This week Mt. Holyoke, a women’s college in the Pioneer Valley in MA, announced it will be changing its admissions policy to include trans women as applicants who will be considered for admission:
Mount Holyoke College welcomes applications for our undergraduate program from any qualified student who is female or identifies as a woman.
Mt. Holyoke released a FAQ on transgender admission explaining the policy and how the school came to this decision: “Increasingly, women’s colleges are being called upon to articulate their policies with respect to the admission of transgender applicants.” Indeed, there has been mounting pressure for women’s colleges to be inclusive of all women. Mt. Holyoke students have been organizing and protesting for the admission of trans women through a student organization called Open Gates. We’ve been committed to bringing public attention to the issue of trans discrimination at women’s colleges here at Feministing as well. Last year, we reported on the case of Calliope Wong, a trans woman who turned to the internet to bring attention to her discriminatory experiences with Smith College admissions, which is just down the road from Mt. Holyoke. I went to Smith to speak about their discriminatory policy. And this year, I reported on school’s attempts to blame federal documents for their decision to exclude trans women, following repeated clarification from the federal government that they consider trans women to be women. Mt. Holyoke’s decision follows that of Mills College, another women’s college, which recently stated they will admit trans women.
This policy change is absolutely a result of organizing pressure — both on and off campus. And it’s yet another example of the power of the feminist internet to make real change, as students, applicants, and alums have gone online to draw attention to this cause and feminist media has amplified their voices.
There’s a lot to praise about Mt. Holyoke’s new policy. The FAQ makes clear that gender non-conforming trans women and intersex women can be admitted. Additionally, trans women do not have to have a consistent gender identity throughout their time at the school, just as female-assigned students have been allowed to transition while at Mt. Holyoke for years (I do still find it strange that trans men can be admitted just because they were assigned female at birth). Further, trans applicants are not required to out themselves to admissions, and there is no requirement for federal and other admissions documents to all reflect a female gender identity. Smith has repeatedly fallen back on documentation as a way of perpetuating the exclusion of trans women. Mt. Holyoke recognizes some of the problems with this approach:
Many students will choose leaving home for college as an opportunity to explore or proclaim new identities. Whether a student transitions suddenly or has a long history with a particular gender identity will not have an impact on how their application for admission is assessed.
There is, however, some bizarre logic about how gender works in the FAQ that belies a political gender ideology disconnected from social and scientific realities. Mt. Holyoke explains as part of the logic for the change in policy:
Traditional binaries around who counts as a man or woman are being challenged by those whose gender identity does not conform to their biology.
This is factually inaccurate. “Biologically born female/male” is not an accurate description of how gender assignment works. Genders are assigned to us at birth based on a doctor’s take on our genitals. Yet genitalia is neither the only nor the primary marker biologists use to determine sex (check out this article about female insects with penises for an example of how biologists approach sex). Human gender is complex — while multiple biological and social forces interact to produce gender, so far the best way we know to accurately determine a person’s gender is self identification. Inquiry into trans genders and biological factors is still in a nascent stage, and it is odd for an academic institution to actively misrepresent how a scientific field approaches sex. Yet I actually see this as a sign of what a major win this shift in policy is — the policy is great, even if the institution’s gender ideology still needs work.
Mt. Holyoke is part of the same Five College Consortium that includes Smith. As I’ve written about previously, this consortium:
…has funded and supported the work of Janice Raymond, author of the far-too-influential transmisogynist screed The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male. Raymond was the Five College Professor of Women’s Studies and Medical Ethics for a period of time shortly before she released a paper that led directly to eliminating state and federal aid for poor trans folks and to trans healthcare exclusions that we are still fighting today (for the record, the paper was officially released while she was an Assistant Professor at UMass Amherst and Hampshire College, my alma mater).
Trans exclusionary radical feminists have found more support within the academy than in the feminist grassroots. The feminism of the academy is based in trans-exclusionary theory in many ways, and this is so deeply embedded that it’s influenced feminist thinking broadly, even for folks who aren’t transmisogynist — I’ve worked for years to unlearn the gender ideology I learned at Hampshire, which said I didn’t get to be a woman. So, while some of the language and logic in Mt. Holyoke’s FAQ could use some work, the fact that such a positive policy has been produced by an institution that still has plenty of cissexism to unlearn only makes this victory more powerful in my book. We won on anti-trans turf.
Here’s hoping we’ll see lots of other women’s colleges quickly follow suit.
Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing.