Barnard President Debora Spar discussed with students whether Barnard should admit transgender women at a Monday night fireside chat that focused on different definitions of feminism.
Students gathered in the Ella Weed Room of Milbank Hall and spoke about the challenges of the “beauty standard” that pervades the mass media, the tendency for women to judge one another’s decisions and priorities when it comes to choosing to have children or a career—or both—and whether Barnard should start admitting transgender students who identify as women.
“As a women’s college many would argue is a feminist institution in its essence, what does that mean for the position of trans men who are on campus?” Anna Svibruck, BC ’14, said at the fireside chat. “Or for trans women who aren’t allowed to apply to Barnard?”
Spar said it was a great question and wanted to hear how the students in the room felt.
Several students said Barnard should accept students who identify as women but are not legally female on government forms.
“It was the first time I’ve had to think about it,” Yadira Capaz, BC ’17, said after the meeting, adding that it was rewarding to have that conversation with Spar present.
“She seemed noddingly accepting of it,” Capaz said.
Svibruck said that one of the reasons she came to Barnard was for its inclusivity and acceptance of individuals who don’t conform to the gender binary.
“You don’t walk through that door with the assumption that everyone here is going to identify as a woman,” Svibruck said.
Conversation also focused around critiquing today’s beauty standard.
“In order to be powerful, a woman must be beautiful,” Capaz said.
Emily Jones, BC ’17, agreed.
“In terms of beauty, I’m not saying men don’t feel pressured to look a certain way, but it’s not the same. Outside of beauty, women have the pressure to not only be beautiful but also exceed,” she said.
Spar said that expectations for women have gotten increasingly tougher over time.
“There’s an expectation of excellence across the board. And we haven’t gotten rid of the old expectations. If you pick up any magazine, you get the beauty standard, the thin standard, and the homemaker standard too,” Spar said. “Somehow you have to get some of these expectations off the tale or we’re all going to kill ourselves.”
During the hour-long event, the conversation often turned to the tendency for women to criticize other women for the life choices they make. Another frequent question was whether women of different racial and economic backgrounds can find unity through feminism.
One student mentioned Columbia University V-Day’s recent announcement that this year’s production of “The Vagina Monologues” would feature only self-identified women of color. She then raised the question of whether feminism is discriminatory.
Anna Bahr, BC ’14, raised a similar point.
“I increasingly struggle with and wonder about the relevance of feminism as a unifying movement for all women,” Bahr said.
Spar responded by saying that unity through feminism is a difficult task.
“It’s hard for anything to be a unifying force for 51 percent of the entire population. It’s a lot of people,” Spar said.
“We need to recapture the word choice,” she added. “If you recall early feminism, it was mostly about reproductive choice. I think the whole notion of choice needs to be refurbished. … As a gender, we have a tendency to judge other women’s choices.”
Malini Riddle, BC ’17, said after the chat that it’s important to remember to appreciate differences in feminism.
“We all have different backgrounds and definitions for feminism and we have to respect that,” she said.