) banner on the cross-walk over the fish bowl sums it up well: “Eat, Sleep, Wander, Like, Learn, Renew”. I’m sure that all of us go come through your halls will find themselves changing course many a time in our lives. Thanks for reminding me to embrace this uncertainty and the process of learning, Science Center. It’s a good lesson to remember.
Admitting that I didn’t belong at Wellesley was perhaps the hardest part of my transition from female to male. After all, Wellesley was my home. I practically grew up on campus: being walked through the greenhouses as an infant, exploring the Science Center’s maze of stairs and labs, sledding on Severance Green, reading under the trees in the arboretum. And then it became where I lived, where I studied, where I fell in love, where I made my best friends. And suddenly it wasn’t.
Being thrust into life as a man was liberating yet confusing, validating yet alienating. But there I was – a man in a women’s space. And as a male ally and feminist, I could not in good conscience remain in one of the few spaces that are carved out specifically for women. I was an invader, and while it was difficult – emotionally, physically, and socially – to distance myself from the very place I had once considered home, it was what I had to do. I, as a man, did not belong at a women’s college.
There has been much talk lately about women’s colleges and trans* individuals. Committees are being formed, policies are being written, articles are being published. We’re being asked what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a women’s college. I’m slightly confused by the questions. What it means to be a woman is as much an issue as what it means to be a man (which no one is asking). A woman might be Black, Asian, or Latina, she might be short or tall, skinny or fat, she might have long hair or a buzz cut, she might wear a dress one day and pants the next, she might be rich or poor, she might have been assigned male or female at birth, she might be a Democrat or a Republican, she might love to read or solve math problems or both – but she’s a woman, and as such, she belongs at a women’s college. I want women’s colleges to be defined in the positive – who they are for (women) rather than who they are not for. I’ve seen many people propose an “all but cis men” admissions policy for Wellesley. Such a policy allows men to attend a women’s college, which undermines it as a women’s space. If a prospective student cannot check a box identifying themselves as a woman, they don’t belong at a women’s college. There are approximately 4,000 other colleges and universities in the United States that men can attend. There’s no need to invade a women’s space.
Many people are also calling for explicit policies regarding trans* women. As Wellesley is a women’s college, it admits women, and therefore trans* women are – theoretically – invited to apply and attend. However, we would be naïve to assume there would be no issues with a trans* woman’s application. If her recommendation letters use a different pronoun or her FAFSA is rejected because her record with the Social Security Administration does not match, she may be flagged. To open Wellesley’s doors to all women, such issues must be explicitly dealt with. While most applicants will simply be able to say “I am a woman”, there are those who need to qualify the statement with a “but”. I am a woman, but my teachers don’t recognize me as one. I am a woman, but I don’t have the financial means to change my documentation. And the message needs to be loud and clear – Wellesley recognizes you as a woman, and we will help you sort out the “buts”.
There are, of course, things Wellesley could do to support the men who end up there for whatever reason. As a man, my experience at Wellesley could have been improved with access to medical care specific to trans* people, more alternative housing, and a program to help men transfer and finish on time at a coed college. But supporting men is not Wellesley’s mission, and the male students and alumni of Wellesley need to recognize our place. It’s fundamentally a conflicted place. But learning to be a good man means being an ally to our sisters, letting them have their women’s spaces, not interrupting their conversations, and listening to their words. Being a man is easy – but being a good man means bowing out when it’s not about you. And Wellesley is not about me.
Caleb W., ‘08
I should not be writing this post.
I feel obligated to start with that acknowledgment, how much I am not qualified to speak on this topic: because I was AFAB (assigned female at birth) I can’t speak to the experiences of trans* women. But that’s the entire point — because trans women are being excluded from admission to women’s colleges, they are also being excluded from the conversations taking place about the changing role of womanhood. At least the ones we’re having: on alum discussion boards, on campus, in the advisory boards being formed out of existing members of the Wellesley community.
What conversation about womanhood are we having where the experiences of men — certain types of men, any men — are centered over the experiences of any women?
The recent NYT article does mention trans women, points out Mills’ and Mount Holyoke’s recent (groundbreaking, though maybe flawed) admissions changes, and does admit that on the surface the idea of trans women attending a women’s college is “arguably,” she writes, much more immediately fitting. But this occurs at the end of the article, and there’s no sense of urgency to it: instead we fade back onto an image of students singing brotherhood as well as sisterhood and siblinghood at graduation, a cacophony of individual relationships to gender and to the mission of our alma mater. That end scene is so touching that we almost might forget to consider whose voices are still missing.
