Defining “Woman” at Women’s Colleges

By Megan Nanney and David L. Brunsma

Who can attend a women’s college? While it may seem like the answer is obvious—women can go to a college for women—these institutions of higher learning continually face the challenge of defining who qualifies as a woman. Is a woman defined by her sex? Gender identity? Legal status? Must a woman’s sex/gender/legal status align or can they differ?

Institutions such as women’s colleges depend on the use of gender categories in order to define their very existence—they need to be able to somehow determine who a “woman” is in order to be a college for women. As gender is increasingly understood to be fluid and socially constructed rather than a stable biological fact, however, being able to define who a woman is becomes increasingly more difficult. Consequently, with new ideas of who a woman is, these colleges now must find new ways to define the “woman” in the “women’s college.”

Figure 1. Barnard College, 1913. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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