Trans Women Offer Women's Colleges A New Way To Support An Old Mission

Recently, Mills College in California and Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts modified admission policies to include transgender women regardless of the gender listed on official documents or completed medical procedures. The pressure is now on other women’s colleges to produce comprehensive admission policies for trans women or clarify current policies.

Recent trans women students are more likely to have an understanding of their identity during the university application process versus previous generations. Along with older trans women looking to start as non-traditional or graduate students, trans women finishing high school now are much more likely to have a handle on how to speak about their own lived experiences. Many are publicly living their lives as bright young women.

Women’s colleges have largely been out of reach to the majority of trans women, just as they historically have been for many young women. These institutions have already spent much of the last few decades grappling with intersectional issues of race and class. On the issue of economic diversity, the Women’s College Coalition reports, “94% of women’s college first-year full-time students receive some form of financial aid, 48% are eligible for Pell Grants, the average annual institutional aid is over $15,000.” And women’s colleges have also pursued increasing ethnic diversity. In the late 1990s, Beverly Guy-Sheftall of Spelman, a historically black women’s college, released a report on “Diversity and Women’s Colleges” where she addressed the racial make up of women’s colleges.

Black women students are the largest number of minority students at all women’s colleges, but it is important to point out that Asian students are the largest minority (ranging from 95 to 634) at several women’s colleges (Barnard [587], Bryn Mawr, Smith, Wellesley [634], Mills, Scripps and Wells). Similarly Hispanic students are in the largest minority (over 100) at two women’s colleges (College of Saint Elizabeth and Mount Saint Mary’s College) and are in somewhat respectable numbers, relative to other women of color, at the College of New Rochelle (684), Texas Woman’s University, Mills, Alverno, Leslie, Marymount, Marymount Manhattan, Wellesley and Smith. American Indian women continue to be seriously underrepresented, though at Trinity (VT), they outnumber (8) other minorities, since there were only 3 Hispanic and Asian students and 2 Black students in 1993; they are also fairly well represented, relatively speaking, at Stephens College (10)….Not surprisingly, in 1997 there are only two women’s colleges (other than Spelman and Bennett) with black female college presidents (Texas Woman’s University and Smith College) and none with Hispanic, Asian, or American Indian women.

Fifteen years later, how do these institutions stack up in terms of ethnic diversity? Very well. Wellesley is less than half white, is a quarter Asian, and Latina and African-American women are well represented. At Mount Holyoke, one in three students is a woman of color. Texas Woman’s University was ranked in the top 15 ethnically diverse institutions in 2010, when less than half of students were white, a fifth were African-American, less than a fifth were Latina/Latino, slightly less than a tenth were Asian. Other women’s colleges have similar diversity records concerning race and ethnicity.

Diversity includes sexuality, and a running joke is that women’s colleges have a large number of queer students, but the joke is not without its basis in fact. Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Scripps, Simmons, and Smith are all included in Autostraddle’s The Lesbian Insider’s Guide to 40 LGBT-Friendly College Campuses. In addition to sexuality, many schools have been dealing with the issue of trans men at women’s colleges for at least a decade. Being female assigned at birth and somewhere on the LGBT+ spectrum is another form of diversity at women’s colleges.

The inclusion of trans women and their lived experiences is the next step in the process of realising a women-centric educational environment respecting the lived experiences of all women. In its new admission policy on trans women students, Mount Holyoke points to this historic mission of diverse women’s colleges to help explain why they’ve made the policy shift.

Diversity and inclusion is about understanding our multiple identities through the lens of social justice education, ally development, and identity development. We embrace the intersectionality of race/ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, ability, age, national origin, and religious/spiritual identities and the ways in which those identities move us to greater connection and communication.

The intersections of gender identity with race/ethnicity and class have been the primary roadblocks for trans women pursuing admission to women’s colleges. Many of these institutions will allow trans women to be admitted if they have modified their legal documents and if they have had sex reassignment. In most cases, sex reassignment means genital surgery. According to Chronicle of Higher Education, Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia has a policy that “will consider transgender females for admission if they have already undergone sex reassignment and have legally changed their gender marker.”

That’s asking an awful lot from 17, 18, or 19 year old trans women, even those from a middle class or upper class background. Changing documents can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars, depending on what one changes, and possibly require letters from physicians, psychiatrists, or other healthcare professionals. And if sex reassignment refers to surgery, in addition to needed recovery time, the surgery itself can cost tens of thousands of dollars. If the trans woman in question is of a lower income level, as many trans women of color are, then the possibility of meeting these admission standards becomes remote if not non-existent.

