This post has been corrected.
Let’s get a few things out of the way first: I was born a woman and attended the all-women’s Wellesley College from 2006-2010. Less than a year after I graduated, I began my medical transition from female to male, and have been living as a man ever since. But don’t take this to mean that I loathed my time at Wellesley, or as a woman. Every trans experience is different, of course, but my time in a women’s-only world was integral to my journey as a transman.
Wellesley College is one of “Seven Sisters”: seven historically single-sex colleges, all founded in the mid- to late-19th century. These were originally thought of as a women’s version of the Ivy League (which accepted only men until the early 1970s). “The Higher Education of Women is one of the great world battle cries for freedom,” said Wellesley founder Henry Durant back in the 1875, a time when women could not even vote. Today, Seven Sister alums include Gloria Steinam (Smith ‘56), Madeline Albright (Wellesley, ‘59) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (Wellesley ‘69).
But Vassar has since gone co-ed. Radcliffe has merged with Harvard. The Seven Sisters are down to five, and other women’s colleges in the United States are changing or closing down; last week Virginia’s venerable Sweet Briar college announced it would shut its doors. Now that most US institutions of higher education are co-ed, all are re-examining their identities, purpose and viability as single-sex schools.
Some students have called for Wellesley to replace the language of “Sisterhood” with the gender-neutral “Siblinghood.” At the same time, the transgender rights movement has gained visibility, further complicating the issue of single-sex education. Some students and alums have called for Wellesley to replace the language of “Sisterhood” with the gender-neutral “Siblinghood” when referring to the College and community. In response, others argue that Wellesley should remain “all-women,” per its founding mission.
The first time I met a transman was at Wellesley, on a panel about trans alums. For as long as I could remember, I had fantasized about transitioning, but assumed that in order to do so, I would have to start an entirely new life, cutting all ties with my friends and family and moving somewhere else, where no one would know I was trans. That panel was the first time I saw transmen living normal lives. Some of them were activists, others were school teachers or lawyers. Some were out, others preferred to live stealth. This sounds silly to say now, but they were all so normal. This was life-changing for me, quite literally.
Wellesley is a small school, with roughly 2,500 students. As a student, I grew to know two to three, maybe four, people per yearly class who openly and actively identified as male or genderqueer. In a campus populated entirely by women, those of us who appeared more masculine did stick out, but by and large, we got along well with our female-identified classmates.
The first time I met a transman was at Wellesley, on a panel about trans alums. Like college students everywhere, I spent a lot of time exploring my identity in those four years. At Wellesley, I felt confident and capable that I could be any type of woman I wanted, and at the end of the day, that provided the freedom in which to decide that I still wasn’t a woman. It wasn’t about gender norms, or sexism, or buying into the patriarchy: it was about me. I was able to examine myself on the most intimate level and figure out what was right for me.
In other words, to become a man, I had to be in an all-female space. But did Wellesley have to have me?
How should institutions founded on the notion that female-only spaces are valuable and important, respond to and include transgender students and applicants? There’s nothing on the books about this. After Smith rejected a transwoman applicant in 2013 because her FAFSA forms listed her gender as male, the college formed a committee to address the needs of prospective trans students. Mount Holyoke recently appended its admissions policy to clarify that—as a women’s college—the admissions board will accept anyone who identifies as a woman, opening the door for applicants who were born male but identify female. Last week, Wellesley followed suit.
This is a huge milestone in the quest for equality and acceptance. But in their statements, each school has also firmly reiterated their identities as “women’s colleges,” which leaves out male-identified students and alums like me.
How should single-sex schools respond to transgender students and applicants? Many of my peers, young liberal intelligent women, have reacted to Wellesley’s decision with concern. The word “women” excludes transmen, they say, and everyone else who doesn’t identify on the gender binary of male and female. Plus, they argue, trans people are equally deserving of the kind of protective, rights-conscious, gender-aware environment that all-female institutions provide.
It warms my heart to see such strong women being strong allies, standing up and speaking out for the rights of their trans brothers and siblings. I am profoundly touched by my Wellesley sisters’ desire to make sure that I feel comfortable, included, just like them.
But I fully support the decision to keep Wellesley’s admissions policy “all-women.”
I believe in the sanctity of (increasingly-rare) women-only spaces. When I hear people saying that the use of the word “woman” excludes people like me, I don’t know what to say. While trans people deserve to be treated with respect, just like every other person, the truth of the matter is there just aren’t that many of us. There is a difference between being listened to and being catered to.
If anything, perhaps Wellesley has made me a better man, capable of going out and advocating for women in the “real world.” What’s important isn’t entirely semantics—it’s the environment created and the respect shared and experienced in single-sex institutions. Whether we call the result sisterhood or siblinghood, it’s still the same bond that ties us.
Correction (Mar. 20): A previous version of this post stated that Smith College had changed its admissions policy to address transgender applicants. No change has yet been announced.