In 1870, when Henry and Pauline Durant founded Wellesley College, gender was simple. You were either male, in which case the ivy-fringed bounty of American higher education lay at your feet, or female, in which case your options were confined to a few women’s schools. Now, in 2014, most previously male universities are co-ed, and gender is complicated. The traditional women’s college looms out of the past like a dinosaur.
Evolving the dinosaur requires a fluid understanding of gender, one that embraces transmen and transwomen as well as everyone in between. As the New York Times reported last month, single-sex colleges are struggling to work out where their loyalties lie. The ideological masonry of these schools rests on progressive assumptions about inclusion and empowerment, but they were also designed with specific beneficiaries in mind: women. So who counts as a woman? And is it possible for colleges to draw that line without tarring their missions of tolerance?
The topic hits home for me—I sat in all-girls classrooms every weekday from fourth grade through senior year of high school. My mom was the one who insisted on giving her daughters a single-sex education, where they wouldn’t be distracted by boys or taught they were somehow less than. Shy in a lot of contexts, I’ve never been shy in class, and I thank a history of all-girls labs and study halls for that. As much as I want the advantages of women’s schools spread widely, I feel protective of these institutions’ founding goals.
There are two good starting points for understanding transgender admissions at women’s schools. The first is that most colleges claim to evaluate applications on a case-by-case basis (so, few definite policies). The second is that, in practice, transwomen face a tougher path getting in than transmen. This last point is hard to wrap your brain around: Male-to-female undergrads will suffer as much as, if not more than, their cis peers from patriarchal influences on education (male students get called on more in class, for instance), and they possess a keen and unique understanding of both gender and discrimination. If single-sex colleges exist to embolden women while giving students the benefit of diverse perspectives, transwomen seem like the pedagogical holy grail, their claim to belonging a no-brainer.
Yet for many schools, it hasn’t always been so obvious. Last year, the widely publicized attempt of one transwoman, Calliope Wong, to apply to Smith College loosed a tide of institutional soul-searching. Wong was rejected because not all of her application materials reflected her femaleness—while she was able to submit transcripts and recommendations that identified her as a woman, her FAFSA (a federal financial aid form) pegged her as male. Obtaining legal, government-anointed proof of womanhood depends on more than supportive parents and high school administrators. To alter the sex designation on your birth certificate or passport, you might need a sex-change operation—a huge hurdle for a 17- or 18-year-old student just awakening to her gender identity. Wong gave up, but her story ignited outrage both on and off campus, and the next January, Smith unveiled a new admissions policy: No longer would federal forms like the FAFSA belong on the list of documents needed to “consistently reflect the candidate’s status as a woman.”
But after that initial spurt of progress, the conversation stalled. Student activists pressed the admissions office to go further, arguing that, instead of requiring any sort of consistent female identity on academic forms and recommendations, Smith should simply ask high school seniors whose materials showed a gender discrepancy to submit a supplement explaining why. As many have contended, it’s not always easy for transgender applicants to get their high school teachers and administrations to refer to them as women, especially when they’ve grown up male. And throwing prospective Smithies at the mercy of possibly biased communities seems unfair. A transgender freshman told BuzzFeed: “Thinking your average high school can just do that is a total fantasy. They say all we need is for all the gender markers to be consistent, but they don’t really acknowledge what really goes into that and how hard it is.”
Smith’s “consistent identifier” policy flows from an interpretation of Title IX that scholars have since refuted. (And their qualms are now official: In April, the Department of Education released a statement declaring transgender students protected under affirmative action law.) Yet as of late last month, the college still seems inhospitable to the supplement option. Smith’s director of college relations Sam Masinter confirmed the ongoing requirement “that each candidate’s materials reflect her status as a woman.” He forwarded a memo senior administrators had sent to student activists after a meeting on Dec. 6. “The admission of male-to-female transgender students to women’s colleges is a complex and evolving issue,” it read. “It’s one on which people of good intent, inside and outside the Smith community, hold a range of views. At Smith, in both admission and campus life, we are focusing on the broad policy challenge of how to be supportive of students who are exploring gender identity while at the same time remaining deeply committed to our mission as a women’s college.”
Meanwhile, in the halls and dorms of that women’s college, support for transwomen is growing. “ ‘Women’s college’ is a bit of a misnomer,” says Julia Marciano, a Smith undergrad who advocates for male-to-female students at her school through a group called Q&A. “They’re places for minority genders, where those genders can flourish, learn, and feel safe.” While a “small group of exclusionary radical feminists” at Smith feels threatened or diminished by the presence of transwomen, she continues, that viewpoint “misunderstands the lived experiences of transpeople. It says, ‘I don’t want men at my college,’ but it’s not men who are applying. It’s women, with experiences of being women.”
Marciano has a powerful if obvious rejoinder to the argument that transwomen might alienate their classmates with their sex-based entitlement. “Some people might say, ‘I don’t want someone with male privilege coming to my institution, walking around like the boss,’ ” she tells me. “But that’s grossly not true! Transwomen face so much more discrimination than ciswomen do. The murder and crime statistics against them are terrifying.”
Marciano may be on the vanguard, but the bigger caravan of women’s higher education is lumbering along in her wake. Simmons College in Massachusetts recently accepted a transwoman, Alex Sennello, who told me she was drawn to the school because of its “strong focus on social justice and feminism” (though she ultimately decided to attend the co-ed University of Illinois). Sennello did not disguise her transgender identity in her application, and her Simmons acceptance letter praised her activism on behalf of the LGBTQ community. “I feel like including that [praise] in the letter was code,” she said.
Cryptic language pointing in the eventual direction of acceptance seems like the new normal. “Given explorations and discussions that we have begun and will continue to undertake in the coming year, we are not prepared at this time to provide a definitive answer that would preclude or encourage any given admission request,” wrote a spokeswoman from Scripps College in Claremont, California. Yet “we believe that our mission includes empowering those who face gender discrimination, and is thus inclusive of trans* identities.”
Likewise, Marilyn Hammond, interim president of the Women’s College Coalition, explained in an email that she could offer little “specific information” on the topic, and that she knows of no “norm or typical policy” schools have embraced. But “I do know that women’s colleges value diversity and inclusion and take seriously their commitment to provide a supportive environment for all students academically, psychologically, and socially,” she finished.
“We don’t really have policies,” Barnard’s president, Debora L. Spar, informed the New York Times. Despite that, Barnard just appointed a brilliant transgender woman to a prestigious professorship.
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Meanwhile, transmen are making their own forays into all-girl institutions. The challenges they encounter, though, have less to do with eligibility and more to do with fitting in once they arrive.