When informed of Hollins University’s policy on trans women, alumna Sarah Anderson expressed her disappointment. Supportive of including trans women at Hollins, she pointed out “there was never much public discussion regarding the enrollment of trans women.”

I’d like to think this was because it was a non-issue, that of course Hollins’s welcoming, inclusive community would be just that for everyone. But the truth is, not all schools are inclusive, and students should be proactive about making sure that theirs is. It saddens me to think my school’s admission policy could be excluding people. It’s sad because those people would be missing out on a great school, and it’s sad because Hollins would be missing out on them.

Anderson is one of a number of American women’s college graduates I know here in the Tokyo Regional Area. I have generally found all to be supportive of the inclusion of trans women, although views on the inclusion of trans men who had been admitted to the schools as women differed. For the graduates with whom I discussed the issue, the inclusion of trans women is a “no-brainer.” Leslie Ann Hynes, a Simmons alumna, initially responded, “I don’t have much to say on the subject, because it’s like ‘yeah, duh?'” but when asked to expand, she did, describing the pride she had in her school for being inclusive.

I thought as an undergrad and still think that trans women should be welcome at women’s colleges….I was proud that Simmons was the first women’s college to admit a trans woman undergrad. She’s in the class of 2017. Trans women are women, they benefit from a women’s college environment just like cis women do.

The shared experiences between cis women and trans women became a running theme throughout the discussions. Sarah* (who requested her surname not be included), an alumna of Barnard, said she felt that her institution had not taken these similarities seriously.

As a graduate of a women’s college, it seems clear to me that trans women should be included, because they are women and because they face many of the same problems in society that cis women do. There have been times when I’ve felt Barnard administrators have brushed the issue aside, so I hope that they can take more concrete steps to address it now that they have a precedent from other colleges.

Through a mutual friend, I also contacted Dr. Shanté Paradigm Smalls, Smith graduate and St. John’s University professor of African-American Literature and Culture. Smalls’ views carry significant weight not only as a women’s college alumna, but also as someone who has had trans women in her own classrooms.

I absolutely think women of trans* experience should be admitted to women’s colleges, as they are women. There should be no question, in my mind….As someone who has had trans* students in my classroom, I have benefited from encountering them. I recognize many of the arguments against admitting trans* women to women’s colleges is similar to arguments made about admitting women to traditional men’s institutions and against gay, lesbian, bi, and queer to “straight” institutions, mainly that these people will disrupt the status quo.

Anderson agreed with her fellow alumna.

Of course women’s colleges should embrace transgender women. Of course. Say what you will about the merits of single-sex education, but I think women’s colleges provide a place for women to feel safe, respected, and unconditionally valued. All women have a right to that kind of space.

Anderson’s comments resonate with me, because I have found this to be repeatedly demonstrated at my own institution, even when I was down on myself for all sorts of reasons. I strongly support transgender women in women-centric and women-only educational spaces. I have experienced first hand what being in a woman-centric learning environment is like with my admission to and enrollment in Texas Woman’s University, the only public, and also largest, institution primarily for women in the United States.

Like the majority of trans women my age, I didn’t have the chance to attend a women’s college directly out of high school. When I was a 17 year old freshman, I did not know exactly how to articulate my identity. I would not even learn the basic terminology of gender identity, presentation, and expression until I was well into my university career. Making a coherent argument of why I should be allowed to attend a women’s college was beyond my ability to conceptualise.

Articulating my identity only came about when I was given access to feminist, womanist, and queer texts, and was able to learn about the diversity of lived experiences from professors and fellow students with vastly different backgrounds from my own. I interacted with the large diversity of students in student organisations at the University of Texas at Austin, such as The Daily Texan and the Gender and Sexuality Center. And I was required to take courses overtly oriented towards women’s literature and feminist/womanist essays, novels, and other texts in the English Department at the historically black Huston-Tillotson University.

Often I tried and failed to comprehend issues of male privilege, white privilege, and class privilege. In some classes I was the only white person. In still others, I was the only white person and the only “guy.” It was only through these experiences that I was able to articulate my gender identity to my advisor. Only then had I begun to comprehend what a women-centric educational space might mean to my development. I did not leave changed immediately. It would take years of settling in the back of my mind before it would become apparent just how adequately I had been prepared for graduate school at a woman’s university.

