For hundreds of years, universities excluded women. Denied access to these institutions, they created their own. “Attempt great things,” the founder of Mount Holyoke, Mary Lyon, told her students. “Accomplish great things.” These schools, including the elite Seven Sisters — Mount Holyoke, Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar and Wellesley — were where the nation’s most promising young women went to do just that.
But today, women’s colleges are at a crossroads their founders could never have foreseen, struggling to reconcile their mission with a growing societal shift on how gender itself is defined. A handful of applications from transgender women have rattled school administrators over the past year, giving rise to anxious meetings and campus demonstrations. On April 29, the Department of Education issued new guidance: Transgender students are protected from discrimination under Title IX.
“We are all concerned about Title IX issues,” said Mount Holyoke President Lynn Pasquerella in a telephone interview. “At a women’s college, we have to have some criterion for admission,” she said. “In addition to academic excellence, it’s being a woman.”
Administrators fear that admitting students who aren’t “legally female” will cause them to lose Title IX funding. But where the leaders of these schools were once in the vanguard, championing the equal rights of women, they are now in the reactionary position of arguing that biology is destiny. This is a losing battle.
Before the recent Title IX ruling, they were already addressing the issue of transgender students on campus. But the accommodations they have made in housing and bathrooms are for a small but growing number, perhaps a hundred or so, of transgender men — students who enrolled as women and then transitioned in college. This has put the schools in the untenable position of essentially discriminating against women in favor of men.
Enacted by Congress in 1972, Title IX prohibits all discrimination “on the basis of sex” in any educational institution that receives federal funding. But when Congress was deliberating the legislation, elite schools like Harvard, Dartmouth and Smith lobbied for and won a private-school exemption for single-sex undergraduate admissions. So as Title IX is written, private women’s colleges can accept or reject anyone based on gender.
In March 2013, a high school senior and transgender woman named Calliope Wong, who had applied to Smith College, received a letter in return. “Smith is a women’s college, which means that undergraduate applicants to Smith must be female at the time of admission,” it read. “Your FAFSA” — Free Application for Federal Student Aid — “indicates your gender as male. Therefore, Smith cannot process your application.”
“I want Smith to be a place not just for women as we define them now,” said Elli Palmer, a sophomore who is a member of Q&A, a student group that opposes the school’s admissions policy. Students recall a meeting at which Ms. Smith said, “I don’t want to get to a point where we have a row of guys in the back of the class with baseball caps on.” Of course, that’s exactly what these schools already do have — in the form of transgender men who were admitted as women.
The rules for changing gender on government-issued documents vary wildly from one agency to the next and state by state. To change gender on a birth certificate, most states except California, Vermont and Washington require documentation that sex-reassignment surgery has been performed — but most doctors won’t perform such surgery on anyone under 18. Tennessee law forbids changing gender on a birth certificate under any circumstances. On United States passports, gender can be changed with proof of clinical treatment, which is broadly defined — downgraded from a surgery requirement in 2010. As for driver’s licenses, policies are all over the map: In New York, all you need is a doctor’s note, while about half the states require proof of surgery.
One of the women’s schools, Mills College in Oakland, Calif., relies on self-identification for gender. This is clearly the direction in which our society is moving, jurisdiction by jurisdiction and agency by agency. But Ms. Pasquerella of Mount Holyoke said she had concerns about a policy like the one at Mills. She asked: “What would prevent the 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’?” But does anyone really believe that high school boys would pretend to be transgender for the sake of a tuition break?
The Barnard student government hosted a talk on April 9 called “Gender & Barnard: What Does It Mean to Be a Women’s College?” Dean Spade, a Barnard graduate and transgender man who founded the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which provides free legal aid to transgender people, called for the full inclusion of transgender women at women’s colleges. He traced feminism’s history of exclusions, from lesbians to women of color. “This is another one of those moments,” Mr. Spade said.
On May 1, Barnard named Jennifer Finney Boylan as the school’s inaugural Anna Quindlen writer in residence. Ms. Boylan, an author and a professor at Colby College (as well as a New York Times contributing opinion writer), is a transgender woman and a chairwoman of Glaad, the gay-rights advocacy organization. Her appointment signifies a shift at Barnard, but to date no openly transgender women have attended the school.
“We don’t really have policies,” Barnard’s president, Debora L. Spar, said in an interview. “Part of it is a generational thing. I think most of us were raised to believe boys are boys and girls are girls. Period. Full stop.” Barnard will draft a policy “before too long,” she added.
This month, the first openly transgender woman at Smith College will finish her first semester after transferring from a coed school. “It’s way harder to get your gender stuff lined up for an application to Smith than it is to get it together for a passport change, and that’s really saying something,” she wrote in an email. (She requested anonymity for reasons of personal safety.) Having to go back and change documents from high school “felt like I was being asked to ‘cover my tracks,’ ” she wrote. “A sort of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell effect.”
In 1960, there were more than 200 women’s colleges; today there are 46, and enrollment is dropping. It seems worse than shortsighted to deny admission to any women who want to attend. Founded in the spirit of advancing the rights of women, these schools should lead the way for society, and accept transgender women.