When you think of a women’s college, like Mount Holyoke, Barnard or Wellesley, the first defining characteristic that comes to mind is that the student body is made up entirely of women. While this seems obvious, with an increasing number of transgender students applying to and attending women’s colleges, this is no longer always true. The presence of transgender students on these campuses has shaken up the identity and atmosphere of women’s colleges, raising the questions of what a women’s college is and where transgendered students fit in.
In the 19th century, women’s colleges were on the rise. Most colleges and universities only accepted men, so women’s colleges were founded to give women their own establishments for furthering their education. Despite still reinforcing traditional gender norms, women’s schools were very radical at the time.
In the late 1960s, the growing women’s liberation movement caused people to question traditional gender norms, and more and more women chose to attend coed schools. Today, there are less than 50 women’s colleges compared to the 300 that previously existed.
Women’s colleges argue that their place in today’s society is as a unique educational environment where female empowerment permeates the campus. Their students are more likely to major in fields that are often monopolized by men, such as engineering and science, and their empowering mission appears to have a positive effect on students’ confidence levels.
Women’s colleges draw a higher number of students who identify as lesbian and bisexual. Recently, these colleges have also been attracting an increasing number of students who do not identify as women. Transgendered students are advocating for these colleges to downplay their female-oriented messages. These students argue that the rhetoric of women’s colleges, such as use of the word “sisterhood” at Wellesley College, excludes other gender minorities.
Transgendered students attest that they are doing what women’s colleges are all about: being true to themselves, challenging traditional gender norms and refusing to be held back by society’s expectations.
On the other side of the equation, some people are worried that welcoming transgender students who identify as male will weaken the identity and power of a women’s college.
Women’s colleges across the country have varying responses to this debate. Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and Mills College in California decided that they will welcome students who begin identifying as transgendered while at school, as well as those who identify as transgendered men on their applications. Hollins University in Virginia has stated that they will only award diplomas to women and that students who begin the process to become men will be “helped to transfer to another institution.”
The majority of women’s colleges, however, fall somewhere in the middle. Most accept only female applicants but when an enrolled student announces that they are transgendered, these colleges essentially leave it up to the students to decide how a transgendered peer will fit into the environment.
Wellesley College, profiled in the New York Times article “When Women Become Men at Wellesley,” has around two dozen students who don’t identify as women. These students are identifying as genderqueer, transgender and transmasculine, and some of them are currently taking testosterone to change their bodies.
Many transgendered students see women’s colleges as physically and psychologically safer environments because of their supportive missions. Many also see it as a place where they can try to find the answers to why they have struggled with their identities for so long.
“I figured if I was any kind of woman, I’d find it there. I knew Wellesley would have strong women. They produce a ton of strong women, strong in all sorts of ways,” said Jesse Austin, a Wellesley student who began transitioning to male while attending Wellesley, as reported by the New York Times.
In his first year at Wellesley, still identifying as Sara at the time, he learned that physical transformation, such as hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery, were not requirements for identifying as transgendered. By second semester, Sara began calling himself Jesse and was using male pronouns.
The presence of transgendered students at Wellesley was increasing. Austin joined Brothers, a group of students who either knew or thought that they were transgendered men. By 2012, Brothers had transitioned into a group called Siblings that welcomed everyone except for students who identified as women. Brothers continued to meet unofficially, welcoming only transmasculine students.
Although the administration still hasn’t acknowledged the trans presence on campus, an increasing number of academic courses and student organizations begin by asking everyone to specify their preferred name and pronouns. Students are starting to say “siblinghood” instead of “sisterhood.” Dorm bathrooms are labeled “Wellesley only” and “non-Wellesley” instead of “men” and “women,” and every academic building has a unisex bathroom.
Despite the increasing acceptance of transgendered students at some women’s colleges, these students still face many challenges.
“I felt so distinctly male, and I felt extremely awkward. I felt like an outsider,” says Austin to the New York Times. “My voice was jarring--a male voice in a classroom of women--so I felt weird saying much in class.” Austin withdrew from Wellesley at the end of the spring semester, feeling that he no longer fit in at this “women’s place.”
Transgendered students complain that most professors assume all of the students are women and that they use female pronouns when addressing the class. Meanwhile, some female students are complaining that Wellesley isn’t female enough. Their fears include that “siblinghood” lacks the same pro-women implication of “sisterhood,” that they are being forced to accommodate men and that this could be a step in the direction of coeducation.
Timothy Boatwright, a junior at Wellesley who applied as female but now identifies as male, was recently elected to the student government, easily winning a majority of the votes. Despite the struggles that transgendered students continue to face, success stories such as these suggest that many students are accepting of their transgendered classmates, welcoming them into the “siblinghood” of women’s colleges.