My friend Jill is sitting behind me at a library table as the sun gets closer to setting in the distance, just past the lake, surrounded by a haze of trees that serve as a reminder that we are in the middle of nowhere.
We’re supposed to be reading something for class, and I remark that the author has continually connected the idea of femininity with the ability to give birth. That is not how I’ve ever experienced femininity, I tell Jill. When she asks me how I have experienced femininity, I’m forced to answer.
I came out as queer when I was 13. My friends were coming out as trans at the same time. I have thought about my gender just as long as I knew I had a choice in the matter. I knew gender identity was fluid, I knew I didn’t have to choose, and yet even now, when I fill out my gender identity on a Google form or have to write it on a name tag, I always write, “she/her.” And I always come back to the place where I started: I am a girl. I am a woman. I always will be.
But Jill doesn’t accept that answer. She wants to know why I’m so confident that I’m a woman. So I gave it to her. I tell her it is a lot of little things that accumulate into one big thing.
My confidence in my femininity comes from the feeling I get when my nails are long and painted pink, when I can drum them on the countertops. It comes from the way I feel when I’m dancing to The Beatles or Halsey or Hozier. From the way green looks against my olive skin and the sultry way my breasts move with my torso when I’m walking, running, dancing, talking. It comes from the way I feel when my shoulders are slumped up to my ears, and the way my hair tickles the space between my shoulder blades when I’m in a bikini, specifically my favorite orange one.
It comes from my masculinity, too, the way I look in muscle tank tops and the way I feel when I flex my arms, when I chest bump my friends or when I got my wolf-cut. From the way I look at other people who identify as women and feel this tug between our two hearts like a string. From the way I stare at them and think Wow, women are just so beautiful.
I tell Jill most of this, and ask if this is a good answer. She tells me it is very poetic, and that I should write that down. And so I do.
The above piece was a journal entry I wrote in late August, following a very provocative interaction that happened during my time at the University of Michigan Biological Station (UMBS) — a University-operated research and teaching facility, located in Pellston, northern Michigan, available to all U-M students and to researchers across the country. I was taking an English class out there, and as you can tell, I fashioned myself quite the poet.
During my time at the Bio Station, or Bug Camp, or “the Station,” or UMBS, or whatever you’d like to call it, I thought a lot about femininity. A little bit because of the environment and a little bit because of texts we were reading — specifically Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass,” a book about science and native ways of thinking that touches on ideas and concepts of femininity. Primarily, however, it was because femininity was a central idea of my final project, which examined how we might expand both femininity and gender expression at the station.
On the day I presented this project, I stood in front of my peers and professors and talked about how the history of the Bio Station and the culture that was subsequently cultivated there created what I had concluded through interviews and qualitative research was a “male-dominated” space.
This was strange, because the Bio Station, according to unpublished data collected by UMBS researchers, featured more and more women and gender-nonconforming people on campus. The data showed that since 2017, most terms at UMBS have included more women-identifying people than men-identifying people on campus, and since 2019 there has been at least one gender-nonconforming person on campus per semester.
These statistics led me to a very important question: If demographics were changing, why did the space still feel male dominated?
A couple of things contributed to this. First, the history of the University site — at UMBS in the ’40s and ’50s, there were two distinct sections of camp whose names are still used on campus to refer to the various sections of campus: “Ladysville” and “Mansville.” “Ladysville” consisted of the cabins formally understood to be the “women’s cabins,” and “Mansville” referred to the former “men’s cabins.” The two sections stand on opposite sides of camp, and while people of all genders now occupy cabins beside each other, the names persist.
I found the current dichotomy problematic for two reasons: One, it is wholly exclusive of those who don’t fall into either category, and two, Ladysville is significantly smaller than Mansville. I also found that in the earlier days of camp, women generally did not occupy faculty roles, primarily serving as kitchen or cleaning staff. The only woman on faculty in those early days was the “Dean of Women,” in charge of the affairs of female students.
And then there were irrefutable points that I found on campus while I was staying there. The fact that there was no building on UMBS’s campus named after a woman or a gender-nonconforming person, at least not one that I could find. Many were named after men. My classroom specifically was named “Hungerford” after a prominent male scientist, which was the similar case for other buildings on campus, like “Creaser” and “Nichols.”
Then there was the fact that feminine hygiene products and traditional tools of feminine expression, such as skirts, dresses, make-up or other products, were left off of the packing list that was sent to me.
