As one enters Mount Holyoke College’s Williston Memorial Library, a 1905 Westminster Hall-inspired structure, its grandeur stands out: thick wooden beams, perpendicular Gothic windowpanes, stone capitals. Great women studied on this campus: Emily Dickinson, Frances Perkins, Dr. Virginia Apgar.
Fewer and fewer all-women’s higher educational institutions are left in the United States. Those remaining—colleges like Mount Holyoke, Smith, Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, and Barnard—pride themselves on their guiding commitment to fostering the minds of tomorrow’s female leaders. It is this exclusivity of service that has always set Mount Holyoke and other all-women’s colleges apart from co-ed liberal arts colleges.
Yet in September of 2014, Mount Holyoke College announced that, in addition to accepting female applicants and trans men (female-to-male transgenders), it would now accept trans women. In sum, the following people are invited to apply for admission:
- Biologically born female; identifies as a woman
- Biologically born female; identifies as a man
- Biologically born female; identifies as other/they/ze
- Biologically born female; does not identify as either woman or man
- Biologically born male; identifies as woman
- Biologically born male; identifies as other/they/ze and when “other/they” identity includes woman
- Biologically born with both male and female anatomy (Intersex); identifies as a woman
The only applicants who will not be considered for admission are those who are born male and identify as male.
Other women’s colleges have gradually adopted this policy as well. However, it wasn’t until the recent high-profile transition of Bruce Jenner to “Caitlyn” that Barnard College announced that it too will be accepting trans women starting with the class of 2020. Barnard is the last of the Seven Sisters Colleges to change its admissions policy.
What Women’s Colleges Stood For
From their inception, women’s colleges realized the radical idea that higher education is not male-specific. Higher education is, rather, a fundamental right of both men and women. Women’s colleges were meant to empower and affirm women, to foster intellectual free rein, to help women stand up with dignity against adversity, and above all to give women an equal opportunity in higher education. The Seven Sisters in particular were intended to mimic the prestige of the Ivy League, as Irene Harwarth, Mindi Maline, and Elizabeth DeBra highlight in their book Women’s Colleges in the United States: History, Issues, and Challenges. Indeed, the proximity of Barnard and Radcliffe to Columbia and Harvard, respectively, predisposed them for success.
These women’s colleges not only paved the way for future generations of women; they set a new standard for thinking about women in terms of change, diversity, equality, and freedom. Over the decades, these women’s colleges have questioned and encouraged the exploration of gender roles and sexual orientation. Yet only recently have these colleges called into question the very definition of woman—which, in turn, raises the question of what such a school’s admissions policy should look like. Now, women’s colleges are at a crossroads, for to define a term is to set limits on its use. In this context, it is to decide who will and who will not be a woman. The integrity of all-women’s colleges requires limiting enrollment to women. With the acceptance of trans women, are not these colleges essentially becoming co-ed?
If the admissions criteria for trans men is based on the applicant’s (female) biological makeup at birth rather than the fact that she professes herself to be male, then consistency requires that these colleges either revoke admission to trans women (because they were born male) or allow admission to both men and women. Why include some who were born male and not others?
The inability of women’s colleges to define what a women’s college is or is not has uprooted them from their legacy of educating the next generation of—exclusively—female leaders; now they educate everyone except men who identify as men. If, at the time of application, a man decides that he no longer identifies with men, colleges like Barnard, Mount Holyoke, and Smith will welcome him with open arms. And while the most recent change in the admissions policy at Barnard to accept trans women may be met with adulation in our politically correct times, Barnard’s integrity as a women’s college is nevertheless lost.
When Biology is Left Behind
By excluding biology from the definition of men and women, we sacrifice our ability to distinguish between the two. The alternative is to say, along with gender theorist Sandra Bem, that humans become gendered as they grow up in society. Such proposals are being seriously entertained. The Human Rights Tribunal of British Columbia, for example, is currently debating whether or not assigning a baby’s gender at birth is discriminatory, as it gives “false information about people and characterizes them in a way that is actually wrong” according to Morgan Oger, chair of the Trans Alliance Society.
