Checking the Box
On Barnard’s continued use of gendered language.
By Kelsey Kitzke
“I remember having a really intense time checking that box,” said Zo Bly, BC ’22, recalling applying to Barnard as a high school student. “I wanted to be at Barnard so badly that I sort of strong-armed myself into being like, ‘Yeah, I can check that box, that’s fine.’” The box Bly was referring to is a requirement on Barnard’s application that asks applicants to “affirm that they consistently live and identify as a woman.” While at the time Bly was still identifying as a woman, they had already begun thinking about the possibility that they were not. “It felt like sort of a formality, but more like a condition, where I was like, ‘Okay, this is the condition I have to adhere to in order to be able to go to a school that I want to go to.’”
This phrasing—“consistently live and identify as a woman”—and that checkbox were added to Barnard’s application after the board of trustees announced a historic policy change to their admissions process in June 2015. The change finally brought the school in line with its peer women’s colleges by welcoming trans women into its new admissions class. The board’s official policy change announcement emphasizes how this shift updated Barnard’s understanding of gender without dislodging its fundamental identity:
In furtherance of our mission, tradition, and values as a women’s college, and in recognition of our changing world and evolving understanding of gender identity, Barnard will consider for admission those applicants who consistently live and identify as women, regardless of the gender assigned to them at birth. We will also continue to use gendered language that reflects our identity as a women’s college.
This last sentence folds an abiding commitment to “gendered language” into Barnard’s affirmation of trans identity in its admissions process. The board of trustees deemed this sentiment important enough to justify the addition of the checkbox to the application—added without the knowledge of student activists. The certification requires students to actively gender themselves, making the condition Bly felt when applying fairly explicit: If an applicant wants to be a Barnard student, they have to be a Barnard woman. And once admitted to Barnard, they will spend the next four years (and beyond) being referred to by their school as “women,” and “daughters,” “shes” and “hers” on the school’s website and in direct emails to students, parents, and alums.
Now it’s 2021. The first class to apply to Barnard under the amended admissions policy graduated a year ago, and every current Barnard student has checked the box that asks them to certify that they “consistently live and identify as a woman.” But anyone who has spent time among Barnard students knows that this totalizing understanding of gender identity doesn’t reflect the realities of the student population. Of course, Barnard has many students who are not cisgender women and who do not use she/her pronouns. In this context, Barnard’s use of gendered language to refer to the student body can feel less like self-identification as a women’s college and more like determination to be a college full of women. For many Barnard students, this policy provokes questions about one’s identity as an individual within the larger group: Where do I fit within a school set on identifying as a community of women when I am not a woman? At what point does the identity of the community erase the identity of an individual?
In December 2020, at the end of the college’s first fully remote semester, Mo Russell Leed, BC ’22 and former Student Government Association representative to the board of trustees, prepared a presentation to the board on the use of gendered language in Barnard communications. They and their fellow SGA representative to the board, Chelsea Sinclair, BC ’21, wanted to push the board away from the kind of hyper-feminine language that covers Barnard materials: “women in STEM,” “Barnard women,” and direct communications addressing students as “Ms,” to name a few. “It feels unnecessary. When you step back and look at the way gender is brought into language in terms of Barnard communication, there’s so much more gender in the language than there needs to be,” Russell Leed said. “I don’t need an honorific. I’m your student!”
Sinclair and Russell Leed wanted to introduce a way for Barnard to be more inclusive in how it presents itself on campus and beyond: “Everyone that comes into contact with Barnard is going to see our website, what we say about ourselves, what we say about our students, and it’s important that that’s as inclusive as possible,” said Russell Leed. Their research found that Barnard’s language fell in “the more conservative range” in their language and admissions policy when compared to other historically women’s colleges: “A lot of them have statements of inclusion and statements in support of their trans students on their website. We have nothing like that on our website,” Russell Leed said. Instead, Barnard’s mention of trans inclusion at the school is on their “Transgender Policy” page under the admissions policy, which mentions that Barnard only accepts applications from students who “consistently live and identify as women,” but adds that students who transition while at Barnard “will receive the individualized support that is an essential part of the Barnard experience.”
Board members had mixed reactions to Russell Leed’s presentation: “[For] some, it was the first they heard of this being an issue,” they said. Much of the board graduated from Barnard decades earlier, when “What is a ‘women’s college’?” was not a question. When the question was finally brought to their attention during the 2015 admissions policy change, most thought they had resolved it. It was just a few years ago that the board explicitly reiterated their commitment to the continued use of feminine language “that reflects our identity as a women’s college.” 2020 board members responded not necessarily by resisting gender-neutral language, but by committing to the existing language: “They weren’t saying, ‘No, we don’t like gender-neutral language,’” Russell Leed explained. “It was just like, ‘We like maintaining the tradition of Barnard as a women’s college, we don’t want to lose that history. If this could jeopardize that, we want to be very careful about what we’re doing here.’”
