“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). This fundamental aspect of our nature has been under attack more in recent history than ever before. A YouTube video about a transgender 5-year-old named Ryland, which went viral earlier this year, brought to light just how prominent this issue is. This video, which was made by Ryland’s parents, described how Ryland was born a girl and, at the age of 5, desired to be a boy. The parents relented, and have been lauded by many LGBT organizations. Ryland is not the only one to present quandaries about sexual identities to the public. Institutes of higher learning have been grappling with gender issues for decades. Recently, one institution in particular, in this new era of gender-free pronouns and political correct inclusivity, asks us to consider what it means to an “all women’s college”.
Wellesley College, an all-women institution, boasts many well-known alumnae, including Hillary Rodham Clinton, Madeline Korbel Albright, Diane Sawyer and Nora Ephron, just to name a few. Wellesley, which is west of Boston located in it’s own breath-taking college town, was founded in 1870 by a couple who believed that the education of women was integral to American society. Even if women were to stay in the home, they believed, their education would produce more articulate children. Well into to the mid-twentieth century, Wellesley maintained the assumption that many of its alumnae would graduate to get married and stay home with their children. The 2003 film Mona Lisa Smile portrays Wellesley College in the 1950s as being a place where women would frequently take time off school to get married as a matter of course. Today, however, even the idea of what exactly it means to be considered a woman, is being questioned at Wellesley.
While it is no surprise that Wellesley, which has become increasingly liberal since the days portrayed in Mona Lisa Smile, would embrace those who live within the LGBT community, one can easily argue that their extreme openness has compromised their integrity as an all women’s college. Wellesley’s student life web page says, “Wellesley is committed to providing a safe and supportive environment for its lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, and intersex students.” The number of transgender men (people born female who later identify as male) at Wellesley is increasing. A recent New York Times article describes how Timothy, a “transgender man”, ran for office on student council, for the multicultural affairs coordinator position. However, an anonymous student, using Facebook, lobbied her fellow students to vote “abstain” for the election. Enough “abstain” votes would require the position to go a revote. The reason for this controversy was simple; the last person who should to representing diversity, the anonymous student argued, is a white “man”.
But why would someone who identifies as a man even be allowed to attend a college for women? It begs the larger question: what is gender, anyway? Some of the transgender students have admitted that they do not feel as though they belong at Wellesley, but others remain because it is a safer place for them to be than a coeducational institution. They, however, have worked tirelessly to change Wellesley’s use of feminine pronouns, saying that it is insensitive to those who identify as male. A tradition of Wellesley College is to sing America, the Beautiful, which was written by an alumna, at graduation. Part of the tradition has been to replace “and crown Thy good with brotherhood” to “and crown Thy Good with sisterhood.” Recently, however, sisterhood was labeled insensitive by the transgender students. The solution? “And crown Thy good with siblinghood.”
Modern definitions of gender, which one could previously assume was more than a little bit self-explanatory, have taken on a much more progressive tone. Be gone the days of simple “female” and “male”, and welcome to the days of “third gender” “two-spirited” and “queer heterosexuality.” When the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which psychiatrists and psychologists use to diagnose mental disorders, came out with a new edition in 2013, these newer titles are now considered to be confirmed by science. The previous edition of the DSM listed a condition called “Gender Identity Disorder,” or GID. The 2013 edition changed the name of this disorder to “Gender Dysphoria,” stating that only if the inclination to be identified as a different sex is an unwanted desire can it be considered a disorder. So, if a person was born female and is happy to embrace life as a male, the latest edition of the DSM would say, that no disorder is present.
For single-sex education, sexual ambiguity or so-called “gender dysphoria” presents a problem. Many transgender men appear to be men in every way. The hormone therapy they ingest makes their shoulders broad, their pelvises narrow, their voices deep and their hair thick and coarse. In many ways, they have abandoned the femininity that they were born with. Furthermore, in the case of Wellesley at least, their lack of conformity has even forced the college to change some of it’s traditions and abandon the use of the feminine pronouns when referring to the student body at a college that, from the beginning, has been solely for women.
A 1986 article in the Journal of Educational Psychology, by Valerie E. Lee and Anthony S. Bryk which looked at the advantages of single-sex education, said that the studies “results indicate that single-sex schools deliver specific advantages to their students, especially female students.” Today, there are 50 colleges in America that identify as women-only, when at one time, the number was 300. Rebekah Poyo, a 2014 graduate of one of the remaining all-women colleges, Meredith College, which is in North Carolina said, “At Meredith, they were all about strengthening women to go strong today and always. With the smaller classroom size, they are able to teach students to truly understand the knowledge and to receive the best education they can… Not having males on campus allowed students to focus on their education…”
Pope Saint John Paul II’s 1995 Letter to Women (Mulieris Dignitatem) says, “Here I cannot fail to express my admiration for those women of good will who have devoted their lives to defending the dignity of womanhood…” As Catholics, we must work to continue to fight for the rights of women (and men!) without pandering to these new social “norms.” What is happening at Wellesley is unfortunately not going to be an anomaly and gender ambiguity is an issue we will deal with for the rest of our lives. While I do not want to undermine the struggles that those with gender dysphoria go through, forcing tradition and integrity to change for one’s own agenda is problematic. Women’s colleges have fought for years to educate and therefore liberate women. Those who do not identify as women but yet choose to attend these institutions should, at the very least, respect and embrace this mission.
Visiting a dear friend in New York City a few weeks ago, a smile stretched across my face when, nearing the door of her apartment, I saw a giant blue rattle sign taped to the door. “It’s a Boy!” it boasted. Clutching the gifts I brought my new “nephew”, tears filled my eyes when I saw him for the first time. Gender is one of the first and fundamental aspects of our identities. Male and female, He created us in His own image. While many may try to complicate or distort this, we know through faith, nature and reason, that very basic fact remains true.