And this is something we forget again and again, because it’s too easy to justify focusing on the Wellesley students and alums that are already there: regardless of the details of initial admissions policy, there will always be students who enter Wellesley identifying as women and leave identifying as men, and those students and alums deserve respect. (I want to clarify before I get any further that it would be ridiculous and inhumane to demand someone transfer colleges for questioning or changing their gender identity.) And it’s certainly a more tempting journalistic focus, since the “men of Wellesley” have OneCards and student government positions and can pose on the cover of a magazine. It’s easy to explore how they fit in at Wellesley, how they feel marginalized or decentered; it’s much more difficult to get snappy pull quotes from the people who aren’t even marginalized in our community because they’ve been excluded from it in its entirety.
But this is the vicious cycle: by privileging the perspectives of Wellesley students and alums, we’re inherently privileging the experiences of AFAB people — cis women or trans men — because they’re the only people who get to (openly) attend women’s colleges. We propose a vision of universal sisterhood that includes siblinghood and brotherhood but doesn’t make room for our actual sisters.
Let’s talk about the one perspective we do get about trans women’s inclusion at Wellesley specifically: an anonymous transmasculine student who feels his opinion may be controversial. Likely true, since his opinion is that Wellesley needs to “maintain its integrity as a safe space for women” by preventing trans* women who have not legally and medically transitioned from applying or attending.
I want to be really clear about that moment in the essay, which I think crystallizes the problem: “‘I think we need to keep this a safe space for women by excluding one of the most victimized types of women,’ says a man.” In what frame of reference does this make — to be explicit — any goddamn sense, except for one which implictly denies the womanhood of trans women?
We can play with that scenario: what if a trans* woman (because I refuse to call anyone who doesn’t identify as a man a “male-bodied person” or “biologically male”, even our hypothetical boogeyperson) decided to attend Wellesley as a woman and then return to identifying as male, as unlikely as that might be? How would this be functionally any different from a student who applied as a cis woman and shifted to identifying as male? The logic behind this is that trans men are a “different case” (as our anonymous student claims) because they have been assigned female and treated as girls: that your gendered “socialization,” the first 17 or so years of your life, is what matters in some definitive and permanent way. But the disturbing counterpoint to the idea that being assigned female somehow naturally aligns trans* men with cis women is that it also separates trans* women from cis women, deciding that their male socialization trumps or diminishes their identities as women. (We could make the same case about an admissions policy like Mills that allows AFAB nonbinary applicants but not AMAB nonbinary applicants: this draws an arbitrary distinction based on “birth sex” assignment between two groups of people who very specifically do not identify with the genders they were assigned.)
If we want to talk genuinely about the ways womanhood is “complicated in the 21st century” — the ways it’s always been complicated, that women’s colleges are just now being forced to acknowledge — we have to move beyond the reductive idea that “womanhood” is experienced in the same ways by all women. There is no universal “knowing what it’s like to be treated as female” that magically resides in the genitals or the XX chromosome or the sliver of very specific life experience that any 17-year-old brings with them to campus: who are we to decide that someone assigned male at birth who has fought to identify and live as a woman doesn’t “get” it because their experience of womanhood has so far been different than ours? We should welcome that perspective — just as we should welcome and support other experiences of womanhood that differ from our own.
Can a women’s college take a “big-tent” approach and treat “women and trans* people” as a legible class for admissions? Anyone, in other words, who identifies as or has been identified as a woman — or “anyone but cismen,” which weaves transphobia and sexism into one inextricable gender experience? I think there’s potentially room for this sort of space, if it’s not achieved at the expense of trans* women: but so far it has been, every single time, and that in itself raises potential red flags as to its viability.
I don’t mean to say we shouldn’t discuss the things we have been discussing as a community. The question of whether to switch out Wellesley’s female-centric language for something more gender-neutral has good arguments, I think, on both sides: female-only language at Wellesley erases male students (and genderqueer/nonbinary students), but it also directly challenges the male-dominated language of the entire rest of the world. This will always be a hard balance to strike. But if the conversation repeatedly returns to worries about privileging masculinity at the cost of women, we should turn that reflectiveness just as much onto the topic itself: let’s talk about whether the default “she” does that, let’s talk about whether screaming about sisterhood does that, but let’s wait to have these conversations until all women are present at the table to have it.
The day that we have seen coming for years has finally arrived: Wellesley is being forced to reckon with its status as a women’s college. Wellesley’s professed commitment to diversity and inclusiveness is clashing – in a very public way – with its commitment to providing an education for women only. We’re being forced to ask ourselves, as a community, whether or not these two commitments can be reconciled, or whether or not we’re going to have to abandon one of them for good.
The issue, of course, is this: is it possible for Wellesley to openly embrace trans* students and alumni while still billing itself as a women’s college? Or is it necessary for Wellesley to re-define its mission – perhaps even becoming coeducational – in order to accommodate trans* students and preserve our commitment to diversity and inclusiveness?
