By Anna Ley
One of Cambridge University’s three women-only colleges, Murray Edwards, will now admit transgender students who identify as female. Formally necessitating its applicants to be “legally defined as females,” Murray Edwards College has adopted a progressive approach towards gender identity through its admission of anyone who may ‘identify’ as female, though they may not be of female biological sex.
This acknowledgment of the differences between biological sex and gendered selfhood makes manifest the inability of archaic definitions and mere birth certificate labelling to dramatise the complexities of the reality of gender identification.
Bypassing the sexed label that features on the applicant’s birth certificate, Murray Edwards can be seen to be breaking down the binary of a dichotomous and essentialist stance on gender that assumes we each possess certain characteristics that make us either of the male or female category. Instead, such change in policy continues with the conditionalist current running through today’s research into gender distinction in which gender has no prerequisites.
This progressive shift in admissions policy is also inclusive of those who identify themselves as neither gender, ensuring that those falling through the gaps of society’s net of gender normality are given equal educational opportunities. Subsequently, the decision has been applauded by gender diversity support charity, Mermaid, for its “accepting and embracing of all young women.”
Elevating the elusive nature of gender identity and encouraging an expansive approach to gender labelling, this advancement in the admissions process follows the rhythm of academic research as it steers away from the stringent biological sex differences that legally define us as male or female.
Yet not everyone took to the decision with such kindness. Newham College lecturer Germaine Greer denounced the college’s decision to enlist transgender women as a “silly situation,” telling the Daily Telegraph that it was a “ridiculous” decision which dampens its sixty-three years of history as a single-sex college. Greer pointed out that if they “really don’t believe that gender is a binary, then they really shouldn’t be a single-sex college”; in order to promote gender as a continuous spectrum, the only “sane” option would be to “cease discriminating on the basis of assigned gender of any kind.”
However, as a college that favours one sex over another, is it still endorsing the very dichotomous “narrow gender identities” that the college’s council and president Dame Barbara Stocking have said in an official college statement they are keen to dissolute for fear of their destructive consequences for “wider society”.
At a time of enthusiasm for gender equality, it seems quite unfair for a collection of gender identities to be favoured over any other in the pooling process of Cambridge admissions. As students rightly rant on about on forum sites such as The Student Room, this university should “champion equality,” and be the anchor of gender egalitarianism. However, while it remains a segregated college, it will continue to drive the dichotomous approach to gender that society is desperately pulling away from.
Breaking boundaries with its ground-breaking discoveries, Cambridge University is an institution that should be at the forefront of innovative advancements evolving alongside changing societal attitudes.
While this step is definitely progressive, its distinct and divided essence with entry based on solely female-identification, no matter how they define the term female, is bound to the very binary they claim they are trying to break through.
Photograph: sadsid96 via Flickr and Creative Commons