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Mount Holyoke College

Women’s college redefines ‘women’

Sexuality | Mount Holyoke becomes the first of the ‘Seven Sisters’ to accept transgender students based solely on their self-identity

An all-women’s college in South Hadley, Mass., has expanded its definition of “women” with a new admissions policy this week. On Tuesday, Mount Holyoke College President Lynn Pasquerella announced in her convocation speech that the school would accept openly transgender students, including students who were born male but identify themselves as women.

The policy change comes after Mills College in Oakland, Calif., announced this summer it would accept “self-identified women” into its all-women’s school—the first single-sex college in the United States to publicly establish such a policy.

Mount Holyoke is the first school among the historic “Seven Sisters” women’s colleges—one-time female equivalents of the Ivy League schools—to craft a policy admitting transgendered students on the sole basis of self-identification.

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These new admissions policies reveal a trend toward viewing traditional categories of male and female as discriminatory in some cases. In recent months, single-sex schools, including Mount Holyoke, have been under pressure by student advocacy groups to admit transgender men and women. The student group MHC Femmepowered earlier this year posted photos of students expressing support for transgender women at Mount Holyoke.

“There’s a recognition that these old categories, the gender binary, is rejected by many people today,” Pasquerella told me on Wednesday. “So how do we accommodate that in an institution that is committed to women’s education, first and foremost?”

According to Mount Holyoke’s new admission policy, the school will now permit the following types of transgender students 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 school’s policy notes one identity category still barred from admission: “Biologically born male; identifies as man.”

 But such a male student could attend the school if he identified as a woman at the time of his initial admittance and then later changed his self-identity to “male.” Mount Holyoke’s policy says it would not ask such students to leave once they are admitted.

Mount Holyoke applicants won’t have to provide any doctor’s records or documentation to prove they have consistently identified as a gender other than their birth gender. Nor will they be required to have undergone surgery or hormonal treatments. Instead, the school will rely on how the student identifies himself or herself.

“Many students will choose leaving home for college as an opportunity to explore or proclaim new identities,” the school’s admission policy says. “Whether a student transitions suddenly or has a long history with a particular gender identity will not have an impact on how their application for admission is assessed.”

Mount Holyoke expects students to act in good faith. Pasquerella told me if a male student applied as a woman for “fraudulent purposes,” such as to try to crack open the door to coeducation, it would be a violation of the school’s honor code and grounds for dismissal.

Yet, “if we accept the notion of gender fluidity, then we would allow, as we have now, students who come in as women and who graduate as men,” she said.

Mount Holyoke, a school of 2,200 students, already has at least one transgendered student enrolled. It previously evaluated applications on a case-by-case basis and has not, until now, articulated formal guidelines. Pasquerella said other Seven Sisters colleges have admitted transgender students on a case-by-case basis as well.

Another Seven Sisters school, Smith College in Northhampton, Mass., has also been under pressure to admit transgender students on the sole basis of self-identity. Smith currently allows applications from transgender women but still requires that “a student’s application and supporting documentation (transcripts, recommendations, etc.) will reflect her identity as a woman.”

Mills College updated its policy over the summer to admit transgender students to its all-women’s undergraduate program, but did not extend admission to people who were born female but have already undergone “a legal change of gender to male” at the time of their application. Brian O’Rourke, vice president of enrollment and admissions at the college, told the San Francisco Chronicle only three to five out of every 1,000 Mills undergraduates identifies as transgender.

Mount Holyoke, founded as a nondenominational women’s “seminary” in 1837, taught women subjects such botany, astronomy, Latin, and algebra, while requiring them to attend chapel services and Bible studies. Some alumnae became missionaries in China, Turkey, and South Africa. The American poet Emily Dickinson attended for a year.

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