The crux of my final conclusion was this: The station’s history, in combination with lasting gender norms, demonstrated to students that femininity and gender expression don’t have a sizable place on UMBS’s campus. Yet there was still a dominating sense of masculinity on campus, even if it wasn’t statistically demonstrated.
A fellow Bio Station student said in one of our classes that demographic or cultural change alone often doesn’t matter when a space is trying to be more inclusive of traditionally underrepresented groups. Only when we combine both demographic and cultural reform can we create an inclusive, welcoming environment for those who have not found those environments everywhere. By identifying moments of male dominance, the UMBS could shift its culture, and create an environment that communicates that people of all gender identities have a space on campus.
Staring out at a crystal blue lake, underneath a cool gray sky, I smiled as I finished my presentation with a small but warm round of applause. I felt good about myself. I felt like I had made a real change, like the people that were sitting in front of me were hearing me, not just listening.
And then I packed up all my things from the station and went home.
A week later it was Welcome Week in Ann Arbor, and I was sitting on a roof underneath a deep, starry sky, and I got to thinking about UMBS again. Multiple nights while I was at camp, my roommate, Sabrina, and I ventured outdoors in our pajamas. Sometimes with friends, often alone, we walked the dirt roads that made up the camp, sat by the lake and stared up at the stars. I thought it was simply insane just how dark the stars were out there, in Pellston, and just how light they were here, with all of the lights from the many frat houses and house parties bleeding out into the darkness.
Just how different was Ann Arbor’s campus from UMBS?
On my first day of class at UMBS, the director, Aimée Classen, stopped by and sat down with us for a conversation about her experiences at the station and some of its history, and just to welcome us to camp. Neither Mark Schlissel nor Mary Sue Coleman has ever stopped by my classroom.
That day, Classen said that UMBS was a “mesocosm” compared to the Ann Arbor campus. I had no clue what that meant, and nor did most of my classmates, so Classen explained that “mesocosm” refers to a smaller version of an environment. In science, a mesocosm is a smaller, contained environment for scientists to study under controlled conditions. And to Classen, that was what UMBS was to the Ann Arbor campus: a smaller version of an environment that scientists can look at to study under controlled conditions.
And thinking about that conversation with Classen that I had 20 minutes into my first class at UMBS and the final conclusions I presented on the shore of that lake, I thought that maybe, just maybe, that that was exactly what I had done: lived inside of a mesocosm while examining it at the same time.
If this was true, then perhaps the conclusions I stumbled upon regarding the male-dominated environment at the UMSB campus could be applied to our very own Ann Arbor campus as well. Like UMBS, the male-female demographics for the Ann Arbor campus are changing by the year.
Since the 1990s, women have been earning college degrees at higher rates than men, and the Ann Arbor campus isn’t excluded in that uptick. This year, 51% of undergraduates on campus are women, compared to 49% men. In my experience, however, this campus remains primarily male dominated on a cultural level.
I’ve found that male-identifying people speak more often in my STEM classes, and sitting in a group in one of my labs, I had multiple male-identifying students speak to each other — literally over me — ignoring my comments and contributions to our worksheet. Like at UMBS, which is primarily dedicated to STEM fields, the campus here feels male dominated despite more female-identifying students attending our schools. I began to think that there was something about STEM spaces in particular that encouraged a lack of femininity and gender expression.
As a woman who’s taken many computer science courses and knows many other women in the computer science program, I can attest to the stories of misogyny and disrespect in STEM classes that I’ve heard from friends.
The misogyny extends beyond the STEM classrooms: Similar to what I noted on UMBS’s campus, there is only one academic building on the Ann Arbor campus that is named after a woman (Coleman Hall), and none that are named after someone who is gender nonconforming, which people on campus aren’t exactly ecstatic about.
And there’s another component: an environmental dissonance. I spoke a lot in my UMBS presentation about the history of a place, and throughout our English course, my class talked a lot about the feeling of being in a space that you know wasn’t built for you.
UMBS was founded in 1909, and the people that the camp was originally built for felt represented even in its construction. I stepped into the bathrooms at UMBS and found urinals in the women’s bathroom, and I did a double-take. Every time I washed my face, took a shower or used the bathroom, I was reminded that that place wasn’t built for me, wasn’t meant for me.
Meanwhile, in Ann Arbor, the University opened its doors to women in 1870, 53 years after the University was first established. It wasn’t until 1896 that the first female dean and the first female faculty member, Eliza Mosher, was appointed. And it wasn’t until 1993 that the Board of Regents outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation on campus.
