Of the three campus tours I took prior to enrolling at the University of Michigan, the most memorable highlight from each trip up to Ann Arbor was the Martha Cook Residence Hall. The tour guides I had as a high schooler emphasized how this building was the embodiment of pure feminine class at the University and one of the only all-female dormitories left. As a result, I’ve had this magical ideal of the women who live in Martha Cook cemented as old-fashioned, proper students who have mandatory tea times and cannot speak to boys past 10 p.m.
Attending my first ever Friday teatime, I realized the stark inaccuracy of my assumptions about these women. Many sported U-M Computer Science or Biology T-shirts, and I saw an M-Boxing backpack. I also heard chats about Ross classes and biological anthropology lectures. The atmosphere of Martha Cook is welcoming, and immediately when you walk into Martha Cook, you are greeted by the sweet smells of delectable baked goods set out in the main hall and the warm smiles on everyone’s faces. On your right, there is the magnificent Red Room with deep, soft, red carpet and the larger-than-life-size portrait of Martha Cook herself. The Sparking Room connects the Red and Gold Rooms, where men from the Law Quad used to wait on their ladies and chat in the late hours of the early 1900s. Under the high-arching ceilings of the Gold Room, everyone sits together on sofas, armchairs or on the floor at the feet of their friends, sipping on Friday tea. The century-old books and records showcased in each of these rooms are telling of the vast history the building possesses. Beautiful woodwork of the early 20th century envelopes each room, and the white, geometric ceilings declare they’ve heard a hundred years of conversation beneath them.
Over the past century, Martha Cook has housed countless women who have contributed much to the University. Reflecting on the 100th-anniversary celebration of Martha Cook in 2015, I wondered just what it meant for the three all-female dorms on campus to be just that: all-female. The exclusivity raises potential quarrels, and I questioned what this may mean for nonbinary or transgender students wanting to live in non-coed dorms. Researching gender-inclusive housing at Michigan, I found a partnership between the University and the Spectrum Center called the Gender Inclusive Living Experience. GILE is located in East Quad, and students of any gender are allowed to be a part of the community. Upon joining GILE, residents agree to respect and use desired names and pronouns, value all social identities, support each other and commit to expanding inclusivity, among other things.
This program is especially great for first-year students, allowing a family environment where everyone is accepting and aware — something that can be incorporated into the rest of their undergraduate experience. However, GILE is one of the only residential programs on campus that exists to fully emulate gender-inclusivity and deconstruct the binary nature of gender. Even more so, if students who identify with the residents of GILE want a non-coed dorm, there are currently no options for them. Consequently, Martha Cooks’s board has held recent discussions of what being an all-female dorm on Michigan’s campus means and how the definition of gender may need to change in order to be more inclusive for nonbinary and transgender students.
University housing has made a push in the right direction for inclusive restrooms and coed halls, but accessibility can be difficult to navigate. While it really sucks having to go up to the third floor of the Shapiro Undergraduate Library to find a restroom, it sucks way more when there isn’t a single gender-inclusive restroom in the entire building. The “dear colleague” letter in 2016 from the Obama administration pushed residential colleges and universities to provide adequate housing for transgender students or potentially risk losing federal funding. The policies are not just for transgender student accommodations, but they also push for the negation of the gender-binary in general, with university housing and communal situations. Thinking back to our own room-assignment application process prior to freshman year, many students were only allowed to select same-sex roommates. These “dear colleague” policies also work to help siblings who want to live together, gay students wanting to live with heterosexual friends of the opposite gender and even friend groups comfortable with mixed-gender dormitory situations.
Though there are select residential programs on campus that are strictly gender-inclusive, the goal is to make each residential program on campus welcoming and safe for all students. Housing policies and traditional practices on campus that assume students are either rigidly male or female fail to represent nonbinary and transgender students. College administrators, housing applications and residential board members must adopt procedures that recognize diverse gender identities, expressions and transitions. Applications that solely ask if a student is male or female fail to recognize the inherent and full complexity of gender identity, but they also miss the opportunity to provide sufficient data for roommate assignments and comprehensive comfort. Addressing gender-inclusive issues and beginning to welcome transgender students would effectively work to strengthen the history of powerful women within the residences’ halls. For this reason, Martha Cook certainly appears to be moving in the right direction, and the powerful, progressive women in this dormitory act to consolidate the process and verify the importance of gender inclusiveness.
Brittany Bowman can be reached at email@example.com.