“Mount Holyoke remains committed to its historic mission as a women’s college. Yet, we recognize that what it means to be a woman is not static. … Just as early feminists argued that the reduction of women to their biological functions was a foundation for women’s oppression, we must acknowledge that gender identity is not reducible to the body.”
Taken from Mount Holyoke College’s Institutional Policies
In 1837, Mount Holyoke College became one of the first women’s colleges to open its doors in the United States. For most of the United States’ timeline in higher education, women were barred from attending universities. To combat this discrimination, women started their own institutions of higher learning, such as Mount Holyoke. Women’s colleges were created in order to foster this sense of sisterhood and camaraderie amongst a population who were neglected by a patriarchal system of education. These universities have grown to be some of the most diverse and progressive campuses in America. In fact, most of these colleges now accept transgender women into their classrooms. Now the question of inclusion has come to whether or not women’s colleges should allow transgender men to be admitted into their schools. Transgender men are men who are or were biologically female, but identify as male or masculine-of-center gender. Another way to refer to transgender men is Female-to-Male or FtM. Likewise, transgender women are women who at birth, were assigned the biological sex male, but identify as female or feminine-of-center gender. Transgender women can be referred to as Male-to-Female or MtF. Many feel that to admit transgender men into these women exclusive colleges would be to ruin the integrity of sisterhood: the basis behind all of these schools. I will argue, however, that in order to stay true to this goal of sisterhood, women’s colleges in the United States should allow transgender men who are still legally female to apply to their schools, thus expanding their definition of a woman to be more intersectional and include transgender men, a group that is also marginalized in society.
So, why do people who identify as men apply to women’s colleges in the first place?. Often, a student will arrive to their new university identifying as female, (perhaps already questioning their gender identity). Then, they discover that they actually identify as male, and begin their transition while still enrolled at the women’s college. This was the case with Jesse Austin, a student at Wellesley University, who arrived to the school as a woman, Sara, then transitioned to male over his next few years at school. Jesse chose to go to Wellesley because “being female never felt right to him” (Padawer). He says that if he was any kind of woman, he’d find it at Wellesley, because Wellesley is a school known for producing strong, empowered women (Padawer). Being in this all-female environment helped him to realize how he was different from the other students, and he realized his true gender. Like Wellesley, the majority of women’s colleges in America allow formerly female enrolled students who transition to male to continue their education at the school uninterrupted. Other transgender men apply to all women’s colleges because they feel safer there both “physically and psychologically,” according to Timothy Boatwright, another FtM student at Wellesley University (Padawer). Avery, a former high school classmate of mine, is currently attending Mount Holyoke College. Although still legally female, he identifies as male and uses male pronouns. He says that he chose to attend Mount Holyoke because it “seemed like a safe positive space…I feel so safe on this campus to use the men’s bathrooms, whereas when I went on a trip to Boston for a convention, I was terrified to do so in fear of something like assault or argument starting…. here on campus, the community is very open and has allowed me to experiment as much as I want, including feeling safe to start hormones soon.”
What Avery alludes to, is the intense discrimination and hate that is felt by the transgender community today. Transgender people face more violence, harassment, poverty, and discrimination than the rest of the general American public. In fact, as of 2017, only 18 states have clear laws that prohibit discrimination of transgender people (ACLU.) With so few states acknowledging the rights of transgender people, it is hard for those like Avery to feel safe, protected, and accepted. Avery applied to this all women’s school because he knew he would be more comfortable in a campus setting that has very little violence and discrimination, a supportive student network, and strong LGBTQIA (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer Intersex Asexual) visibility that is common in many all women colleges.
This strong sense of support unique to women’s college campuses usually stems from a sense of sisterhood fostered in their women-centered education. Many argue that admitting transgender men into women’s colleges will destroy this strong bond of sisterhood. Naysayers, such as Beth from Wellesley University, feel like this shift from an all-female sisterhood to a multi-gendered “siblinghood,” rocks the stability of her school. To her, “‘changing “sister” to “sibling” didn’t feel like it was including more people; it felt like it was taking something away from sisterhood, transforming [her] safe space for the sake of someone else,’” (Padawer.) Beth is not alone in her opinion. Other students feel that admitting transgender men on to campus would be taking away from their female perspective, and even perpetuating a patriarchy that women’s colleges have been trying to combat.