For many, particularly for alums, jeopardizing Barnard’s identity as a women’s college would not just mean losing a “tradition” or “history,” but also a fundamental reason for Barnard’s existence. It is easy to dismiss differing opinions on gendered language as simply generational—a question of which wave of feminism overlapped with your time at Barnard—but some alums have much deeper feelings on the matter, as Dylan Kapit, BC ’16 and a longtime advocate for trans and nonbinary students, is quick to point out. During Kapit’s time at Barnard, they worked on many policies to make Barnard a better place for trans and nonbinary students: In addition to advocating for the 2015 admissions policy change, they pushed professors to ask for pronouns and preferred names. Kapit has continued working with Barnard as an alum; they are currently a paid consultant advising Barnard on how to make the school a more welcoming environment for trans students.
In this role, Kapit straddles two worlds: They talk both with students “who cannot take the perspective of why a women’s college is necessary for a lot of the alumni, or why certain language really matters,” and an alumni community who have many “big feelings” about the central importance of women-centric spaces. “It’s been very interesting for me because I really understand a lot of these feelings,” Kapit said. “Misogyny exists, and there are reasons that women’s only spaces still exist and there are reasons it is cool to see ‘she’ in something.” These alums hold that there’s power in the explicit inclusion of women when women were once explicitly (and now implicitly) excluded. Where maleness once dominated language use and the default of personhood was “he” and “him,” using “she” or a “her” holds space for women they have long been denied. “The Barnard community writ large uses she/her pronouns,” Kapit said. “That does not mean you should be misgendered in individual communication, but it does mean that the majority of your peers are being gendered correctly for the first time in correspondence. And that’s a huge deal.”
In that framing, community identity may seem like a tyranny of the majority, a simple numbers game where the collective sets the language for the rest. But true community is not a top-down operation in which identity is disseminated from an institution to individuals, but one that stitches individuals to one another so the experience of one affects that of the whole. Hana Rivers, BC ’20, is a fellow at Barnard’s Center for Engaged Pedagogy, where she worked on the center’s newest guide for gender inclusivity in the classroom. She offered a more practical way to approach these conversations: “What if we thought less about what gender inclusivity signifies as a whole and more about the individual impact?” asked Rivers. This guide on approaches to gender inclusivity in the classroom offers advice on a wide range of language use, from asking for personal pronouns to using gender-neutral words to describe the student body. Although she acknowledged the broader conservation of feminine identity at Barnard, ultimately, Rivers said, this is about ensuring that “individual students [feel] valued and respected and empowered.”
For Elysa Caso-McHugh, BC ’23, their experience as a nonbinary Barnard student under the school’s gendered language has been one of erasure: “It’s very alienating because you don’t feel like you’re being recognized as a part of campus and a part of the community,” they said. Caso-McHugh also described how Barnard’s gendered language adds to their sense of gender dysphoria, saying that “even if it’s not directly someone misgendering me ... misgendering the identity of the campus means you’re, in turn, being misgendered.” Bly described an even more fundamental effect on their personal identity during their first two years at Barnard due to the school’s insistence on its identity as a women’s college: “I was like, ‘Fine, this is where I am. I’m at a women’s college, I will be a woman.’” And would a gender-neutral Barnard—a historically women’s college that addressed their students as “people” instead of “women” and “theys” instead of “shes”—have changed their experience of the school? “Without question,” Bly said, “that would make all the difference.”
The great irony of this conversation about rendering explicit the “woman”-hood of historically women’s colleges is that they have always been full of non-women. Recent developments in cultural understanding and the growing mainstream acceptance and knowledge of nonbinary gender identities mean that we have new language to describe a group of people that has always been present. For Barnard, that new language has forced a reckoning with the old. So, too, have individual identities forced a reckoning for community identity. At Barnard, the official story is still that community equals womanhood, no matter how much that resonates with individual students.
But more than being women-centered spaces, Barnard and other historically women’s colleges have always been havens from patriarchy. Because of that, these schools have and will always be places where gender nonconformity and challenges to binary gender expression can grow and blossom. “It gives you the ability to think of yourself as somebody outside of the patriarchy,” Caso-McHugh said. “For some people, that means getting a Barnard chop or it means realizing that you don’t feel aligned with womanhood itself.” No matter how Barnard chooses to define itself or its students, the school will inevitably be home to many who complicate or reject its conceptions of womanhood. Barnard’s community was created to center the radical individual, not relegate it to a subclause.