Murray Edwards: leading the way?Wikiemedia: Cmglee

The recent Murray Edwards change in their admissions policy regarding transgender and transitioning students broaches the question of the need for more progressive policies and laws in our society. This has been clearly shown in the case of the young age of transgender or transitioning applicants at Cambridge. Not being a lawyer, my knowledge is somewhat limited. However, as a woman – and hence a member of at least one traditionally juridically under-represented group – the questions of how we make our laws reflect gender realities are some of the most important that our society will face in the upcoming decades.

“Murray Edwards’s decision to revise their application requirements for transgender and transitioning applicants achieves exactly that”

In her 1974 speech on the legalisation of abortion in France, Simone Veil made the perceptive point that law should regulate human relationships in a concrete reality (be they social, political or economic) and not in a void. That is, our law-makers should consider and incorporate genuine experiences. Murray Edwards’s decision to revise their application requirements for transgender and transitioning applicants achieves exactly that – it acknowledges the applicants’ physical realities and the implications of their young age.

The Gender Recognition Act of 2004 which formed the basis for the previous admissions policy requires individuals to be 18 before their gender is legally recognised and to have lived in the acquired gender for two years. This excluded, and continues to exclude in the case of Newnham and Lucy Cavendish, most young transgender applicants from applying to women’s colleges. In overcoming this legislation, Murray Edwards takes a milestone step. By conceding to realities, it allows transgender women to make choices and take control of their private life which will in turn contribute allow them to better contribute to public debate in the future.

Carol Sanger, an expert on these issues at Columbia University, correctly argues that unveiling the secrecy and confusion and allowing for a private narrative of informed choices is a liberating force, in that it ends the discrimination of disadvantaged groups. The countering of social stigma, confusion and secrecy in the public sphere benefits everyone. It allows for informed choices in the private sphere, and strengthens the public case for transgender rights. It has the added benefit of ending a legacy of confused legal statuses in the past. This case highlights the positive role that law and legislators have to play in our social reality. The Abortion Act of 1967, the Gender Recognition Act, the Equality Act of 2010 and the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2014 form a series of legislation that begin to tackle the challenges of discrimination regarding gender and sexuality. Policies like Murray Edwards’s go further in taking into account the concrete realities in which these laws function.

From a different feminist perspective this achieves the deconstruction of traditional gender ideas. The traditional construction of the female gender is experienced as a response to men. Our laws and the state enshrine a female subordination whereby femaleness is defined by men and not women themselves. Radical feminsts like Catharine MacKinnon was a legal pioneer for the criminalization of sexual harassment in the workplace under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the USA, and fought for the inclusion prostitution in war zones as acts of genocide under international law. These are initiatives to reverse the legal definition of female gender in terms of men.

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Murray Edwards revises admissions policy for transgender students


Murray Edwards’s policy, I think, achieves the same – it ends the definition of the female subject merely in opposition to the male. The purpose of female-only colleges in Cambridge is exactly that: to educate women and give them the tools to define their realities. It is therefore only appropriate that it now allows women to themselves define their gender.

Then, of course, there are the influential arguments of the total rejection of gender binaries, and the complete dismantling of the female subject. Coming back to Simone Veils’s point about laws in concrete reality, we are now, in certain acts, adjusting our legal system to free gender from its traditional understandings. And while the Murray Edwards’s policy is a very welcome step, the total dismantling of gender binaries seems thus far a theoretical project

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