Unconventional Education: Defining “Women’s Colleges”

Unconventional Education: Defining “Women’s Colleges”

by Casey Duong

Back in the 19th century, higher education was almost impossible for women to attain. Most universities were exclusively male with the exception of a few co-ed schools. In response, multiple colleges were established so that women could receive advanced education. The most notable of these institutions being the Seven Sisters (Mount Holyoke, Vassar, Wellesley, Smith, Radcliffe, Bryn Mawr, and Barnard) which were considered the female counterpart to the all-male Ivy League universities. As college admissions became more available to women, women’s colleges began to dwindle and many closed down. Out of the original Seven Sisters, only five remain as all-female institutions after Vassar College began operating as coeducational, and Radcliffe College became a division of Harvard University. Today, there are an estimated forty-three active women’s colleges in the United States.

Women’s colleges were originally established to create a diverse, all-female safe space that prepared women for the complexities of life after college but in today’s society, gender is no longer black and white. This brings us to today’s question: should women’s colleges admit transgender students? Someone who is transgender identifies with a gender other than the one assigned to them at birth (think Laverne Cox or Caitlyn Jenner). A transwoman is a woman who was AMAB (assigned male at birth), while a transman is a man who was AFAB (assigned female at birth). The abbreviation FTM stands for female to male while MTF stands for male to female. Transition refers to the process of someone changing their body to fit their gender identity. In contrast, cisgender describes someone who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth. One of the larger identities that falls under the trans umbrella is nonbinary; it describes someone whose gender doesn’t completely fit within the gender binary of male or female. These individuals may or may not choose to physically transition. Although there are many more gender identities, these are the main ones we’re going to discuss today. Recently, most women’s colleges have opened their doors to transwomen and AFAB nonbinary people. However, some believe that transmen should be allowed to apply to women’s colleges, even though they identity as male, because they were AFAB.

Multiple all-female institutions have admitted FTM students who marked female on their application (even though they identified as male) or began transitioning after submitting their application. Although a handful of these individuals transferred schools after beginning to identify as male, there were also some who downright refused to leave the university despite no longer fitting under the category of “woman” and felt that they still had the right to attend. At Wellesley, these men created a group called “Brothers,” open to anyone who identified as anything other than female or as a woman, and demanded the use of the word “siblinghood” instead of the college’s traditional “sisterhood.” While the transmen of Wellesley had supporters on campus, many students also felt that they were invading a female space and that a women’s college was being forced to change its traditions and constitution just to accommodate men. When interviewed by the New York times, Eli Cohen, a FTM student (at Wellesley), stated he felt that transmen didn’t belong at Wellesley and had no right to women’s spaces, but also that transmale students shouldn’t be kicked out or denied admissions. On the other side of the spectrum, a majority of women’s college students believed that transwomen should be allowed to attend the institution of their choice, even if they have not physically transitioned. Most women’s colleges have opened admissions to transwomen, and many have varying policies regarding nonbinary people. Colleges like Barnard will accept any nonbinary individual, as long as they consistently present and identify as a woman, while colleges such as Wellesley will only welcome AFAB nonbinary individuals who feel that they would fit in a community of women, designed for women. Rare cases, such as Mount Holyoke, will allow any individual who does not identify as a cisgender man to apply.

The situation itself has so many complexities, so I decided to interview Edison students of differing gender identities and ask their views on the idea. All of them agreed that women’s colleges should allow transwomen to apply and shouldn’t allow transmen, since they identify as male. When asked about their views in regards to nonbinary admissions, there was a wider variety of opinions. Students Julia Stevens and Jared Austin believed that AFAB and AMAB nonbinary individuals shouldn’t be denied admission from women’s colleges since these applicants did not identify as male while Thomas O’Hara felt that only people who identified as women should be admitted. Other students had a more fluid stance on the topic, and believed that admittance to said colleges should be determined in whatever way the admissions board believed was appropriate. Senior Casper Tran, a FTM student, thought that nonbinary people who feel more inclined toward the female side of the gender spectrum and AFAB nonbinary students who don’t feel that they would violate the female space of a women’s college should be admitted. Personally, I (an AFAB nonbinary individual) agree more so with Casper’s perspective on the situation since his stance would still uphold the traditional idea of a women’s college while adapting to new discoveries regarding the gender binary. So Chargers, what do you think? How should women’s colleges handle nonbinary applicants?



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