Based on online comment threads, administrators’ speeches, and a variety of think-pieces, it appears our community’s debate about this issue is falling along predictable axes. Those who support the robust inclusion of trans* students at Wellesley – particularly those who support including trans students who are masculine-identified – are seen as sacrificing what is valuable about Wellesley in the first place. As an unnamed Wellesley grad says in the latest New York Times article:
“Sisterhood is why I chose to go to Wellesley…A women’s college is a place to celebrate being a woman, surrounded by women. I felt empowered by that every day. You come here thinking that every single leadership position will be held by a woman: every member of the student government, every newspaper editor, every head of the Economics Council, every head of the Society of Physics. That’s an incredible thing! This is what they advertise to students. But it’s no longer true. And if all that is no longer true, the intrinsic value of a women’s college no longer holds.”
Those who favor, by contrast, keeping Wellesley a “women’s college” are seen as discriminatory and arbitrary. Why, so the criticism goes, if we accept that gender identity is fluid, would we establish rigid criteria for who can become a Wellesley student?
But there might be a way of approaching this issue that avoids this somewhat reductive debate. What if we could admit trans* students – including those who identify as men – without giving up what is valuable about Wellesley? I think we can. But this means we have to get clear about what, exactly, is valuable about Wellesley as it exists today. If we can establish why having an institution like Wellesley matters, and why it’s important to have an institution like this one, then we can see whether moving away from a women-only model does in fact threaten the ‘existence’ of Wellesley as a whole. That’s what I hope to do here: I want to try and explain — in broad strokes — what is valuable about women’s colleges in such a way that it is entirely consistent with adopting broad, inclusive policies toward trans* students.
But maybe it seems like I’ve already got things wrong: we already know why women’s colleges are valuable. And if we’re going to hang on to what’s valuable about them, we have to keep Wellesley women-only. Here are some familiar claims: women’s colleges help our self-confidence; they make us leaders; they make us more assertive; they turn us in to good feminists; and they cultivate interest in traditionally male-dominated disciplines. But I’m not sure this is enough. Do any of these reasons require the existence of a women’s college? If things like boosting our confidence and making us leaders are what women’s colleges have to offer, then why wouldn’t we be just as well off going to a bunch of workshops on “Leaning In” over the course of four years, while simply attending co-ed colleges in the meantime? I think we need to dig deeper here. We need to figure out what it is that’s distinctive about women’s colleges, what it is that they are better able to provide than something like a long-term empowerment workshop.
Here’s my (tentative) proposal: women’s colleges are uniquely situated to combat gender-related epistemic injustice, and this is what makes them necessary and valuable.
I. Epistemic injustice
What is epistemic injustice? It’s a philosophical term-of-art that describes what happens when someone’s status as a knower – that is, as an agent who both takes in and disseminates knowledge – is harmed based on some arbitrary aspect of her social position that shouldn’t have any effect on how we treat a possessor of knowledge. One way this injustice can occur, according to the philosopher Miranda Fricker, is “when a speaker receives the wrong degree of credibility from a hearer owing to a certain sort of unintended prejudice on the hearer’s part” (2007, 154).
What does it mean to receive the “wrong degree of credibility” exactly? Fricker proposes two possibilities: either through credibility excess or credibility deficit. Credibility excess occurs when people assign someone more credibility than they deserve in virtue of their social position. White men, for example, are often granted credibility excess because they are more likely to be treated as experts on subjects they may well know little about – they are assumed (as a result of insidious, deep-seated prejudices in our world) to be more competent simply because they are white men. Credibility deficit occurs when you receive less credibility than you deserve based on some prejudice on the hearer’s part. Women, people of color, people who occupy disadvantaged socioeconomic statuses, even people with certain accents may face a credibility deficit throughout their lives.
This sounds abstract, but it becomes less so when we realize it’s just a way of describing a phenomenon we are all too familiar with: mansplaining. If you’ve ever been the victim of this social practice, you know that what’s involved is something like what Fricker describes – it’s a man assuming in conversation that he knows more than you about a topic without having any reason for thinking that. (In fact, he’ll even do this when it’s clear that you’re the expert on the issue and he isn’t.) The mansplaining guy, in Fricker’s terms, assigns you a credibility deficit by assuming you have less credibility because you are a woman or some other minority – instead of evaluating your credibility based on the substance of what you know.
Another philosopher, Jose Medina, argues that these phenomena are inextricably linked: credibility excess and deficit can’t exist without each other (2011). Women, people of color, and other marginalized groups can’t experience credibility deficit without some other group also experiencing credibility excess. But there’s a fascinating implication here. The flipside of this account means that, in an environment without people who are routinely assigned credibility excess, no one is assigned credibility deficit either. This might go some way toward explaining the importance and appeal of safe spaces. Safe spaces work by removing individuals from groups who normally experience credibility excess, allowing victims of credibility deficit in normal circumstances, like women and people of color, to experience an environment without being marginalized as knowers and thinkers. If Medina is right, then credibility deficit won’t show up on the scene without individuals who are assigned credibility excess.
