Press "Enter" to skip to content

Staff Editorial: Scientific understanding of sex and gender has evolved, and Mills needs to catch up

Edited, original image courtesy of Wikimedia

Our understanding of sex and gender has come a long way in recent decades, as well as our understanding of the power that teaching about it carries. Teaching outdated ideas of sex and gender is a tool in the pedagogy of oppression. This is in part why the fight for LGBTQ rights and acceptance has come for academia, a place often thought of as a liberal echo chamber but which can, in reality, become a breeding ground for outdated, essentialist sentiment, particularly in the sciences. Fortunately, institutions of higher education continually concede to pressure from activists to acknowledge that the idea of teaching hard, unbiased truth in the sciences is unattainable as long as the ruling class gets to dictate what is truth and what is fiction. 

We live in what has been referred to as a “post-truth era,” but the nature of the truth has long bent to the will of white, male capitalists. To teach honestly about sociological topics of race, class, gender and sexuality “is a political act because, depending on the perspective from which one teaches, sociology can either reaffirm or critique so it is only recently that such a framing of academia has become mainstream.” This assertion comes from Catherine White Berheide and Marcia Texler Segal in their 1985 journal article, “Teaching Sex and Gender: A Decade of Experience.” 

To fairly teach sex and gender in any subject requires a critique, Berheide and Segal write, in which “Science is viewed as a tool of the ruling class unless the underclass seizes it and uses it in its own interests. What is claimed to be objective science is only science done by and for people who have the power to camouflage their trail. All science embodies value positions; even scientific method is value laden. Therefore, sociology of and for an underclass requires different methods, theories, techniques-not just different subjects of study.”

Teaching traditional science within a progressive institution isn’t enough. The sciences must be consciously taught as an antidote to oppression.

It has been nearly three decades since Berheide and Segal’s declaration — and still, higher education institutions continue to make performative gestures of support for sexual and gender diversity while withholding feminist and queer pedagogies from their classrooms, particularly in non-humanities subjects. 

Even Mills College, a hub for queer students in the Bay Area, has failed on this front. Mills College still uses gendered language in some settings, hosts not nearly enough gender-neutral bathrooms, uses a reductive admissions policy that denies admission to some potential nonbinary students and discussion of trans issues in the classroom is still lacking. While Mills’ women’s, gender and sexuality studies (WGSS) has many courses that specialize in nuanced discussions of sex and gender, other classes have fallen behind the curve. In non-WGSS humanities classes, students report professors using outdated language like “transgendered,” as well as being slow to correct themselves when they misgender students. 

STEM courses fare far worse, with teachers falling into gender-essentialist rhetoric in discussions of biology. Even when professors succeed in differentiating sex from gender, some still cling to the outdated male/female sexual dichotomy. While an understanding of gender as fluid has continued to spread throughout mainstream academia, the same cannot be said for an understanding of sex. Students report professors simply replacing the term “woman” with the term “female,” seemingly failing to realize that sex, as well as gender, is a social construct; to switch the intellectual framework of essentialism from gender to sex is ignorant at best and unapologetically antiquated at worst. Other students report professors quickly showing a slide explaining that gender is a spectrum in an attempt to compensate for the consistent use of essentialist rhetoric. 

Sex and gender are both social constructs, only in different ways. The outdated idea that most of us are familiar with — that there are only males and females, the former with penises and the latter without — is what Dr. Saray Ayala and Dr. Nadya Vasilyeva refer to as “the naive view” in their work “Extended Sex: An Account of Sex for a More Just Society.” Extended sex, a potential name for the most up-to-date model of sex, is the idea “that the boundaries of skin are not the boundaries of sex.”

As Dr. Ayala and Dr. Vasilyeva explain, “This appeal to flexibility and variability is based not on the socially constructed nature of sex properties, but on a natural capacity of biological organisms to continuously and actively manipulate the boundaries of their biological properties to better fit their needs. In the same way as some of our cognitive processes should not be defined exclusively by inside‐the‐head mechanisms, sex should not be defined exclusively by inside‐the‐skin features. This allows for as many different sex‐profiles as there are ways to incorporate external resources into our body for different tasks.”

Yes, it’s a little complicated; it’s complicated because it challenges our long-taught, simple understanding of sex, but it is an incredibly enlightening idea once understood.

For those who prefer their explanations in video form, YouTuber and writer Riley J. Dennis has a concise video on the subject: 

Suffice it to say, Mills still has a long way to go in conceding to the truth about sex and gender. While Mills has made great strides in the past years to become the hub for queer and trans students it is today, it is still lacking. The Mills song, “Fires of Wisdom,” speaks exclusively in gendered, ‘sisterly’ terms, and there is still a dearth of gender-neutral bathrooms on campus.

What’s more, the school’s admission policy for nonbinary students in the undergraduate program only allows nonbinary people who identify themselves as female or who were assigned female at birth to apply, which makes somewhat transparent the rigidity at the core of Mills’ policies regarding gender.

The policy reads thus: “Students who self-identify as female are eligible to apply for undergraduate admission. This includes students who were not assigned to the female sex at birth, but live and identify as women at the time of application. It also includes students who are legally assigned to the female sex, but who identify as transgender or gender fluid.”

Mills was the first historically women’s college to have a transgender admittance policy in 2014, but six years later, it seems that Mills has instead fallen behind on the same issue. Only admitting nonbinary students who were “legally assigned to the female sex,” is offensive in multiple ways. It reveals an unwillingness to accommodate a nonbinary identity by attempting to define nonbinary people (members of a gender identity outside of the binary genders) by a binary sex. The policy, by allowing only nonbinary students assigned female at birth, contributes to and limits the understanding of nonbinary students at historically women’s colleges as “women-lite,” or just as women who may prefer gender neutral pronouns. If Mills College understood and respected what it means to be nonbinary, they would allow all nonbinary students to attend regardless of their sex assigned at birth. Even though it is admirable that Mills has attempted to consider nonbinary students, it is contradictory both to what it means to be nonbinary and to Mills’ social justice values to deny admission to nonbinary students based on the sex they were assigned in a binary medical system.

Mills’ failings regarding trans issues are significant, even without considering the outdated and offensive rhetoric that sometimes makes its way into the classroom. Social justice is at the core of Mills’ mission, and as every Mills student probably knows, “The personal is political.” But the transphobia that still lingers at Mills begs the question: how can we bring justice to the world if we do not first bring it to our classrooms?