Mount Holyoke College on Tuesday announced a major shift in its admission policy, formally stating that it will welcome not only cisgender females, but others who identify as women. The move, which follows a similar shift at Mills College, represents a significant shift for women's colleges, where issues of gender, identity and inclusion tend to be front and center.
Lynn Pasquerella, Mount Holyoke's president, announced the shift in a convocation address to welcome students to the fall semester. After talking about the college's commitment to women pushing for human rights abroad, she introduced the policy by saying that "human rights begin at home," and placing the announcement in the context of feminist theory.
"We recognize that what it means to be a woman is not static," she said. "Just as early feminists argued that reducing women to their biological functions was a foundation of women’s oppression, we acknowledge that gender identity is not reducible to the body. And we are mindful that exclusion from the category of 'woman' based on properties of birth is nothing new." She also used language of the trans movement, where "cis" refers to those whose gender identity matches the body with which they were born. "Transwomen and ciswomen share what theorists call 'positionality,' " Pasquerella said. "And it is this relationship to the dominant culture that is relevant as women’s colleges accept all those aspiring to live, learn and thrive within a community of women."
Students who interrupted Pasquerella's comments regularly with applause cheered louder as it became clear she was announcing a policy change and they cheered with particular vigor when she read the new policy. (In the video at the end of this article, the section on transgender policy starts around 38:00.)
In an interview Tuesday before her talk, Pasquerella spoke of the decision as reflecting the college's "following our values." She said she has spent time talking to alumnae and not all of them favor the policy (which was approved by the college's board), but that there had been no protest either. (On the college's Facebook page, comments were overwhelmingly positive, with many alumnae writing of their pride in the decision, and only a few negative remarks.)
Mount Holyoke has never formally banned transgender applicants, nor has it formally welcomed them. To date, the college -- like many other women's colleges -- has primarily dealt with the issue when a student is admitted as female and later identifies as male. Like many women's colleges, Mount Holyoke has taken the position that such students are welcome to remain (and there are some students enrolled now in that category). But Pasquerella said that she worried that by not formally indicating that trans women could enroll, the college might be discouraging them.
She said that students will self-identify, and will then be treated as other non-male applicants. The policy also applies to those whose gender identity is unclear or does not fit into the traditional male-female binary. The only applicants not welcome would be cis males who identify as men. If a trans woman were admitted, and while at Mount Holyoke decided to identify as a male, the student would be welcome to finish his studies. (Here is an FAQ from the college on the new policy.)
Pasquerella stressed that she did not view the change as a move toward coeducation, but rather as a shift toward a more inclusive definition of a women's college. Pasquerella said she recognized that Mount Holyoke, as a Seven Sisters institution, attracts considerable attention. She said that she reached out to the Seven Sisters colleges that remain as women's colleges so that they would not be surprised by her college's move.
She also said she was motivated in part by debates over the way other colleges treat transgender students. Several Christian colleges that are coeducational have sought and received government exemptions from anti-bias laws so that these colleges can continue in various ways to discriminate against transgender students, she noted. "This is a time that advocates for LGBTQ students have spoken about the need for clarity about protections," she said. That made it appropriate for Mount Holyoke to provide such clarity.
On campus, the shift has not been controversial. If anything, criticism of the college administration to date has been that it wasn't moving quickly enough. Students have organized rallies, blogs and events at which students held signs to signal their support for admitting transgender women. (See photo at top of article.)
Jennie Ochterski, a gender studies major at Mount Holyoke, is one of the organizers of Open Gates, a group that pushed for the new policy. "We at Open Gates are so excited for Mount Holyoke's future as a college dedicated to the full inclusion of transgender women," she said via email. "We know there is a lot of work to be done in terms of consciousness raising, education, and making sure that MHC is as welcoming and supportive a community as possible for all its students and prospective students. We applaud Mount Holyoke for pioneering this change and look forward to discussing the specifics of the policy with the administration and the student body as a whole."
The announcement by Mount Holyoke is likely to be cited in discussions at other women's colleges. Smith College is currently studying the issue, and in 2013 clarified the way it described its policies on transgender students after widespread news reports (disputed by college officials) that Smith had rejected a transgender applicant. A Smith spokeswoman said via email Tuesday that trustees continue to consider the issue.
Bryn Mawr College's website gives this policy on transgender applicants: "Bryn Mawr's admissions policy as a women's college is to admit female students only. If it is not clear that an applicant to the College is female, we would approach the situation on an individual basis to gain a better understanding of the student's circumstances. However, our policy to admit female students only would not change. How an individual self-identifies in terms of gender, or any changes in self-identification while a student is enrolled here are personal matters and not something the college tracks. Our students tend to be exceptionally accepting of each other’s differences, and the faculty, staff, and administrators try to create as healthy and supportive an environment as possible for all of our students."