Our society is becoming less and less willing to acknowledge not only biological differences of the sexes but also the reality of human nature as a union of body and soul. These tendencies presuppose that someone might very well be born with a girl’s body and a boy’s soul—that there is no inherent connection. Jenner’s recent claim to having “the soul and the brain of a female” is perhaps the paradigm case of this, but could not be farther from common sense. Jenner retains the brain he had when he was born, and research suggests that there are substantive differences between male and female brains.
Frances R. Spielhagen, in her contribution to the volume Debating Single-Sex Education, draws attention to brain-imaging research conducted by Dr. Joseph Lurito at Indiana School of Medicine. The research showed that:
- A majority of males use the left side of their brains for listening.
- A majority of females use both sides to process what they hear.
Thus, during certain critical learning activities such as listening and reading, males and females use notably different areas of their brains. This is one example from a growing body of research that demonstrates that the sexes learn differently and even see and hear differently.
One reason all-women’s colleges continue to flourish today might be that, because women learn differently than men do, learning in an environment exclusively dedicated to their sex gives them the highest peer-to-peer learning advantage possible. In co-ed schools, men and women’s learning differences may lead to different gains—male and females may grasp certain ideas differently, and at different paces, and consequently might benefit from different approaches to teaching. Therein lies an argument for retaining the all-women’s colleges’ old standards for admission. These colleges aim at educating the next generation of female leaders, and their success depends on their catering to women’s educational needs. One might profess a different gender than that assigned at birth, but one’s brain chemistry and information processing remain unchanged.
Many women’s colleges hold that, in order to be true to their legacy as a women’s college, it is sufficient to retain the language of a women’s college—emphasizing women’s opportunities, the school’s female history and academic standards, and the camaraderie of female friendship. But the integrity of an all-women’s college depends on serving individuals biologically identifiable at birth as female. Women’s colleges that abandon this standard effectively cease to exist as such.
Moving the Public Conversation Forward
Who is supposed to be helped by the acceptance of trans women? If anyone, we would hope to be helping either all women or trans women. Are we helping women generally to become confident in their identities and succeed in our society by telling them that trans women are also just like them? There is a good case that we are not. As some feminists have pointed out, trans women are often the recipients of “male privilege”; indeed, the highest paid female CEO was born a man.
More plausibly, perhaps, it might be suggested that we are helping trans women by recommending a sex change (“gender reassignment surgery”). But there are good reasons to doubt this too. Is surgery the right response to this misalignment of desire and appearance? In other cases we wouldn’t think so. In a recent Public Discourse article, Nuriddeen Knight recalls her fleeting childhood desire to be white. She draws an analogy between her own experiences and those of Pecola, a character from the Toni Morrison book The Bluest Eye. Though Pecola does not have blue eyes, she wants them, and by the end of the book even convinces herself that she has them. But this is not a triumph of her identity.
But what if it were really possible for me to become white or for Pecola to acquire blue eyes? Would that be the end of the story—the happily ever after? Would changing our physical appearance magically erase all our issues of self-esteem and self-worth?
No, of course not. The eyes and the skin color were never the problem: racism and abuse were. We would only be putting a Band-Aid on the real issue.
Similarly, women’s colleges that accept trans women are putting a Band-Aid on underlying issues while compromising the very thing that sets them apart from co-ed schools—their long held identity as institutions exclusively dedicated to the flourishing and enrichment of women’s education.
When the bliss of the Vanity Fair cover shoot, the ESPY Courage Award, and the stream of congratulatory, high-profile tweets wear off, will Jenner be as elated about being a “woman” as he is now? We’ve all been known to hide our fears, our uncertainties, our insecurities, and our pains behind something that makes us feel good—but it’s the phantom behind the mask who needs our love, sympathy, and compassion the most.
At the end of the day, America’s all-women’s colleges stand for something more than appearances: They stand for a legacy of academic excellence dedicated to the educational stimulation of women. For Barnard, that should mean giving women—women exclusively—the means to succeed as women. For, without the presumption that women’s colleges are intended for women, these colleges make a female’s birthright secondary to a decision to identify as a women.
We cannot change our DNA, and we cannot change the way we were born. Let’s recognize our differences and celebrate our similarities. But let’s not call ourselves something we’re not.
Kelsey Paff graduated with a BA in World Literature and Studio Arts from the College of the Holy Cross. She lives near Princeton with her husband and five-month-old son.