“I remember the incredible energy” when the policy was announced at the beginning of the school year, said Jetmore, a senior anthropology and Spanish major who began to identify as nonbinary while at Mount Holyoke.
Under the policy, the college admits anyone who identifies as female or nonbinary, as well as students assigned female at birth who identify as men. Jetmore was impressed that the policy included not just transgender women but nonbinary students and transgender men as well. “This is super radical,” Jetmore remembers thinking at the time.
While Mount Holyoke’s policy is the most inclusive, more than a dozen women’s colleges have developed admissions policies for transgender students in recent years. The latest is Spelman, a historically black women’s college in Atlanta, which announced earlier this month that it would admit transgender women. Many other women’s colleges are working on such policies or debating whether to adopt them.
In the process, schools are reckoning with the question of what purpose women’s colleges, once the only option for women seeking higher education, should serve in America today. The colleges have long offered women a sanctuary from some of the discrimination they face in the wider world. Now the schools have to decide whether to broaden their mission to include all students who face discrimination because of their gender.
The first women’s colleges in the United States were founded in the mid-19th century, when higher education opportunities for women were limited, according to the Women’s College Coalition. The very idea of women pursuing advanced study was viewed by many with suspicion — “some critics felt women might succumb to ‘brain fever’ if called upon to use their minds too vigorously,” the website for Mount St. Mary’s University in Los Angeles notes.
Though dismissive attitudes about women’s brains are far from gone, women now outnumber men on college campuses, and women’s colleges today typically draw students looking for a particular kind of educational and social environment. At Wellesley, Hillary Clinton writes in her 2003 book Living History, “It was a given that the president of the class, the editor of the paper and top student in every field would be a woman.”
But until recently, none of those positions could be held by transgender women. While different schools have always had different admissions practices, women’s colleges typically had no published policy regarding transgender applicants. That meant that transgender students might be discouraged from applying, or might attend but feel forced to keep their gender identity a secret.
That began to change as Mills College announced in 2014 that “students who self-identify as female are eligible to apply for undergraduate admission. This includes students who were not assigned to the female sex at birth but live and identify as women at the time of application. It also includes students who are legally assigned to the female sex, but who identify as transgender or gender fluid.”
Other colleges soon followed suit, and today 25 women’s colleges say they admit at least some transgender students (there are about 40 women’s colleges around the country). Their policies vary widely: Many schools admit transgender women, some admit people who identify as nonbinary, and a few admit transgender men. Some schools require that transgender students change their legal sex to female or undergo gender confirmation surgery in order to be admitted, while others admit anyone who self-identifies as female, regardless of legal or surgical status. At most schools with transgender admissions policies in place, students who transition to male while enrolled are allowed to graduate, even if the school does not admit new students who identify as men.
Fourteen schools do not admit transgender students or have no published policy regarding transgender students. (Vox contacted the 38 American women’s colleges in the Women’s College Coalition, along with Stern College for Women at Yeshiva University. Some colleges have not yet responded.) As Collin Binkley of the Associated Press notes, alumnae at some women’s colleges have opposed admitting transgender students, arguing that to do so “undermines the institutional mission to empower women.”
Spelman is the second historically black women’s college to announce a transgender admissions policy
“Like same-sex colleges all over the country, Spelman is taking into account evolving definitions of gender identity in a changing world,” the college’s president, Mary S. Campbell, wrote in a letter to the Spelman community dated September 5. To that end, she explained, Spelman “will consider for admission women students including students who consistently live and self-identify as women, regardless of their gender assignment at birth.”
Founded in 1881 as the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary, Spelman is now the top-ranked historically black college in the country. In adopting a policy for admitting transgender students, it joined Bennett College in North Carolina, another historically black women’s college, which adopted its policy in January. Like other women’s colleges, Bennett (which was originally co-ed) and Spelman were established to educate a marginalized population — black students were excluded from much of higher education because of their race. Women at Bennett and Spelman were doubly marginalized, barred from other institutions on the basis of both race and gender.