II. How does this apply to women’s colleges?
Let me put my cards on the table: I think women’s colleges are uniquely situated to help mitigate gender-related epistemic injustice. If credibility excess and deficit rely on one another, and if those who typically experience gender-related credibility excess are cisgendered men, then removing cisgendered men from the college environment will mean that women won’t experience a systematic credibility deficit. Unfortunately, the dynamics of credibility excess and deficit will of course be alive and well in women’s colleges as they pertain to other factors, such as race or socioeconomic status.
Even if you’re with me up to now and agree that women’s colleges provide us with a unique environment to develop as knowers and thinkers, you might still worry that such an environment won’t provide any lasting, transformative change. It might shield us from insidious social dynamics for a few years, but it doesn’t do anything to change those dynamics for the better. In other words, this objection goes, Wellesley is a bubble – something that shields us from the real world but doesn’t give us the resources to change it.
But I think this misses the mark. Participating in a women’s college environment helps us better recognize patterns of credibility excess and deficit in and throughout the rest of our lives. So after experiencing college without being assigned credibility deficits (in relation to one’s gender), post-graduation implicit slights can start to look like strange, unjust deviations from the norm. This sort of environment could also make it more likely that we stand up to injustices and slights – like mansplaining – when we see them. Being in an environment where women occupy traditionally male-dominated roles – or where women work in male-dominated fields like STEM or philosophy – can also cause people to cultivate long-term interests they wouldn’t have normally. Consider how many of these problematic trends get started in the first place: when stereotypes are pervasive in a field, like the idea that men are just “innately” better at computer science, those fields are riddled with unjust credibility deficit/excess dynamics. Not being treated like you’re inherently worse at something just because you are a woman – which can happen when all women or majority-women are involved in that activity – has been empirically shown to generate interest from women in that discipline or that activity that may not have occurred otherwise (Fine 2010).
That’s all well and good, but what about the central issue here? Wouldn’t the presence of trans men undermine what I’ve just described? Doesn’t the presence of trans men – particularly those who can pass as cisgendered men – reinstate the credibility excess/deficit dynamic? Obviously I can’t know how things will pan out in advance, but I think we have more than enough reason to confidently answer “no.”
III. What about trans* students?
If combatting gender-related epistemic injustice is taken up as the raison d’etre of women’s colleges today, then that gives us excellent reason to admit trans* students: trans* people experience gender-related epistemic injustice all the time. While MTF transwomen who pass as women often experience implicit biases in similar ways as cisgendered women do (Fine 2010), trans* people in general experience the gamut of prejudice — stereotype threat, implicit bias, and credibility deficit — in many contexts by virtue of their trans identity. If places like Wellesley were to become fully supportive of trans* students, those students potentially stand to benefit a good deal, in just the way that generations of women who have faced similar obstacles have.
But back to the original worry: would the presence of FTM transgender people re-insert the credibility excess/deficit dynamic into the “women’s” college environment? That’s one way of putting the point expressed by the anonymous Wellesley grad quoted above: the Wellesley community stands to lose something when we start accepting people who identify as men.
I think there are several good reasons to think this won’t be the case. One is that many of the stereotypes that generate the credibility excess/deficit dynamic seem to stem from an implicit gender essentialism: that men have innate abilities in certain areas, like in math, technology, or philosophy, and that these innate abilities are somehow biologically predetermined (Fine 2010). Trans* people, even those who are FTM or MTF and seek to pass as men or women, call this implicit gender essentialism into question by asserting their own agency in the deliberate construction of their gender identity (Heyes 2003; Butler 1988).
Now consider what will happen if Wellesley starts to view itself as an institution dedicated to combatting gender-related epistemic injustice and starts to admit gender-nonconforming individuals who might be victims of such injustice. By doing this, the Wellesley community will have explicitly rejected the sort of gender essentialism that underlies corrosive stereotypes about women being “innately” worse than men at certain types of reasoning. By professing a deep commitment for the idea that your gender identity is something fluid, shifting, something you yourself can determine, the Wellesley community would affirm what we all already accept: that your gender does not have to determine what you are capable of. This is a fact that cisgendered men are taught from birth; it is a fact that women and gender-nonconforming individuals need to learn, through hard work, on their own. My contention is that Wellesley is the place where we put in the hard work of learning it.
So based on all of this, what do I think Wellesley should look like going forward? I hope that Wellesley becomes a “historical women’s college” – but, and I want to be emphatic about this, this would not be understood as implying that Wellesley should become “co-educational.” If Wellesley were to become co-educational, that would involve admitting cisgendered men. This would re-insert the credibility excess/deficit dynamic that Wellesley so valuably undermines. But if Wellesley admitted trans* students – and started to think of itself as a space for anyone who is marginalized by their gender – I think we have strong reasons to be optimistic that such credibility/excess dynamics would not re-insert themselves. We would affirm our commitment to diversity and inclusiveness – loosening our admissions policy to encompass trans* students who identify as women, those who identify as men, and those who identify as anything and everything in between – without undermining what is most valuable about our community.