Many schools are worried that if they break tradition and admit any students who are not women, they might lose precious alumni donations. All the women’s colleges in the United States are private and so they rely largely on contributions paid by students past and present. Other schools are also afraid of losing Title IX funding for grants such as the Federal Pell Grant or Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, which provide financial assistance for students to attend the university. Under the Title IX act, no school or university that receives federal funding may discriminate based on gender. Most women’s colleges operate under an affirmative action clause within the act, meaning that they are allowed to receive federal funding for these grants and offer same-sex education because it helps women, a group that has been historically underrepresented in higher education. Many women’s colleges worry that admitting transgender students could complicate their legality within Title IX, and prevent their access to obtaining federal funding. As of May 2015, Smith, Barnard, Wellesley, Hollins, Bennet, Spelman, Mary Baldwin, and many more universities refuse to admit any person who identifies as a man on their application, even if they are legally still a woman and have not yet taken medical steps to become physically male. Many of these schools will not even allow transgender men who were already enrolled in their programs to continue their education at the school.
While there is a strong opposition to admitting transgender men to campus, an even stronger pro-inclusion opinion has been growing on these women’s campuses. At Wellesley University there is an on-campus organization, Brothers (now changed to a more inclusive Siblings), which is meant to be a community for transgender and genderqueer students. Many other universities are now hosting transgender centered talks and panels, as well as offering transgender sensitivity courses. Elli Palmer of Smith College wants “Smith to be a place not just for women as we define them now,” but rather, she would like it to be a place that is inclusive for how we will define women in the future (Feldman). The times are changing; even Beth has begun to change her views. She says “I realized that if we exclude trans students, we’d be fighting on the wrong team. We’d be on the wrong side of history” (Padawer). Beth realized that these transgender men can still be connected to the school through their shared experience, because all transgender men understand what it is like to be a woman and what it is like to be marginalized.
This issue has made women’s colleges everywhere question and redefine what makes a woman a woman. Is it purely anatomical, a shared history, or something more? A graduate of Spelman College eloquently puts it as, “‘If you think about the history of what women’s colleges are actually trying to achieve, there’s a way to incorporate that definition and broaden it so that it includes all people who are gender marginalized in some capacity’” (Elfman). Women’s colleges were created to break gender barriers 200 years ago and they should continue with this same goal by admitting transgender men into their programs. There are now only 46 women’s colleges left in the U.S., with enrollment steadily dropping. It is necessary for the survival of these schools that they open their enrollment to transgender men. This is not a call for women’s colleges to become coeducational institutions, but rather to start admitting students who are legally women, but identify as men. This way women’s colleges can still maintain their funding without upsetting Title IX policies or financial aid documents, but also maintain their status as progressive centers of learning. Society today is moving in a direction towards transgender inclusiveness; visibility has grown vastly in the media with celebrities like Chaz Bono, Laverne Cox, and Caitlyn Jenner. Even gender-neutral bathrooms are becoming more and more commonplace. Transgender men and women deserve an education, and deserve to feel comfortable and safe at their school. Women’s colleges in America started out as institutions to serve a marginalized community: women. These schools should still serve, educate, and empower their community of women, but expand their community to become more transgender inclusive.
“Admission of Transgender Students.” mtholyoke.edu. Mount Holyoke College. n.d. Web. 20Apr. 2016.
Avery. Online Interview. 20 Apr. 2016. Facebook Messenger
“Comparison of Women’s Colleges’ Policies on Transgender Students.” ncgs.org. Think AgainTraining. n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.
Elfman, Lois. “Women’s Colleges Address Transgender Admission Policies.” Women in HigherEducation. Apr. 2015.
Feldman, Kiera. “Who Are Women’s Colleges For?” The New York Times. 24 May. 2014. Web. “Know Your Rights: Transgender People and Law.” Aclu.org. American Civil Liberties Union.2017. Web.
Padawer, Ruth. “When Women Become Men at Wellesley.” The New York Times. 15 Oct. 2014.Web.