Historically black colleges and universities may have a particularly important role to play when it comes to transgender students. Transgender people of color experience the combined effects of many forms of discrimination, and are disproportionately likely to live in poverty, be unemployed, or contract HIV. In a 2015 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 38 percent of black transgender respondents were living in poverty (the figure for Americans in general is 14 percent), and 19 percent of black transgender women had HIV (the prevalence in the general population is 0.3 percent). According to the Daily Beast, the Anti-Violence Project counted 17 transgender or gender-nonconforming people murdered in the first seven months of this year; 13 were black transgender women.
But “historically HBCUs have been places that have not been welcoming for LGBT community members, and particularly black trans women,” said Lourdes Ashley Hunter, the executive director of the TransWomen of Color Collective, citing incidents of discrimination and violence at HBCUs as well as campus policies on health care and restrooms that were not inclusive of transgender students.
Of course, discrimination and violence against LGBTQ students is not unique to HBCUs. Scout Schultz, a Georgia Tech student who identified as nonbinary and intersex, was fatally shot by campus police this week, noted Jill Cartwright, the president of Spelman’s student government association. In a recent survey of Spelman students, she said, 50 percent supported the new admissions policy, 18 percent were neutral, and 18 percent wanted more information.
Spelman’s general climate for LGBTQ students is “mixed,” said Beverly Guy-Sheftall, a Spelman graduate, professor of women’s studies, and the founder of the college’s Women’s Research and Resource Center. Earlier this year, she created a scholarship program for LGBTQ advocates at Spelman, and she is working with other departments to include more scholarship on gender and sexuality in their curricula. She sees Spelman’s new policy not just as an end in itself, but also as an opportunity for the college to address LGBTQ issues more generally.
The policy has already inspired student organizations to think of new ways to educate students about LGBTQ issues, said Cartwright, who was part of the task force that developed the policy. “Spelman is unlike any other place in the world,” she said, and the college could have decided to rest on its laurels rather than taking a risk with the new policy.
“I’m very proud of us for making this huge step,” she said. “This was a very fearless move by our college.”
At most colleges, the conversation isn’t over
For some women’s colleges, deciding to admit transgender women may be easier than making the decision to admit people who don’t identify as women. But some advocates believe that educating transgender men and nonbinary people should be part of the mission of a women’s college.
Women’s colleges have already expanded their conception of who is eligible to attend, said Tobias K. Davis, a Smith College graduate who now works in the school’s clinical social work program and who was a member of the study group that developed the college’s policy on admitting transgender students in 2015. When Smith was founded in 1871, its students were “upper-class, white, Protestant young ladies,” he pointed out. “If we formed a class right now that was only white, upper-class, Protestant ladies, how much would be lost from our community?”
“At some point the first Catholic student applied to Smith, and the first Jewish student applied to Smith, and the first middle-class student applied to Smith, and the first student of color applied to Smith,” he said. “For me, the inclusion of trans people of all types feels like the next step in increasing the diversity of our community.”
What’s more, women’s colleges were founded in part so that “people who couldn’t get a comparable education in a coed setting could have a place where their voices could be heard,” Davis said. By that standard, he believes they should be a place for transgender men and nonbinary students too.
Jetmore, who now works as a tour guide at Mount Holyoke, tells prospective students that “the mission of Mount Holyoke College is to help empower students who are marginalized on the basis of their gender” — not just women. But the school administration has yet to make such a statement, and Jetmore is still waiting for the college to clearly articulate “what it means for Mount Holyoke to be a women’s college with a gender-diverse student body.”
Admission, of course, is only the beginning of the college experience, and Jetmore has advocated for a number of changes to make Mount Holyoke more inclusive to transgender and nonbinary students once they’re actually on campus. For instance, survey cards distributed to prospective students now include a line for a student’s preferred pronouns, and more professors are giving students the opportunity to share their preferred pronouns in class. “If you’re going to change the admissions policy,” Jetmore said, “you need to really make sure that your campus supports the flourishing of trans students.”
Each college needs to create a culture that is welcoming not just to transgender people but also to people who have disabilities or are poor or undocumented, because often “trans people and particularly black trans women are also those things,” Hunter said. Health care and other support services are crucial too. “If we don’t have systems in place that also support mental health, self care, as well as access to health care and services that trans people need, then a policy that permits trans people on campus will fail,” Hunter said.
Ultimately, said Hunter, women’s colleges should ask themselves what they want their legacy to be: “What space are we creating, and who are we creating it for? And why?”