Texas Woman’s University was absolutely the best choice I could have made when it came to options within Texas. It is unique as an institution in that students are required at all levels to take three hours of “multicultural women’s studies” in order to graduate. Most students will end up taking multiple Women’s Studies courses, even if they are not in a program which produces a B.A., M.A., or Ph. D. in Women’s Studies. Women’s Studies enjoys the support and respect of all of the departments on campus. The library houses a comprehensive and substantial Women’s Collection, and every space encountered, save for a very tiny few, will be majority women or women only.

Since 1994, all programs have included men, but men still make up small minority of students and even smaller number of students who finish and graduate. A public institution, sex-based admission restrictions were untenable, but the mission to be an institution “primarily for women” has been preserved. Despite cries of “better dead than co-ed” echoing off the walls of Guinn and Stark halls, TWU remains both in spirit and in reality a women’s college.

It can be difficult to really explain the value of women’s colleges to someone who hasn’t spent every class, every student government meeting, every meal in the cafeteria, every study session in the library in majority women or women-only spaces. It was difficult to explain to me before I experienced it. There was a time when I was actually critical of single-sex and primary-sex-focused institutions. I made some of those comments here on Jezebel. I saw them as problematic. Even disempowering. I was on the outside looking in, and while my arguments were made in good faith, I just didn’t get it. Not until I was in it.

Even when someone does attend one of these institutions, they can be taken for granted. For those who attend, especially at TWU or another institution where men are part of some programs or otherwise on campus in some small amounts, these spaces work almost subconsciously in ways that just aren’t readily apparent until you leave them. Yet work they do, and just as these spaces empower cisgender women, they empower transgender women in the same ways, even when we’re not even aware we’re being empowered.

Although women’s colleges do not entirely escape issues of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, or transphobia, as Smalls noted, they are much more likely to allow a trans woman to check some of the discrimination she faces at the door. At least in ways she simply can’t on most traditional campuses.

Obviously, trans* women face incredible discrimination in the world at large and on college campuses. Although women’s colleges have the same problems of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, and other issues related to clashing world views, women’s colleges offer a unique opportunity for trans* women to experience college in a traditionally empowering environment. As trans* women’s life expectancy in the US is around 38 (and in the late 20s worldwide), the kind of support and friendships one may experience at women’s colleges is invaluable. This is particularly important for trans* women of color, who are even more disempowered socially and economically.

The argument that women’s colleges benefit trans women because they are women who share many experiences of oppression with cisgender women is compelling. However, the benefit of inclusion is not a one way street. Transgender women also experience marginalisation based on their transgender status and this marginalisation colors how they experience womanhood. These experiences with marginalisation and oppression as trans women are still validly placed under in the nebulous conceptualisation of “womanhood.”

Women’s colleges would benefit from admitting women whose experience of the world and womanhood differs from cis-women, insofar as they have to more obviously construct their identity as women. They challenge biological essentialism and generalized experiences of womanhood.

The ability to share these experiences with fellow students and faculty provides women’s colleges a broader range of women’s experiences. This serves only to enrich the educational process for all participants in the space. If this enrichment is the goal, as many women’s colleges claim in their mission statements, then the inclusion of trans women seems to be, as Hynes first told me, “yeah, duh.”

If women’s colleges seek women from diverse backgrounds and to build an inclusive community, that would necessarily mean reaching out to trans women the way they (supposedly) reach out to poor women and women of color.

Unfortunately, most women’s colleges do not have official policies concerning trans students. According to research done by Genny Beemyn, the director of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, an expert on LGBT+ and specifically transgender experiences in higher education, women’s colleges “are very reluctant to go on the record.” Beemyn’s research appears to match what Sarah*, the alumna from Barnard, experienced—administrators are cagey and evasive. It seems that many hope the issue will go away. Until recently, it seems as though the small amount of potential transgender women applicants has allowed this pattern of obfuscation to continue. This has meant the administrations of these institutions have continued to kick the can of trans inclusion down the road.

Of the roughly 120 women’s colleges in the United States of America, there are a limited number with policies concerning trans women, gender identity, or even trans men. Institutions without any apparent policies, positive or negative. It’s worth noting that many women’s colleges are Catholic, and while they are not as likely to discriminate against a female assigned at birth individual who identifies as on the LGBT+ spectrum, especially one who has already been admitted, they seem much more likely to prevent the admission of transgender women students. These faith-based institutions make up the bulk of women’s colleges without any policy.

