Women’s Colleges and Transgender: Where Do Their Loyalties Lie?

Posted By Marilyn Hammond - 06/09/2014

The understanding of gender is becoming more fluid, embracing transmen and transwomen as well as everyone in between. As the New York Times reported, single-sex colleges are struggling to work out where their loyalties lie. The ideological masonry of these schools rests on progressive assumptions about inclusion and empowerment, but they were also designed with specific beneficiaries in mind: women. So who counts as a woman? And is it possible for colleges to draw that line without redefining their missions of tolerance?

There are two good starting points for understanding transgender admissions at women’s colleges. The first is that most colleges claim to evaluate applications on a case-by-case basis (so, few definite policies). The second is that, in practice, transwomen face a tougher path getting in than transmen. This last point is hard to wrap your brain around: Male-to-female undergrads will suffer as much as, if not more than, their cis peers from patriarchal influences on education, and they possess a keen and unique understanding of both gender and discrimination. If single-sex colleges exist to embolden women while giving students the benefit of diverse perspectives, transwomen seem like the pedagogical holy grail, their claim to belonging a no-brainer.  

However, there are many complexities, starting with the fact that not all application materials may reflect femaleness.  Transcripts and recommendations may identify the student as a female, but a federal document, like FAFSA (the federal financial aid form) will identify the student as male until a sex change operation and alterations to a birth certificate or passport are complete, something few 17-or-18-year-old students have undertaken.  So before a college can decide who to admit, they must first establish what is required for a completed application and consistent reflection of gender.

A recent Slate article by Katy Waldman, “The Wellesley Man” explores transgender issues from the college and student perspectives.