[See also: Thoughts on Treatment of W Trans Alums by Hailey H ‘10]
Butler, Judith. 1988. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal 40: 519.
Fine, Cordelia. 2010. Delusions of gender: how our minds, society, and neurosexism create difference. New York: W. W. Norton.
Fricker, Miranda. 2007. Epistemic injustice: power and the ethics of knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Heyes, Cressida J. 2003. “Feminist Solidarity After Queer Theory: The Case Of Transgender.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society: 1093-1120.
Medina, José. 2011. “The Relevance of Credibility Excess in a Proportional View of Epistemic Injustice: Differential Epistemic Authority and the Social Imaginary.” Social Epistemology: 15-35.
The other day, after missing a lunch and having not eaten all day, I walked by a food truck serving fried oysters, fish, shrimp, po’boys, and everything across from the Dallas Museum of Art. I ordered some food. That feeling of fullness stayed long after the short moment of indulgence. In a sense, it’s a similar sensation of gorging on a liberal education.
I attended one of those predominantly white institutions in New England, known for producing an inordinate number of female CEOs and leaders of the world. We lived under the specters of these storied women each day, while walking to and from classes, rushing to sports practices or organizational events. In class we learned about all sorts of peoples and histories and places. I was enamored by the rhetoric I heard around me. This convinced me that we were a holy fount of knowledge and that this alone is why we produced women who would make a difference in the world. It was dizzying indulgence to have a wealth of people – professors, visiting speakers, fellow classmates – to discuss the world with. Together, this academic community impressed upon us the fashionable way to engage with the world or to imagine it correctly. Of course, there were disruptions in this wonderful depositing of information we were receiving. I was disturbed that a friend was shouted at and harassed on campus for simply daring to carry around a tote bag signifying her self-identification as a Republican, her political idea. Excluding her on mere difference in beliefs seemed to contradict the sacred intellectual curiosity and respect that supposedly was foundational to our community. Or there was the incident of the student protest in spring 2009, when students camped out in protest of Wellesley cutting off our dining hall workers’ contracts suddenly. The school newspaper barely gave sufficient information or background as to why it all happened. Suddenly, the flow of global discussions seemed useless when people who kept this place going were being materially hurt. What good was talks of excavating ruins of xyz empire in xyz country miles away when someone who served us food might not have a job to live on? The outrage at the event, contained to a few students, seemed in part due perception/annoyance at the interruption to “worthier ideals” and in part the revelation of our inadequacies to talk this out. Rhetoric nor outrage could feed people.
Yet that’s what we were known for: being “offended” at the state of things, the insufficiency to blame for the difference between rhetoric (which we were all getting quite good at) and reality (which we really had no training to work on). We were told, and told each others and ourselves, that the bleary sense of insufficiency would be cured by working in non-profits, volunteerism, more school, or advancing ourselves materially and forging ahead in i-banking or consulting. Whatever made us more intelligent by these standards we learned at Wellesley. We were told that “we left knowing how to think” – but according to who? And for the benefit of what? And what accounts for the gap in action when shit actually goes down? To be fair, “shit” rarely went down at this school in a way that materially damaged people. Even oppression was a theoretical exercise and, yes, mostly to the benefit of the most privileged of us to learn about it. Black students, women of color, first generation students, poor students were individually and systemically misunderstood and erased. I railed against this, refusing to believe that a school that told us again and again that we were women who would make a difference in the world would neuter us of the ability to make a difference in our immediate world in this school. And yet the logic of the college, which made sense for the institution, was that “we feed you, water you, teach you, you are beholden to us.” So that nullified pushback. This institution was going to hold reality constant, only reforming enough to stay as good-looking as those manicured lawns, never handing over the power of decision-making.
But this is where my talks with a dean for students of color resonates. She listened and she critiqued, “You students come here, so safe and protected, and yet you are all so miserable! You come into my office, fall apart, especially the most put together of y’all. But then what, the moment you step foot outside, the armor goes back up, nursing this internal victimhood while presenting a strong face. We can suggest things, support you, but we can’t make y’all take the power. And you have to ask yourself, do you want to take the power? Never blame another person’s survival tactics. But remember, y’all are here, where the access is unprecedented and y’all are pretty much cushioned from failure of the real kind. Why don’t y’all swing out and take what you want instead of complaining all the time?”
