feature image via Mt Holyoke College
It’s not really a secret that the elite women’s colleges known as the Seven Sisters are bastions of queerness, or at least a specific brand of it. That makes it particularly disappointing that they remain so woefully behind the times when it comes to transgender acceptance. Of the five schools that still have not gone co-ed, only Mount Holyoke has adopted rules that encourage and allow trans women to apply and be admitted. The remaining schools — Smith, Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, and Barnard — either specifically or vaguely exclude trans women from admission. Most often, this exclusion hinges around vague references to “female-only” admissions. This week, despite increasingly vocal support from the student population, the Smith College Board of Trustee has pushed the issue off for “study”, meaning the earliest trans women could be admitted is the fall of 2016.
A group called “Smith College Q&A” has been pressing the school’s administration for a more inclusive for admission policy for two years now. Last Saturday, the group met with the college’s Board of Trustees to address their concerns, a meeting which “did not go well” according to Q&A’s blog. It appeared the administration wasn’t nearly as interested in a legitimate dialogue as the students had hoped. According to their post:
“Although Q&A was told they were there to discuss their policy proposal, during the 25-minute meeting the Board read the policy and asked a couple clarifying questions, with very little follow up to what a new admissions and educational policies would look like implemented. These clarifying questions were unnecessarily invasive — with one Trustee claiming she wanted to be a “Devil’s advocate” in this discussion — despite the fact that Q&A representatives provided educational packets that addressed any curiosities the Board might have.”
Smith has been at the focus of much of the criticism regarding the exclusion of trans women among women’s colleges, particularly after their highly-publicized rejection of Calliope Wong after providing her complicated, conflicting information about her admissibility. Q&A isn’t taking the Board’s reticence lightly, however. They’ve launched a change.org petition and have planned a protest on Thursday on Smith’s campus to press the adminitration for action.
Similar presses for inclusion are being made by students and alumnae at the Bryn Mawr, Wellesley, and Barnard. Shortly after Mount Holyoke’s announcement, a group from Bryn Mawr released an open letter pressing the college’s administration to craft a clear trans-inclusive admissions policy. In it, they chide Bryn Mawr for getting away from its core mission by excluding trans women:
“Bryn Mawr’s current approach to handling trans student applicants is ineffective and insufficient. As long as Bryn Mawr continues to exclude trans and nonbinary students, it continues to neglect its essential educational mission. Bryn Mawr has a long history as an institution that offers educational opportunities to students who face discrimination because of their gender. The time has come to expand Bryn Mawr’s safe, supportive community to fully include trans students and other gender minorities.”
Wellesley College has adopted a similar party line to Smith with their president, Kim Bottomly, announcing in September that the institution would take undertake a year-long “conversation” about the concept of womanhood. She states:
“We recognize that the issues of gender identity and transgender experience are relevant and complex. We must build a better understanding of these issues and determine what current policies and practices might need revision in light of this understanding”
She appointed a committee to examine the issue, which is due to issue its report sometime this spring.
The press from alums for trans women to be included at Manhattan’s Barnard College has been particularly fierce. Last spring, Dean Spade — founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and Barnard graduate — spoke at town hall on meeting on campus, pressing for action by the administration to adopt policies inclusive of trans women. A few months later Spade co-wrote an op-ed with Smith alum Avi Cummings denouncing women’s college as being on the “wrong side of history.” They write:
“By effectively saying “no,” women’s colleges are endorsing and strengthening a concept at the root of transphobia: the belief that trans people are not who we say we are. Whether written into policies or informally practiced, this fundamental denial of trans people’s identities leads directly to our communities being disproportionately turned away from education, healthcare, housing and jobs, and disproportionately profiled by the police and immigration authorities.”
Interestingly, both Spade and Cummings are trans. They’re trans men. Historically, trans men have had a place (even if that place is somewhat complicated) within the student body of liberal women’s colleges due to admissions policies heavily focusing on government-sanctioned “femaleness” as opposed to a more complex concept of womanhood. Barnard, to its credit, has signaled at least some degree of increasing trans acceptance by awarding its first Anna Quindlen Writer-in-Residence position to trans writer Jennifer Finney Boylan.
Earlier this year California’s Mills College, which is not associated with the historic Seven Sisters group, broke ground on trans acceptance in women’s colleges when it announced that it would accept students who identified as women, regardless of birth-assigned sex. Mills was the first US women’s college to adopt such language for its admission guidance. While it appears there’s at least a begrudging move towards similar policies at other prominent women’s colleges, it appears that it could be at least 2016 before any of those schools see a trans woman walk through their doors.