Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Ethics of Cohabitation and Women’s Colleges

During the question and answer portion of the last lecture, a student asked Judith Butler to expand on what an ethics of cohabitation might look like at a women’s college/single-sex institution like Bryn Mawr. Butler first explained that there was an inherent issue with the question—it asks one to assume that what being a “woman” is, or what being the “same sex” is, is some universally shared definition. She then moved on to say that when we talk about cohabitation in any community, we have to have a flexible, dynamic understanding of how that community functions. Butler says that any institution “has to be porous”—as people move in and out of communities, we have to allow “porosity” because that’s what “cohabitation is all about.”

I think, in practice, Bryn Mawr is a “porous” community. While we remain, in name, a women’s college, we that constitute the community demonstrate that the definition of “women” is not a strict category, but rather one whose bounds are constantly expanding and shifting. As Butler explained in her “Imitation and Gender Insubordination” piece, it’s okay to gather under a sign, as long as we share an understanding that that category isn’t fixed. However, gathering under the sign of “women” might be problematic because not everyone shares the same understanding of the bounds of those categories under which we collect. Problems can also arise when one is told that they belong under a sign, effectively being hailed as a gender with which one does not identify. What does cohabitation look like at a women’s college when not everyone who attends that college identifies as a woman? What does cohabitation look like at a women’s college when community members identify as men?

When activist and artist Kate Bornstein came to campus back in 2010, she challenged us to consider what we call single-sex institutions. Women’s colleges were founded to provide an education for those who had previously been denied access to institutions because of their gender; if we live in a time and place where others besides women are experiencing precarity because of their gender and/or sexuality, then might it be productive and inclusive to officially change women’s colleges into women and gender minorities’ colleges? Such changes would allow for gender minorities to appear, becoming recognized and given an institutionally-sanctioned space to occupy; would such changes help contribute to an ethics of cohabitation?

Based on what I’ve read of Butler over the course of this blogging, I would imagine that the names and labels themselves aren’t as important as our actions. In practice, I think Bryn Mawr is an inclusive community, and our campus is engaged with asking ourselves how we can continue to be so. The community now appears very differently than the community 100 years ago; the ethnic, socioeconomic, and sexual makeup of the campus is more diverse than previous generations, demonstrating an ability for Bryn Mawr to be “porous.” Our community is constantly becoming, and we have to continue to ask what kind of institution we will become as we examine—and put into practice—how to remain inclusive and receptive to evaluating the boundaries of our categories.

One Comment

  1. Mary–good thinking! And good interweaving of Butler’s ideas about appearing, porosity and precarity. I am very proud of Bryn Mawr when I read your assessment of us, and I agree that labels are less valuable than our actions.