I saw this dynamic play on, upon returning after two years away. It was shockingly undisturbed. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the strange night – sky blue to the point of violet – as I wandered up the steps to the academic quad. It was utterly unchanged. Faces were different, but the script was the same – students made aware enough of insufficiency to be driven forward into learning/achieving/screwing/volunteering. All conquest. The heady dreams of conquest were everywhere. I remember the deep sadness at realizing the emptiness of rhetoric–student leaders convinced these wheels we ran on were not little hamster wheels with set durations and constant elevation/tread, but real work. I was so utterly, deeply convinced of this magic until I was forced to leave and face my poverty (post for another time) while organizing in Chinatown and living in Washington Heights. I found students had read more than me, but even in using similar political words, there was a notable difference in quality of our ideas. There was just somewhere beyond they could not go (yet). The land of theory does indeed have limits. And the beyond in my words was something exotic, something to attempt to capture in rhetoric or discard. It was incredibly disturbing. As a friend who’s left that environment recently put it: “people of color will be eating that neoliberal cookie too.”
So to end with another strange metaphor, that institution could be a greenhouse. So many of us are uprooted and scalped in there, pruned carefully. The outside world becomes romantic, wild, fascinating, and exotic as we forget where we came from. (Though actually, many of us came from the middle class bubble.) We’re fed from a certain trove of food, seemingly so diverse, but it aims to shape us the same way. And we are breathing the same air. Soon we’re convinced this is the world and that this is how it is. (For someone who gets asked “Where are you from?” all the time, I nearly forgot and needed to remember my roots, my people, my community. I am still relearning, remembering.) Yet to learn, to leave, we must realize that this diet kept us stuck in places, chained with needs and desires we didn’t know had been trained into us. For those of us who could still stomach life and re-learn to stomach it, we must venture into sharing ecosystems where we can truly experience failure, growth and education.
I listened to a student presentation today about how important it is to encourage women to pursue computer science. I listened with an open mind and suppressed the urge to correct “all girls school” (it’s definitely ”all women’s college” - who doesn’t know that?!) and “women don’t…” (women are not a solitary entity) in favor of internalizing their message. The presenters talked about the stereotypical relationship women have with tech and computer science the way one would a fear of dogs. “If we can show them that it’s not scary and that it can be fun, women will love computer science. They’ll be cuddling and playing fetch in no time!”
There is a fundamental flaw in this ideology. This ideology isn’t about developing environments for women to pursue fields that interest them, uninterrupted. This ideology is about encouraging women to subscribe to society’s ideals about what it means to be a woman - oh yea, and pursue tech. If women see that tech can be easy and fun (things society assumes women are capable of) they will be comfortable pursuing technology.
Tech can be easy. Women can do easy. Therefore women can do tech.
I often ponder the factors that contribute to tech being a male-dominated field. I recognize that my upbringing (predominantly Black upper middle-class suburb), subject interests (always computer science), and formal education (Wellesley College) skew my perception. I’m even in a co-ed, tech-related masters program that is predominantly women. So, when we talk about the under-representation of women in tech I think, “but there are SO many brilliant women in tech around me".I have to remind myself that this is not the norm. That there are entire business, academic departments, and development teams that can count their women developers with one hand in their pocket.
So I ponder. Today I had a revelation.
I’m sure you’ve heard about Satya Nadella’s complete screw up, in telling women not to ask for raises, but to let karma bring it to them. He attended the prestigious (and well attended) Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, sat on a stage in front of several women, and advised them to let karma handle the finances. In a world of women being told to Lean In, Nadella suggests we leave altogether.
As I thought about my colleagues in the audience listening to a successful man encourage them to not be pushy or aggressive, to wait it out and let things come to them it hit me: society refuses to recognize that women can do hard things. Of course women can navigate salary negotiations, pursue STEM career paths, and climb the professional ladder. (Also, do not soften the things women can do by throwing in “and have dinner on the table by 6!” Who doesn’t know that?!) The gender divide is not the professional equivalent of cynophobia, and cannot be solved with soft strokes behind the ears or puppy licks.
People are working to create environments in which women can pursue tech. Successful allies in the field (let’s just say men) support and extend the message because diversity is good. We are effectively asking women to subscribe to a system that has systematically put them at a disadvantage, and promise that tech will be different. Women in tech are brilliant, powerful unicorns until someone tells them to let karma handle the finances.
Every time a woman is discouraged away from tech, I imagine some patriarchal figure cooing “Don’t you worry your pretty little head off about that.” Nadella is basically saying that being a nice gal will get you ahead. But wait, didn’t we learn that nice finishes last? That hard work, determination, and pursuing the rewards you rightfully deserve are respected and encouraged in the professional world. The Boys have different rules and even in their advice to women, women still get 77 cents to the dollar.
A statement was released. Nadella took it back. But does that change anything? Not really.
While it’s disappointing that we’re still having elementary discussions about gender equality, its important that we continue to show up. That we encourage women (in and out of tech) to understand the issues, care about the impact, and show up. Create forums for successful women to advocate for collective interests and offer informed advice to other women. Push girls to pursue the things that interest them, to become women that show up for the things that interest them.
And let me tell you: when you show up, you better show out.
