Last summer, Calliope Wong, then a high school senior, began an open-letter campaign regarding the admissions policies of Smith College. Calliope had hoped to apply for admission to their undergraduate program. But as a trans woman, Calliope encountered an admissions policy at Smith with such prohibitively high demands and so many inconsistencies that her application was ultimately denied consideration, even after following instructions given to her through repeated, direct communication with members of the Smith College administration in which they encouraged her to apply. (Here’s a photo of the rejection letter she received, courtesy Transwomen@Smith Tumblr)
The actions of the Smith College administration constitute a discriminatory bar against trans women. But after reaching out to over eight women’s colleges nationwide, it’s clear that such policies are not the exception but the rule.
There are several aspects of Calliope’s experience that are particularly alarming and contribute to idea that the Smith College admissions policy constitutes discrimination against trans women.
First, the administration’s requirements were prohibitively demanding. According to her account, Calliope was told that all school records submitted as part of her application must indicate her gender as female. “I understand why women’s colleges would want paper verification of a trans woman applicant’s gender identity,” Calliope told me. “However, it doesn’t make sense to me for institutions to demand that all forms and federal forms confirm the individual’s gender. For many trans applicants, getting the necessary paperwork in order isn’t simply an inconvenience; it’s practically a prezygotic barrier, a bar against even attempting to apply to women’s colleges in the first place. Though the individual student may have every intention to apply, he, she, or ze may not have the resources or support (parental, administrative at school) to make the appropriate changes.”
Second, the requirements for trans women seeking admission to Smith were created on an ad hoc basis, leaving lots of room for interpretation on the part of the administration and little for consistency in how they were applied. Calliope claims she was told by administration officials that as long as school records indicated her gender as female, she could apply as any other Smith assigned-at-birth female applicant. Yet even after discussing her specific case with Smith administration and changing all school documentation to female as suggested by the Dean of Admission, she had her application sent back to her twice without processing due to a discrepancy in her FAFSA (a federal financial aid form). Calliope sees this as a particularly problematic aspect of the process. “Women’s colleges typically do not have clear, well-defined policies for trans woman-application,” Calliope told me. “Colleges may simply make up policy as the student progresses along. This seems to be the case with Smith College, as the nebulous (lack of official) policy suggested I was simply jumping through hoops made up as I went along. It is impossible to adhere to protocol and regulations during application, when the school itself is improvising with policy.”
Third, such off-the-book, ad hoc policies give schools the leeway they need to shift the blame and accountability for their discrimination over to someone else. In Calliope’s case, Smith was able to throw out her application without reading it on the grounds that the “sex” category on her FAFSA form read “male.” (There is no ambiguity in the rejection letter she received: “Your FAFSA indicates your gender as male. Therefore, Smith cannot process your application.”) However, Calliope has published an email exchange on her Tumblr with Jon O’Bergh, Special Assistant to the Under Secretary of the US Department of Education, which appears to challenge the logic of this decision, stating that “The FAFSA sex reported is only used for Selective Service purposes. Neither FAFSA nor the Department of Education cross-checks sex information with Social Security,” and causes Calliope to conclude that “Smith College could choose to accept me or at least process my application, if the administrators wanted to. Smith is not bound by any kind of federal mandate…Thus, Smith College’s decision not to process my application based on my FAFSA sex marker is at Smith’s sole discretion. Their hand was not forced; they chose this. Smith College is fully capable of reviewing my application and making an admissions decision for me based on my credentials. Just—it’s so simple, really. This is obvious discrimination on Smith’s part.”
Smith College, for their part, declined to comment on the particular case of Calliope Wong, or on the issues it raises relating to the difficulties transgender individuals might face in applying to the College. They also declined to comment when asked whether their administration is considering updating its policy to reflect greater consideration for trans women applicants in the future. A spokesperson did point me to this Diversity and Gender page on the College’s website, which states that “Smith College has a diverse and dynamic student body that includes individuals who identify as transgendered” [sic]. The page also boasts a bizarre and frankly outdated foray into some of the reasons said individuals might choose to do so (“for intellectual or political reasons, in order to challenge prevailing gender norms in our society”) and the policy goes on to emphasize that Smith is “absolutely” still a women’s college and, as such, “only considers female applicants for undergraduate admission.”
A systemic issue
The case of Callope Wong is emblematic of a wider problem of cissexism and transmisogyny across the board at women’s colleges across the country.
