To St. Mary’s College
November 27, 2023 by Amy Welborn
It was recently announced that in June 2023, the Catholic, historically women’s college St. Mary’s in South Bend, Indiana, made a change to its admissions policy:
Saint Mary’s College is a Catholic women’s college. Saint Mary’s considers admission for undergraduate applicants whose sex is female or who consistently live and identify as women.
I have no connection to St. Mary’s, nor have I ever been a part of an all female institution. I was never even a Girl Scout. But as a woman, an observer of issues impacting women, both in the present and historically, of matters related to education and the Catholic world, I’m moved to comment.
There are a number of angles from which I could begin to explore this – most of which I’ve covered in my commentary of gender issues over the years – but here, I’ll be more limited. I won’t be commenting on – nor should my words be taken to comment on:
- Any individual’s situation or feelings about their situation
- Any individual or group’s mental or emotional state
- The motivations individuals might have for seeking admission to the college under this new policy
- The relationship of sex and “gender.”
- The already apparent consequences of gender self-identification on women
- The impact of males, including males seeking to identify as female – on female-only spaces, whether that be athletics, domestic violence shelters, medical facilities, political or advocacy organizations or interest and hobby groups
- How St. Mary’s oft-repeated claims about the benefits of an all-female environment are subverted by this policy
- Religion. No, not even religion.
Instead, what I’m challenging you about concerns one simple question:
What does this policy say to women about their identity and personhood?
This new policy is built on the acceptance of self-identification. A person’s sex – and the consequent rights of that person according to law and policy – has nothing to do with biology, but simply with a feeling and a desire.
In short: that being a woman has nothing to do with the embodied experience of being female.
That being a woman is, in fact, a performance.
Is this really the education St. Mary’s intends to give to young women?
That the mystery and fact of their embodied experience as female is secondary to some amorphous claim of “living as?” That their identity as women can be appropriated by human beings with penises and testicles? Just because those people – called males – desire it and claim it?
That in a space historically reserved for women to flourish on their own, they must privilege male desires and experience?
This is a disservice to women – especially young women – in many ways.
First, it is just not true. An individual cannot change sex. She can present herself or think of herself in innumerable permutations of gendered expression, but none of that, even those brought about by the surgical knife or cross-sex hormones, actually change a person’s sex. To suggest as much is to accept an intellectual falsehood.
It might seem simplistic, but it’s a question that must be answered. Is this true – this claim that an aspect of identity rooted in biology can be identified out of or into – true of ethnicity? Age? If I cannot “identify” as a 25-year old Korean…on what basis can I, a woman, “identify” as a male?
Secondly, if it is true that one’s sex is something that can be claimed by “identifying” as that sex, and if that self-identifying claim then must be the basis of how one is treated by law, policy and society, perhaps we should try telling that to:
- The women and girls who, throughout history and in the present, have been vulnerable to male violence – which is all of us. Could we not, when threatened, simply hold up a hand and say, “Please. You’re mistaken. I don’t identify as a woman. Take that male-pattern violence-against-women elsewhere.”
- The women whose rights to own property, to move freely in society, to vote, to be educated have been restricted throughout history and in the present. Should they, all along, simply “identified” as male to solve this problem?
It’s too bad women couldn’t have figured out this clever solution to historical prejudice and oppression before now, isn’t it?
Are these scenarios ridiculous? Of course they are. And we know this because we know that being a woman is more than appearance, performance or the desire to be seen as a member of this sex. It just is.
So in the end, it is a great – even astonishing, perhaps even shocking – disservice to women to teach them that their embodied experience is irrelevant to their identity as women.
Because that is what this policy communicates. It communicates that there can be a “woman” who is not actually female. Which then means that “woman” is nothing more than desire and performance.
It is deeply disrespectful to the realities, complexities and mystery – and the painful beauty – of women’s lives. It’s an act, quite frankly, of capitulation to an understanding of womanhood based on externalities, which means, in essence, stereotypes. It expresses an expectation that women will – once again – repress their own instincts and self-understanding for the sake of male – dare I say, male privilege.
There is no “progress” here. It is regressive. It is misogynistic. It is deeply disrespectful to the lived experiences of women and girls who, unlike any other group on the planet, have identities that apparently can now be appropriated and colonized at will while they are told, once again, to just “be nice.”