Monet Spells ‘10 (@ohmonet)
This is the second in our Open Letters to Wellesley College series, commemorating Wellesley Underground’s five year anniversary. If you are interested in writing your own Open Letter, please email email@example.com!
I loved you, once. With first-crush puppy enthusiasm, where you think it’ll be like this forever.
It happened fast and unexpectedly. I was looking for literally anything that wasn’t Times New Roman or Arial. I mean, they’re fine, I just wanted something different.
Really, I was going to have my fingers all over you for weeks—we might as well start off liking each other. As everyone in the Book Arts class ran off for illuminated capitals or Courier’s safe embrace, I took my time with your single tray in size 14.
I didn’t thoughtlessly commit—I counted your e’s, made sure what I had planned wasn’t out of your depth. Well within e-limits, I thought we were solid. I was excited! We had good couple weeks, didn’t we? Lines and lines of type, click-clacking away.
I loved you, you vindictive bitch.
And then you ran out of fucking p’s. Really? Your NAME is PERPETUA. You don’t think maybe you should’ve stocked up on THE FIRST LETTER OF YOUR FONT NAME?
My broadside almost came to that, you know. Typing random lines in screaming capitals because you neglected to include a proportional amount of consonants for your embarrassment of e’s. WOULD YOU HAVE BEEN HAPPY THEN?
It wound up being indented italics—all smushed and slanted like knocked-over books. I’d come too far to give you up entirely, so we were stuck together until the Vandercook released us from our embittered partnership. I swore blue streaks as I picked out all the middle lines with tweezers, clearing the way for strikebreaker type to cover up your mutiny.
You knew I hated you then. An s here or there would kiss one page and bite the next, just to ruin another copy. You tore the pads of my fingers when I wiped ink from you at the end of the day. I hoped my blood was acidic enough to bore holes in your lead face.
As I threw you (letter by letter—I’m not a monster) into your box, I knew it would never be the same between us. I’d avert my eyes from traces of you online and stare down your signage in the West Village.
I’ll never forgive you for letting me fall for you and then sneaking out on me.
But it did allow me to meet Garamond, and we’re very happy together.
— Jess Planos ‘10
Kate Broad ‘06 a.k.a. romance novelist Rebecca Brooks
Confession: I’m one of those raging misandrist feminists your mother warns you about and other feminists are always trying to disavow. I’m also a romance author. What I’ve learned from writing my first novel is that those terms, feminist and romance, don’t have to be at odds.
There are plenty of romance readers who already know this. But I came to the genre later in life, fully confident in both my feminist beliefs and my literary chops. I’m a published poet with a PhD in English—in other words, a snob. Up until a few years ago, I’d never read a romance novel in my life.
But two things happened while I was in graduate school. The first was that I wrote a dissertation about romance—or more specifically, about the romance plot in feminist utopian and dystopian literature. 300+ pages later I had a pretty good handle on how the romance plot worked, not to mention the golden unicorn I’d been chasing all my life: an idea for a novel.
The other thing is that I started publishing scholarship. I confess to Googling myself while writing this and it’s not as bleak as I’d thought. But you have to do some serious digging to find the more obscure articles I’ve written, even the ones in respected journals. Scholarship is vital and I don’t think the quality or legitimacy of a work can be judged by the number of people it reaches. Still, it’s okay to want to write something that people will actually read.
So rather than stand outside a genre cataloging its shortcomings, I’m trying to write the kind of book I’d want to pick up. I firmly believe that romance can be intelligent, well written, and unabashedly feminist, with heroines who pursue their passions, stand up for themselves, and refuse to compromise their ideals. I’m not out to achieve bestseller status (although hey, that’d be nice). What I’m looking for is to connect with readers, share ideas, and explore new arguments. And write characters who kick butt at Scrabble—it’s my book, I can do what I want.
I read widely, but I’m tired of contemporary literary novels about middle-aged men lamenting their lost erections of yore. In our testosterone-saturated culture, romance is a radical reprieve. It’s by women, about women, and focused on sexuality and satisfaction. It’s started to feel like an incredibly feminist thing to do, to push against the prejudices of a male-dominated industry as part of a powerful and vocal community of readers and writers who know what they want and aren’t afraid to get it.
It’s not an ideal world. I still ask myself a lot of questions. Is it okay to participate in a genre with so many conservative strains? Am I watering down ideas to have commercial appeal? Does everything I write have to be so straight? But then I think about the reviews I’ve gotten calling Above All feminist and smart, the surprise from readers that a romance novel can be pro-woman, the email from an old Wellesley friend calling me brave for writing a sex scene in which the man isn’t perfect—but proves himself eminently teachable. And I feel, finally, like I’m doing something right.
I’ve learned these past few days that stereotypes about brown women and motherhood are inescapable, even in Wellesley forums. I always assume Wellesley online forums to be accepting and supportive spaces, but as of late, my hopes have been dashed. I’m tired of the micro and macro-agressions. Many of us are tired. We’ve been tired. All the explaining, educating, and appealing to others not to say harmful racially insensitive things has proven to be in vain, exhaustive, and harmful.
