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Women's Colleges in Transition

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Within a month's time, two U.S. women’s colleges publicly announced their decision to welcome transgender students. 

In early March, Wellesley College in Massachusetts approved a new policy that said the school would admit "any applicant who lives as a woman and consistently identifies as a woman" during its next admission cycle. Meanwhile, administrators at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania said in a February statement that "after months of study and consultation," the private liberal arts school would open its doors to cisgender (nontrans) women, trans women, and intersex individuals who identify as female. Trans men, though, are not eligible for admission at either institution.

Both changes marked yet another development in the relationship between transgender students and women’s colleges in the United States. In December, the Department of Education reiterated that transgender and gender-nonconforming students are protected under Title IX, the federal law that bars sex-based discrimination in schools that receive federal funding. The agency also noted on its Web site that this applies to 3,200 colleges and universities, among other institutions, nationwide.

Mills College, in northern California's Bay Area, was the first women’s college to announce it would accept undergraduate applications from self-identified women, though it does not admit students who legally change their gender to male before submitting their applications.

Mount Holyoke College, in South Hadley, Mass., and Boston’s Simmons College followed shortly thereafter, with the latter accepting all self-identified women and trans men students who transition before completing their degrees. Mount Holyoke, which recently made headlines after a student group canceled a performance of The Vagina Monologues because it excludes the experiences of transgender women, accepts all prospective students except cisgender males.

Several of these developments came after Smith College, a private women’s liberal arts college in Northampton, Mass., rejected a transgender student, Calliope Wong, in 2013. Wong posted a letter signed by the school’s dean of admission to her Tumblr blog, which noted she was not a “female at the time of admission.”

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Smith College says it has since revised its policies and acknowledges having transgender students. Its Web site says a trans student’s application is “treated no differently from other applications,” but Smith says it expects all necessary documentation to reflect a student’s “identity as a woman.”

Smith College, along with Mills, Mount Holyoke, Simmons, Bryn Mawr and Wellesley, were among the 39 women’s institutions contacted by The Advocate about the nature of their admissions processes. Administrators at seven schools, including Smith and Mount Holyoke, elaborated on their respective decision to not discriminate based on gender.

“We recognize that… transgender students may find our environment to be an excellent fit, and therefore we do not limit their access,” said Carolyn Noll Sorg, Ursuline College’s director of admission. She also clarified that the Pepper Pike, Ohio, school is a “women-focused” college.

David Morrison of Brenau University in Gainesville, Ga., said self-identified women can apply and be accepted to their Women’s College, where one trans student is reportedly already in attendance.

The admissions office at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., says it continues to admit “qualified women students,” adding that it does so regardless of sexual orientation, and that “campus leaders are monitoring the national conversation on transgender student policies.” 

Moore College of Art and Design, in Philadelphia, will conduct stakeholder meetings this semester to construct a formal policy to be approved by the school’s board of trustees and managers in May.

Another school — Scripps College in Claremont, Calif. — noted its decision to accept both transgender women and men, which it claims is “consistent with the underlying mission of women’s colleges to support, nurture, and value the voices of those who have been marginalized by gender.”

“Scripps College is committed to an ongoing process of dialogue and education to build a more inclusive and unified community,” said Lori Bettison-Varga, the college’s president, in an emailed statement. “The transgender admission policy is an important element of a broader discussion about what it means to be a women’s college in the 21st century.”


Photos by Carolyn Brown.

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