This article is a part of a series written by the Culture staff of the HPR. It is the product of discussion and debate at our weekly meetings, and reflects the opinions of the members present.
Nigerian author and LGBT activist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has become an icon in recent years. Her 2009 TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story” has over 12,000,000 views, and her more recent talk 0n feminism was sampled in Beyonce’s popular song “Flawless.”
Recently, Adichie has been criticized for making comments about transgender identity. In a March 10 interview with Britain’s Channel 4 News, Adichie said, “My feeling is trans women are trans women.” Critics argue that in her comment Adichie excludes trans women from the category of “real women.”
Although we agree that Adichie’s comments were somewhat insensitive, we believe that she was trying to express a more inclusive kind of feminism. She later clarified her point in a Facebook post: “Perhaps I should have said trans women are trans women and cis women are cis women and all are women.” Adichie is arguing for intersectionality, saying that the differences in female identity and experience should be acknowledged but not excluded from a broader womanhood.
We agree with Adichie that womanhood and female identity is intersectional. Being a woman is not a singular experience. This part of the discussion was easy—when it came to the institutionalization of these beliefs, however, the conversation became more difficult. Women’s colleges like Wellesley have to form policies about whom they consider to be women. These institutions have to wrestle with gender identity to make rules that are fair for everyone, and that align with their mission of promoting women-only spaces.
To take one example: How should Wellesley respond to students who transition from female to male during their time there? What should a women’s college do if a man who was born a woman applies for admission? On the one hand, to admit the student would be to challenge his male identity, providing disproportionate weight to his born sex. On the other, that student may feel like the environment of a women’s college is the best place for them to grow academically. We were torn on the implications of these policies. For the record, Wellesley decided not to admit trans men but allows enrolled students who transition from female to male to stay.
We also talked at length about trans women enrolled in women’s colleges. A female student who transitioned from male at age 16, for example, would not have the same experience of womanhood as many of her peers. There are some conversations—like discrimination in the workplace—that the student could contribute to, but as a trans woman she wouldn’t be able to experience certain issues first-hand, like being denied an abortion. However, to exclude the student from admission would deny her gender identity. On this issue, we agreed that the student should be considered for admission, because different gender experiences enrich the overall learning environment.
At the core, our disagreement stemmed from the individual’s experience before transitioning. Before transitioning to female, does a trans woman have male privilege? Adichie argues yes, but transgender activist Laverne Cox argues otherwise. This argument is critical for a school like Wellesley, which defines itself today as a place of shared female experience. Male privilege does not fit into that definition. Fundamentally, the argument is impossible to resolve—different individuals have different experiences of the world, and that is difficult to account for in a broad gender policy. We don’t see a one-size-fits-all solution to this problem.
What we agree on is this: there is a broad spectrum of experience within womanhood, and that spectrum should be celebrated. When Adichie argues that we should acknowledge differences in our histories, while affirming the identity of all, she is laying out the kind of feminism we should all strive toward.
This week’s CulturEd was written by staff writer Drew Pendergrass. Hadley DeBello, Chloe Lemmel-Hay, Russell Reed, and Matthew Shaw contributed to the discussion.
Image Credit: Flickr/Colin Patterson (Commonwealth Foundation)