Smith College Will Now Accept Some Transgender Applicants

The women's school revised its admissions policy to include those born male who identify as female.

As society embraces transgender people, what is a women-only college like Smith College to do? As of this weekend, they’re embracing change.

On Saturday, the Smith College Board of Trustees revised its admissions policy to include applicants who self-identify as transgender. Smith is not the first female college to do so. Nearby Mt. Holyoke, for instance, already opened its doors to transgender applicants last year. But Smith’s announcement comes after a year of public soul-searching and “formal study” by a board appointed to examine the question. The policy allows for those born as biologically male who self-identify as women to apply, though it excludes people who were born female but now self-identify as male. (Students who transition away from a strictly female gender identity after being admitted are permitted to stay enrolled. These students already form a notable minority on campuses like Smith.)

For a school founded as a safe haven for women in higher education, the exclusion of transgender women has created an odd dissonance. Journalist Kiera Feldman, writing in the New York Times, put it this way:

[W]here the leaders of these schools were once in the vanguard, championing the equal rights of women, they are now in the reactionary position of arguing that biology is destiny. This is a losing battle.

That seems particularly true lately. In the past few years, transgender people have achieved more prominence in pop culture than ever before. Just two weeks ago, more than 20 million Americans watched Diane Sawyer used an interview with Bruce Jenner as opportunity to offer a primer on the history of transgender people and the violence and discrimination they still face.

Smith is careful in its announcement to assure that it is still a women’s college: “In keeping with our tradition and identity as a college of and for women, Smith will continue to use gendered language, including female pronouns, in institutional communications.” Its new policy will not accept transgender applicants who identify as male, “genderqueer,” or anything other than female.

For the school, the decision to open up to transgender applicants without modifying its own identity as an educational institution for women only creates new conflicts. Even among women’s schools that have altered their policies, this is not the only approach. Mt. Holyhoke, for instance, accepts a wider swath of people who deviate from traditional gender binary. The only category of applicant they exclude, in fact, is a biological man who identifies as male. These differences hint at the fact that women-only colleges are far from finished wrestling with the impact the transgender movement has on their identities.