These institutions have some policy or at least some history which could be used to judge their intentions:

Agnes Scott College

Current Policy: Admits students who identify as female. De Facto, trans women admitted.

Alverno College

Current Policy: Does not formally admit trans women. Only mentions trans men in policy.

Barnard College

Current Policy: Trans women may be admitted on a case-by-case basis if all documents list them as female.

Bay Path University

Current Policy: Does not formally admit trans women, non-discrimination policy includes “gender identity.”

Bennett College for Women

Current Policy: Does not formally admit trans women, non-discrimination policy includes “gender identity.”

Bryn Mawr College

Current Policy: Admits trans women on a case-by-case basis if legally female. Definition of what constitutes “legally female” appears to be based on how the student is classed via Title IX (so probably federal documentation?). As an example, I would probably be able to be considered for admission.

College of Saint Benedict

Current Policy: Admission of students is “limited to females.” No definition of how status is determined. Non-discrimination policy does not include “gender identity” or “gender expression.”

College of Saint Elizabeth

Current Policy: Non-discrimination policy includes “gender identity,” states the college will not discriminate in admissions. No clarification on exactly how that applies to trans women seeking admission.

Converse College

Current Policy: Trans women not formally admitted. Non-discrimination clause does not include “gender identity.” Transgender policy only mentions trans men.

Douglass Residential College of Rutgers University

Current Policy: Any student recognised as female by Rutgers University (which has recently made major policy changes regarding transgender students) may enroll in DRC. De facto, trans women admitted.

Hollins University

Current Policy: Admits trans women if they have all documents list them as female, and they have sex reassignment. Policy may be under current review.

Mary Baldwin College

Current Policy: Unknown, non-discrimination policy does not include “gender identity,” and specifically mentions men are not admitted to the women’s college.

Meredith College

Current Policy: Unknown, some unconfirmed reports trans women are admitted. Non-discrimination policy includes “gender identity.”

Mills College

Current Policy: Admits trans women.

Mount Holyoke College

Current Policy: Admits trans women.

Mount St. Mary’s College

Current Policy: Unknown, non-discrimination policy includes “gender identity.”

Notre Dame of Maryland University

Current Policy: Unknown, non-discrimination police does not include “gender identity” but institution does have a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender merit scholarship. Who benefits from the transgender inclusion in the scholarship?

Pine Manor College

Current Policy: Unknown, but college publications indicate active transgender students and strong transgender viewpoint inclusion in the women’s studies department.

Salem College

Current Policy: Admits “only women,” and therefore insists that “transgender” need not be included in a revised policy. Refuses to define “women,” so policy could mean anything. Policy may be under review.

Scripps College

Current Policy: Admits trans women.

Simmons College

Current Policy: Admits trans women.

Smith College

Current Policy: Trans women may be admitted if all documents list them as female. Calliope Wong was denied admission because of a mix of identifying documents.

Spelman College

Current Policy: Unknown, but Monica Roberts of TransGriot seems to believe that a black trans woman applicant would not be turned down as Calliope Wong was turned down from Smith.

Stern College for Women

Current Policy: Unknown, but unlikely. Six years later, and Stern is still grappling with a transgender professor with tenure.

Texas Woman’s University

Current Policy: Admitted men to all undergraduate programs in 1994, but remains primarily for women. Still over 85% female, over 90% of graduates are female. Trans women are accommodated as female if they can provide two forms of identification with a female gender marker. New policy allows transgender students to use a preferred name over a legal name, and diplomas will reflect preferred name. Anti-discrimination policy includes “gender identity” and “gender expression.”

Trinity Washington University

Current Policy: Unknown, non-discrimination policy doesn’t even list “sex” or “gender,” let alone “gender identity.” Worth noting, because even most trans exclusionary women’s colleges at least have “sex” or “gender” with a caveat about not admitting men.

University of Saint Joseph

Current Policy: The University of Saint Joseph is unique in having a non-discrimination policy which includes “transgender status” and prohibits discrimination “in the administration of its educational policies, admissions policies, scholarship and loan programs, and employment practices.”

Wellesley College

Current Policy: Considers for admission those who identify as female and check female on the Common Application. De Facto, admits trans women.

The Women’s College of the University of Denver

Current Policy: Unknown, non-discrimination policy includes “gender identity” and “gender expression.” As a college of DU, situation may be similar to the DRC at Rutgers.

Please let us know in the comments if you are aware of other institutions with specific policies, or if any error has been made in any of the policies listed above.

Image Art by Kat Callahan.

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