I’m done and so are many people of color alums.
That’s it. That’s all.
P.S If you are a POC alum, there is a POC alum FB group. If you are a POC alum or ally, there is a POC parenting group. You can ping me on FB and I’ll add you.
Let’s all do better, ok?
Sincerely so very tired,
This is the first in our Open Letters to Wellesley College series, commemorating Wellesley Underground’s five year anniversary. If you are interested in writing your own Open Letter, please email firstname.lastname@example.org!
Dear Culture Shock 2007:
In the spring of 2007, I was a newly elected College Government President and my tenure commenced with the eruption of an online debate over the retirement of the late Tony Martin, which quickly devolved into a battle of intolerances (also known as Oppression Olympics): which was worse, anti-black racism or anti semitism, slavery or the Holocaust? Similarly that fall, a speaker, Nonie Darwish, was invited to campus to lecture and after giving an hour long diatribe against the women of Islam in the room, she left; refusing to answer questions and be held accountable. Instances of discrimination and discomfort erupted on campus, as [a couple] professors closed their doors to black students and women in hijab. Students were unsure whether their peers were friends or foes.
We, the members of College Government President’s Council (CGPC), came up with the idea of you, Culture Shock 2007, over the course of several meetings and several beers at the Pub. We wanted the online discourse, debating, and flaming to leave the screens of students’ and professors’ computers; we wanted the community [physical not virtual] to come out from behind the closed doors of dorm rooms and offices, and confront the victims and perpetrators of virulent words, to view the tears and anger of the marginalized communities of Wellesley. We even sold tongue-in-cheek t-shirts stating “use your mouth not your fingers” to encourage getting offline and coming together to talk in person.
You were a week long. Discussion took place by the fireplace of Anderson Forum. We had choice titles: “Poor Little Rich Girl,” “Everyone’s A Little bit Racist,” “[Wo]men Who Will,” and “Why Don’t I Have a Cultural Org?” — to discuss loaded topics of class, race, Islamophobia, anti-semitism, white privilege, gender expression, and sexual violence.
It wasn’t easy. Latin@ and black siblings tearfully stood up and talked about being ridiculed in the Ville — our town neighbors not understanding how siblings of color could attend Wellesley. A senior asked a panel of black women why she, a white woman, didn’t have any black friends, as though it was their fault. A trans* student talked about being sexually harassed by fellow students and fetishized — the women of Wellesley focusing on his looks rather than his personhood. A black student leader asked a white student why Wellesley’s choir did not sing any African-American spirituals; why it only focused on European composers (good question Shayla Adams ‘08!). There were many questions and many feelings but not as many answers. It was the beginning of a conversation to which there is no end in sight.
There were tears and screams, anger, and joy. Some left feeling better, some left feeling worse, but overall you were a space for us to be who wanted to be: brave. While it’s mindless and easy to respond, often disrespectfully, to loaded, painful topics online, it takes a certain amount of courage to confront these matters face to face. We learned, we grew, we listened, we yelled, we smiled, and in the end — we celebrated.
We had a party at the end of the week entitled “Come as a Stereotype” at the place where the idea of you was born: the Pub. We drank, danced, and celebrated the idea of embracing one another after months of angst and anger. We even attempted to organize a Peter Pan bus to take us to the infamous Tribe in Boston but alas it failed. But more on that later.
You would not have existed if not for the very special members of CGPC who brought you to life that fall seven years ago: Hannah Ellenson ‘08, Meagan Froemming ‘08, Amy Wang ‘09, Rakeen Mabud ‘09, Rosa Lafer-Sosa ‘09, Alyssa Beauchamp ‘10, Kate Ciurej ‘08, and Emily Randall ‘08.
Those of us who graduated in 2008 learned that you became some what of a tradition. Other College Government Cabinets and Councils created new Culture Shocks in subsequent years and more generations of students came together to keep the conversation going.
Recently, discourse around race and privilege has erupted on Wellesley Alumnae Facebook forums. Unfortunately, these online conversations have demonstrated that there is a dearth of understanding among many alumnae and further that a significant racial tension exists within our global Wellesley community. But because there is no central [physical] space for us to come together from all corners of the world, we have no choice but to have these conversations online. We as alumnae of Wellesley must therefore learn to navigate the difficult terrain of online discourse surrounding charged topics. I have called upon your creators to see if there is a possibility of recreating you in the virtual world- via google hangout— or perhaps there can be mini Culture Shocks for alumnae in various cities. We shall see if these ideas come to fruition.
But in the interim, I want to thank you Culture Shock 2007 — for getting the conversation started, for giving us tools that we didn’t have before, and for teaching us important life lessons when it comes to discussions of difference.
Shelly Anand ‘08