In 1925, Michigan State University established a women’s lounge. The room, according to a sign that hangs beside its entrance, “has long been a quiet, secure place for women. It is a safe refuge and serves as a haven for reflection, study, and solitude.” After reading what “a great space” the room was for women, Mark Perry—an economics professor at the University of Michigan’s Flint campus who is currently a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute—wondered if it violated the law.
Perry thought that under Title IX it couldn’t possibly be legal to ban men from a taxpayer-funded study area. After his interactions with the school failed to lead to a policy change, he complained to the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. It was rejected because Perry hadn’t personally endured discrimination, but after the Daily Caller, a conservative news site, featured his complaint, and after he wrote about the issue, the school opened up the room to men.
University spokesman Jason Cody said that last spring MSU made plans to make the lounge a gender-neutral space. Male students had protested, and the school was concerned that the women-only space alienated transgender students, so MSU “decided on an open lounge for all students, rather than adding a male-only lounge.”
Although Perry might technically be right, this is a troubling use of Title IX. According to a 2015 MSU survey, 1 in 4 college women at the university has experienced sexual assault. Title IX was created to support gender equality on campuses, but here someone is invoking it to remove access to a safe space on campus for 51.6 percent of the student body. If the existence of this room helped women—who are disproportionately victims of sexual assault in college—feel a little safer, it is disappointing to see a law meant to help them be used to take away a facility that was beneficial. Perry might have a legal point, but he is wrong from a moral point of view.
Ultimately, though, the law is king. A public university really shouldn’t be in the business of segregating its students based on sex or gender. However, there is nothing to stop women at MSU from banding together to reserve rooms to study in, creating their own communities and groups to provide whatever benefit the lounge used to provide. Will it be as easy as going to a room whenever they want? Absolutely not, but it could be a step in the right direction. What’s more, the effort might well help policymakers realize that there is a large population of students whose needs and safety are not being served by current school policy.
MSU students have started a petition to reinstate the lounge as a space for women. According to one student, “I myself have specifically used the women’s study lounge when initially going to the co-ed area to study, but then was harassed by a male student especially late in the evening, which continued even once I told him that I couldn’t talk and had to get my work done.” Another wrote, “I’m signing because as a male, I’ve never felt threatened in a public space in my life, but every woman I know has. I’ve never had to worry about people staring at me or coming up to me and forcing conversation on me while I’m trying to study, but every female college student I know has.”
Mark Perry doesn’t understand that common spaces are not really equal spaces. Women might have an equal opportunity to use them, but those spaces do not always provide them with an equal opportunity to study.