A number of schools declined to comment for this article, including Bryn Mawr, Mt. Holyoke, Chatham, Simmons, and Barnard.
Spelman College, to its credit, had a spokesperson let me know that the College addresses admission for transgender and genderqueer students on an ad hoc basis, but emphasized that they admit “qualified female candidates without regard to race, color, religion, creed, national origin, age, disability, sexual orientation, marital or veteran status, or any other legally protected status.” They also sent me a few links to some of their notable work around LGBTQ rights.
Wellesley wrote to let me know that they are “deeply committed to being a women’s college” and as such, they “admit women exclusively.” They also said that “once a woman has been admitted as a Wellesley student, we support all her choices and we celebrate her progress toward self-discovery.” This second part makes sense — if someone wants to transition while at a women’s college for example, they shouldn’t face getting kicked out of their school. But when pressed further to clarify if a trans woman would be considered for admission under this policy, they declined to comment.
I find all of these responses sub-par and problematic. While I respect Spelman for being the only school I contracted willing to state for the record a policy of considering trans women applicants, it is not enough. Trans women should not have to guess and hope their way into fair consideration from women’s colleges as a matter of policy.
Historic sites of activism
It’s easy to forget that just 40 years ago, men’s only colleges were not just acceptable but the norm. Many colleges, including Harvard, Yale, and Georgetown, systematically and unapologetically excluded women throughout and sometimes beyond the 1960’s. Co-ed commencement exercises didn’t take place at Harvard until 1970, for example. These discriminatory policies didn’t just go away — they were pushed out by the advent of feminist activists demanding their right to quality education along the same lines as their male counterparts.
It was in this context that many women’s colleges were founded, as alternatives to these men’s only spaces. Women’s colleges offered women access to the higher education they were being denied elsewhere. They also played a large social and cultural role, coming of age in a time when feminist activism was rampant in America. Hillary Clinton has famously extolled the virtues of her Wellesley experience. Gloria Steinem is a graduate of Smith.
Even today, women’s colleges have maintained a reputation as having politically active students, progressive policies and an inclusive atmosphere. Women’s colleges are frequently considered a safe space for people to get to know their genders and explore how they identify. I spoke to Kelly Wise, Ph.D, a sex therapist in private practice who attended Smith College School for Social Work for graduate school, who expressed disappointment with the College’s admissions policy despite having had a positive experience at Smith himself. “[Attending] Smith helped me figure out many different aspects of who I am, including gender,” he said. “I wish they would come up with a policy that’s more inclusive, because the learning environment at Smith has great potential to be a safe haven for trans* individuals in a lot of ways.”
Yet this “safe haven” aspect seems to be restricted to those who are assigned female at birth or become female-identified early in life. It’s ironic, then, that women’s colleges, having long played a pioneering role in feminist history, now find themselves on the other side of such feminist advocacy efforts.
If anything is clear from Calliope’s case, it’s that these schools don’t need an explicit policy of exclusion towards trans women to achieve the same result. De facto transmisogyny is still misogyny.
Women’s colleges should not be in the business of policing people’s bodies or identities, or deciding what kinds of people get to qualify as “women”. Many women’s colleges are already sites of inclusion for some trans and gender non-conforming folks, but this behavior should not be limited to certain kinds of trans* people. It’s both arbitrary and discriminatory to label a space as “for women” and then deny access for many women just because they were not assigned female at birth. Stating this, and demanding that women’s colleges include trans women in the group “women,” is not akin to calling for the end of women’s colleges by any means. Rather, it is calling for a policy change that will strengthen and bolster the mission of women’s colleges and bring them back in line with the feminist activism of today.
A Feministing Editor will be speaking on a range of topics, including this one, at Smith on April 6. Details are forthcoming. In the meantime, please feel free to direct letters [firstname.lastname@example.org] or phone calls [413-585-2500] concerning this policy to Dean Shaver at Smith College Admissions.
UPDATE: A trans woman has been accepted to the Simmons class of 2017. I applaud this move by Simmons. We need to keep up the pressure on Smith and other women’s colleges to not only follow suit in considering some trans women for acceptance, but developing a clear and consistent policy of inclusion towards such individuals.
CORRECTION: This post originally included Stanford University in a list of schools that remained closed to women until the 1960s. The school has been open to women since it was established in 1891, however, it limited enrollment of women to a specified ratio.