Mount Holyoke College for women tells professors to avoid the word 'women'

Elise Solé

Mount Holyoke, a women’s college in Massachusetts, is discouraging professors from using the word “women.”

The code of conduct was issued by the school in a document titled, “Supporting Trans and Non-Binary Students” from the college’s Teaching and Learning Initiative, a hub for student-centered teaching.

Mount Holyoke College, an all-women’s school in Massachusetts, is discouraging the use of the word “women” to address its students in class. (Photo: Getty Images)
Mount Holyoke College, an all-women’s school in Massachusetts, is discouraging the use of the word “women” to address its students in class. (Photo: Getty Images)

Here are the suggestions professors may follow:

  • When discussing the student body, say “Mount Holyoke students” rather than “Mount Holyoke women.”

  • Avoid making statements like “We’re all women here…” or referring to “the two genders.”

  • Invite your students to let you know if you misgender them, so that you can avoid doing so in the future.

  • Use gender-neutral language whenever possible, but certainly in your syllabus and other general written communication.

  • Whenever possible, avoid making assumptions. For example, don’t assume someone is or isn’t a MHC student based on your perception of their gender.

  • Relatedly, avoid making assumptions about how students experience their own genders, even if they’ve named a particular identity.

  • When writing letters of recommendation or any other official communication about a student (especially students who’ve come out to you as trans or gender-nonconforming or non-binary), write a quick email to ensure that you’re using the correct name and/or pronoun for that context.

  • A good rule of thumb: If you’re not sure, ask!

The guidelines were put in place in 2017 to prevent students from being subject to various forms of “disrespect” — for example, when professors mispronounce students’ names or misgender them. “Students who are worried about not being treated with respect can’t concentrate on what we’re saying,” the guidelines state.

“We want to be respectful of our students, and not all may identify as women,” Keely Savoie, interim director of media relations at Mount Holyoke, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “The guidance is for professors navigating the landscape of students whose genders they can’t determine on their own accord.”

Savoie also sent Yahoo Lifestyle a statement from Mount Holyoke’s acting president, Sonya Stephens, which read:

“As we know, not every Mount Holyoke student identifies as a woman. But every student at Mount Holyoke has the right to live and learn in an inclusive environment that is free from hostility and respectful of their identity. We are deeply committed to this belief — and to all of our students.

“To this end, Mount Holyoke’s Teaching and Learning Initiative recently provided classroom guidance to faculty on respectful ways to address students. The values that guide our community are not well understood by all, as evidenced by the recent attention we have received from a variety of websites and news outlets, and by the ensuing correspondence and comments on social media. Today, as a result of this attention, you may even have seen news crews on campus.

“We understand that holding these values — and standing by them — often comes at a price, especially in an age of viral sound bites. But we will not shy away from upholding and defending our values, or from advocating for the identities expressed by all members of our community.”

In February, similar guidelines were put in place at Purdue University in Lafayette, Ind., when the school’s Online Writing Lab, a research and writing resource, discouraged gender-based language. Instead, it suggested swapping “humanity” or “people” for “mankind,” “coordinator” for “chairman,” and “mail carrier” for “mailman.”

“Reducing gendered language is a good thing, because it increases inclusivity,” Christia Brown, PhD, a professor of developmental and social psychology at the University of Kentucky and the author of Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

A study published in February in the journal Pediatrics found that almost 3 percent of teens (in Minnesota) did not identify with “boy” or “girl” labels. According to the American Psychological Association, nonbinary people make up 25 to 35 percent or more of transgender populations. The organization also notes, “The lack of cultural visibility of non-binary identities may make the identity development process more difficult for non-binary individuals.”

Mount Holyoke’s guidelines have run into some backlash on Twitter from commentators who have labeled them “PC crap” and “laughable.” However, Brown says sensitive terminology benefits everyone. “Gendered language enforces gender stereotypes for both those who do, and don’t, fit typical identities,” she says.

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