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In August, Mills College, in Oakland, Calif., announced that it would accept applications from any student who self-identifies as a woman, regardless of her sex or gender assignment at birth, becoming the first women’s college to do so.
I applaud this historic decision and welcome the news that not far from Boston, Mount Holyoke College, in South Hadley, Mass., announced even more inclusive policies in September. Mount Holyoke will accept qualified applicants regardless of anatomy or self-identified gender, except for biological males who identify as men.
These decisions are controversial and agonizing for many. Ruth Padawer provides a sensitive account of the experiences of trans and genderqueer students (who reject the gender binary altogether) as well as other students, faculty, and administrators at Wellesley College in a story in Sunday’s New York Times. (Wellesley currently maintains its policy of admitting only “female applicants.”) I sympathize with the many voices Padawer records, and believe that there will be losses as well as gains when women’s colleges change their admissions policies. We need to be having these agonizing conversations, because gender is a source of agony for many.
Those opposed to admitting trans and genderqueer students tend to argue that women’s colleges were founded to offer educational opportunities for women in a culture that has often defined them as inferior to men, particularly in intellectual capacity. I agree that this mission should be defended. In 2005, just before I began teaching at BU, Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard, infamously suggested that women were underrepresented in science and engineering due to “different availability of aptitude at the high end” rather than discrimination. He resigned a year later after a no-confidence vote by Harvard’s faculty, and I would like to imagine that he was a rogue outlier who destroyed his credibility or even that higher education has transformed itself since 2005. Unfortunately, he articulated a prejudice that is held by many who would never say it publicly. And as for his irreparable credibility, he went on to be appointed director of the US National Economic Council by President Barack Obama.
The mission of women’s colleges and the specific form of education they provide is worthy and deserves protection. But, that mission will not be served by exclusionary admissions practices that echo the exclusions women have experienced from higher education. When the US Congress enacted Title IX of the US Educational Amendments Act of 1972, which prohibits discrimination “on the basis of sex,” some educational institutions (including Harvard) successfully lobbied for exemptions for single-sex educational missions. The US Department of Education issued a laudable new directive this year stating explicitly that Title IX protects transgender students from discrimination. If women’s colleges respond by petitioning for exemptions, they repeat the actions of misogynistic institutions in the 1970s.
Women’s colleges cannot bolster their educational mission by offering incoherent definitions of “women” or ignoring the insights of feminist and gender theory. One of the foundational feminist arguments was that an individual’s biological sex should not limit her/his opportunities. By refusing to admit students whose original sex designation was not female, women’s colleges are defining “women” by the genitals with which they were born—or at least suggesting genitals are the most significant factor determining what kind of person can apply to a women’s college. A poll of students in CAS WS 101 Gender and Sexuality: An Interdisciplinary Introduction on one of our first days of class indicated that most students believe the letter on a birth certificate does not define what it means to be a “woman,” a “man,” or another gendered category. The course goes on to consider the ways biological sex categories are also far more complicated than the F/M designation at birth with the help of our WS 101 teaching team, including Karen Warkentin (a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of biology) and Ashley Mears (a CAS assistant professor of sociology), and readings like Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, a novel about an intersex individual.
The admission of trans students to women’s colleges will not undermine their unique educational mission. When women’s college administrators defend the practice of excluding trans women, they sometimes imagine an almost inconceivable enemy. Early in the discussion on the issue at Mount Holyoke, the college’s president, Lynn Pasquerella, asked, “What would prevent a male child of a faculty member who gets a tuition break for getting admitted from saying, ‘Well, I identify as female, so I want to go here and get a free education’?”
Do we really need to ask what would prevent an 18-year old boy from pretending to be a trans woman? Deterrents obviously include the prejudice against women and the extreme, even deadly, trans-phobia around the world. If that’s not enough, I trust the students at Mount Holyoke can hold their own against that imaginary faculty son.
I celebrate that Pasquerella changed her mind and announced Mount Holyoke’s new and more inclusive policy in a convocation address this fall, which was met by the cheers of students.
Student activists at Mount Holyoke influenced their college by organizing teach-ins, rallies, and demonstrations in support of admitting trans women. Since becoming a professor at BU, I have been repeatedly amazed and humbled by the students who have organized to change our University. I watched student activists establish the Women’s Resource Center in 2008 after years of advocacy. Recognizing that they were serving a wonderfully diverse student population in the space they had created out of a storage closet in the basement of the George Sherman Union, the leaders changed the name to the Center for Gender, Sexuality, and Activism. The center, as the space is now known, has recently revised its mission statement again, as it will unveil at its sixth birthday celebration later this month. Students similarly organized to fight rape and sexual misconduct, and their work contributed to the founding of the Sexual Assault Response and Prevention Center in 2011. A year later, BU students were promoting gender neutral housing, and that housing option is now available to all.
Student activists for gender justice keep teaching me how our colleges and universities can better serve our students and our world. Mills College and Mount Holyoke listened to their students stand up for trans rights and responded by changing their policies—and their gender definitions. I hope more women’s colleges will follow their leadership.
Carrie Preston, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of English and director of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program, can be reached at email@example.com.
“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at firstname.lastname@example.org.