Smith College expands definition of women to include transgender students

Smith College's decision to begin admitting transgender women points toward growing awareness of 'changing concepts of female identity,' experts say.

Joanne Ciccarello/The Christian Science Monitor
A student scours Smith library for research material for an upcoming paper in 2007. In a historic move, Smith College has agreed to permit transgender women.

One of the nation’s most prestigious women’s colleges is about to expand its definition of women.

Smith College is the largest of “the Seven Sisters,” a consortium of prestigious, all-female, liberal arts colleges on the East Coast of the United States. Since its inception, Smith has touted itself as an institution that provides leadership opportunities for women. But throughout its 140-year existence, the school only accepted students who identified as female since birth. 

Now, in a historic policy about-face, school officials conceded that “concepts of female identity have evolved” and agreed to permit transgender women, people who were assigned male at birth but who identify as female, to enroll next fall. The decision, which came after a year of sustained pressure from students and advocacy groups, indicates that changing concepts of female identity are becoming more widely accepted, advocates say.

“Smith College, and many other women’s colleges, have already accepted that they had transgender students, but these are students who enrolled as women and transitioned to male after enrollment,” says Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality in Washington. “Now these schools are realizing that women’s education can be enhanced by the presence of transgender women who transitioned prior to matriculation. These are teenage girls who want the same access to all-women’s education.”

Carlos Maza, who follows gay and transgender issues for Media Matters for America, adds: “Smith College's decision to allow trans women to enroll is thanks in part to the growing understanding that there's no good reason to deny trans women access to women's spaces.”

The move comes amid a recent surge in public awareness of issues facing transgender individuals. Former Olympian Bruce Jenner recently came out as transgender, and several popular television series feature transgender characters, including Netflix's "Orange is the New Black" and Amazon Prime's "Transparent."

But the decision didn’t come quickly. Smith College came under fire last year after rejecting the application of a transgender teenager because she was not legally recognized as female by her home state. Student groups rallied on numerous occasions, urging the school to change its admissions policy. But the school’s board members were reluctant to change their policy, stating that the matter was a “difference of opinion.” Now, after a year of deliberation, school officials have changed their policy.

“The board’s decision affirms Smith’s unwavering mission and identity as a women’s college, our commitment to representing the diversity of women’s lived experiences, and the college’s exceptional role in the advancement of women worldwide. As we reflect on how Smith lives its values – a commitment to access and diversity, to respecting the dignity of every individual, and to educating women for leadership across all realms of society – we will be called, in changing times, to consider anew how we will choose to be a women’s college,” reads a statement on the school’s website.

Advocacy groups point out that community involvement has played an important role in influencing women’s schools to reconsider what changing their admissions policies would mean for their legacies.

“We’re very supportive of Smith and other women’s colleges that have been working really hard with their communities to understand their legacy, figure out what it means to be a women’s college and what it means to be a woman, and find a way to be really respectful of these women. And we’re really excited to know that there is another school that is open to providing a safe and inclusive environment for transgender students,” says Jenny Betz, director of education and youth programs at the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network.

Calliope Wong, the transgender student whose application Smith originally rejected, also responded positively to the news.

“When I put my story out into the world, I originally just wanted one thing: for those institutions and individuals in power, to recognize that trans oppression is not silent,” Ms. Wong wrote in a post on the Tumblr site Transwomen at Smith.

“While there are language issues I have with Smith’s current policy – for example, not explicitly addressing nonbinary [those who don't fit within traditional male or female identities] trans inclusion – I am happy; I am so tired, but happy.”

Smith is the fourth of the Seven Sisters schools to open its doors to transgender women. Mount Holyoke was the first to change its policy in September 2014. Bryn Mawr College followed suit in February 2015, and Wellesley College in March. Other women’s colleges, such as Simmons College and Mills College, have also expanded their policies to include transgender women.

Smith President Kathleen McCartney told NBC the school is appointing a working group to figure out how to support transgender and "gender non-binary" students. 

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