While it has been over a century since some of these milestones have passed, the women and gender-nonconforming people remember the fight that their predecessors had to win in order for them to occupy any space here. That history weighs on the shoulders of those who understand that they did not always have a guaranteed spot in this environment, and that weight is felt disproportionately.
So what do we do? As statistics begin to trend toward women being more likely to go to college than men, as conversations about gender expression expand, how does the University go about ensuring that women and gender-nonconforming people have a space on campus? Let’s inspect our mesocosm.
At UMBS, I argued that by expanding a space for gender expression on campus, the Bio Station could create a culture of inclusivity and positivity for women and gender-nonconforming students that would make them happy with their time and keep them coming back. The same could be said about the University.
Sure, Ann Arbor has pockets where inclusion is happening. The University of Michigan Museum of Art has featured exhibitions telling the stories of those of varying sexual orientations and gender identities, as well as the stories of prominent women. The Spectrum Center does extensive work in the campus community, and many departments at the University work hard to make their spaces inclusive and accessible.
But I’ve found that this same spirit of inclusion is not felt in STEM circles. Women make up only 28% of the workforce for STEM-based fields, with research demonstrating that the field’s male-dominated environment is one variable keeping these individuals away from thriving in STEM industries.
If Ann Arbor is anything like UMBS, it might be because there’s a feel of male domination in STEM space and the culture surrounding it. If we could expand femininity and gender expression in these specific spaces, would women and those who don’t conform to the gender binary feel like they have a space in these fields? Would the demographics that make up the STEM workforce finally even out across male, female and gender-nonconforming individuals?
Moreover, I suggest that there be more representation of non-masculine figures in the University’s history. The names of buildings, the paintings on the walls, the plaques outside of buildings, the books in the library, the exhibitions in the museums should all speak to a University equally devoted to its female, male and gender-nonconforming students.
Faculty and staff in STEM programs should also have open conversations about femininity and gender expression in their classrooms and encourage or require participation in diversity, equity and inclusion events on campus or create a women-and-gender-studies requirement for all programs. The University could host mandatory training for staff and faculty on engaging in positive discourse about gender identity and femininity with their students.
If people start talking about femininity in their classes, femininity might not be so scary. If students and faculty and staff are confronted with femininity, with their fears and misconceptions about it, with their ideas about its expression and how gender identity reveals itself in people, no matter what program or field they are in, then women and gender-nonconforming people will feel that the conversations hold a space on campus.
If those conversations hold a space on campus, they must matter, and if those conversations must matter, that means that they matter.
I’m not sure if these ideas will work. I’m not sure if it’s enough to encourage women and gender-nonconforming people to come to the University. But I know that trying is what matters. For two reasons.
At the beginning of this piece I showed you a journal entry about what femininity means to me. It is a power in my chest. It is a huge part of who I am. Femininity is terrifying for some people, a loose, unidentified concept for others, but if it takes a bigger hold on our campus, just how many people will be impacted by it? Just how many people will stop and think about what femininity or any other kind of gender expression means to them? Just how many people will examine their gender, will feel solidified in their identity?
I said it was a gift, my description of femininity, because I think that understanding what femininity, what gender means to someone is beautiful. By opening up these conversations, by uplifting these stories, we can give this gift to each other, over and over again.
And then there’s my second reason as to why I think we should try.
As I stood in front of my class, teachers and a few administrators that day by the lake, I said that I felt like this presentation mattered because I felt like that camp was worth working on. I still believe that. I think that everyone deserves to sit by that lake and stare up at the stars, and walk those dirt roads, and have their class in the warm sun while listening to the lake crash on the sand, and feel like they belonged. I believed that the Biological Station was worth working on.
And just like the mesocosm, I think that applies to this campus. I think that all people deserve the joys that this campus provides. Every person deserves the chance to sit on the rooftop of a friend’s house during Welcome Week and admire the stars. Every person deserves the chance to scream their lungs out in the student section of the Big House. Every person deserves the chance to walk the streets of Ann Arbor, to waltz up the Diag and feel like they belong.
That’s what I’m trying to say. That’s what the Biological Station taught me above everything else. That not only is there work to be done, but that the work is worth doing, because this place, this city, this institution, that we all call our own, is worth working on.
Statement Correspondent Riley Hodder can be reached at email@example.com.