Wellesley College will begin admitting transgender women, the school announced Thursday. Starting with the class of 2020, the college “will consider for admission any applicant who lives as a woman and consistently identifies as a woman,” Wellesley’s President H. Kim Bottomly and Board of Trustees Chairwoman Laura Daignault Gates wrote in a letter to alumnae.
With this decision, Wellesley joins Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Mills, and Simmons College among women’s colleges that welcome applications from transgender female students.
This is excellent news.
Women’s colleges were founded to educate a group that had long been marginalized from the traditional ranks of academia. And since then, these institutions have produced generation after generation of strong women—including Gloria Steinem, Madeleine Albright, Yolanda King, Katharine Hepburn, Hillary Clinton, and Emily Yoffe.
Today, when American women enroll in college in higher numbers than men, these institutions still serve a vital purpose in educating women (and some men) sheltered from the pressures and influences of a society overwhelmingly run by straight, white, cisgender men.
For many students, the classrooms of Wellesley or Smith or Bryn Mawr are the first place they feel at ease trying to solve a tricky math problem or voicing an opinion in a philosophy seminar. At these colleges, young people who were too scared or intimidated to speak up elsewhere—or who were silenced entirely—find their voices. Voices they take with them after graduation into their respective fields.
These benefits need not be limited to those born into a female body.
I’m hopeful that Wellesley’s move signals a shift for women’s colleges, which are already under pressure on numerous fronts. With Sweet Briar College closing at the end of the school year, the future viability of these institutions is in question.
But women’s colleges will not survive by hunkering down and clutching to tradition.
In 2013, my alma mater, Smith College, rejected Calliope Wong, a young woman from Connecticut, because her financial aid application materials identified her as male. For too long, Smith and other women’s colleges have allowed a checkbox on an applicant’s birth certificate to carry more weight than strong self-declarations of identity.
Women’s colleges need to embrace this opportunity to become a welcoming and safe space to educate all women.
For once, this Smithie is hoping my college follows Wellesley’s example.
Previously in Slate: