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It’s not news to anyone at Mount Holyoke, or its peer institutions, that not all students at women’s colleges identify as women. People who were assigned female at birth have been transitioning to male at Mount Holyoke since at least the early aughts, and the college has attracted gender-nonconforming women who use a variety of labels — lesbians, queer women, self-identified masculine “butches” — for much longer (its 11th president, Mary Emma Woolley, lived with another woman for almost 40 years, until her death in 1947). The tenor of media coverage — not only the Fox story, but also articles published in metropolitan dailies — does little to capture how ordinary the fact of gender diversity feels on the campus.
Still, it’s true that Mount Holyoke has changed in recent years — and that its focus on women has become a topic of frequent, often fraught conversation. In 2014 it became the second women’s college in the country, preceded by Mills College, in California, to adopt a formal policy inviting applications from transgender and nonbinary students. The immediate impact was to open the doors to trans women, whose ability to attend had previously been left unclear. Over the following year, the remaining Seven Sisters that hadn’t gone coed (as Vassar had) or defunct (Radcliffe) also announced policies inclusive of trans women, often under considerable pressure from students. Smith and Barnard limited admissions to “applicants who consistently live and identify as women, regardless of the gender assigned to them at birth,” in the phrasing of the latter; Bryn Mawr and Wellesley made explicit room for nonbinary students who were assigned female at birth, and, in Bryn Mawr’s case, intersex students who don’t identify as male. Today, of the roughly 40 women’s colleges still in existence in the United States, more than half say their doors are open to more than just cisgender women.
No institution, however, has gone as far as Mount Holyoke, where the policy established the college as a place not only for anyone who identifies as a woman, but also for a diverse spectrum of people outside the gender binary — including gender-nonbinary applicants assigned either male or female at birth — as well as trans men who have already transitioned at the time of application. Today, the only group Mount Holyoke doesn’t consider is cisgender men.
Then-president Lynn Pasquerella emphasized at the time that she still saw Mount Holyoke as a women’s college, but that the category of “woman” was political as well as personal, with room for anyone who experienced an interrelated set of gender-based oppressions. “What it means to be a woman is not static,” she said at the time. “Trans women and cis women share what theorists call ‘positionality.’ And it is this relationship to the dominant culture that is relevant as women’s colleges accept all those aspiring to live, learn, and thrive within a community of women.”
Can drawing a boundary on the basis of womanhood be anything but revanchist when people understand their gender in myriad, overlapping ways?
When I spoke with the current president, Sonya Stephens, this fall, she explained the policy as an extension of the college’s original mission. Its founder, Mary Lyon, “believed that an education equal to the best that was available to men was a fundamental right of women,” said Stephens. “And we believe that should be a fundamental right of others who are discriminated against as a result of their gender.”
The stakes of this mission have rarely been higher. In the wake of #MeToo activism, women’s colleges, including Mount Holyoke, are seeing skyrocketing applications from cisgender high schoolers. Meanwhile, the federal government has dismantled protections for trans people and sought to define them out of existence. Even before Donald Trump came to power, trans and gender-nonconforming students often faced barriers to higher education: A 2015 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that roughly a quarter of college students who were out or perceived as transgender faced verbal, physical, or sexual harassment on campus, and 16 percent of those who dealt with harassment eventually left their college. If there’s a dearth of safe, affirming spaces for trans students, Mount Holyoke and its fellow Seven Sisters — colleges founded, according to their own narratives, on the defiance of gender norms — seem like natural candidates to meet that need.
But is a college for anyone oppressed under patriarchy still best understood as a women’s college? And if it is not understood that way, is something lost? These questions elicit strong feelings at Mount Holyoke, which has been roiled by a sometimes painful debate over the answers. The conversations share a common vocabulary: Who gets “space” — physical, rhetorical, social — on campus? Who gets to be “centered” — and if the answer is still the cis women for whom the college was built, does that place students who aren’t women on the periphery?
The questions facing Mount Holyoke have implications far beyond its remote corner of western Massachusetts. They are, by and large, the questions feminists everywhere must confront as they consider the future of women’s spaces. Can drawing a boundary on the basis of womanhood be anything but revanchist when people understand their genders in myriad, overlapping ways? Does it make sense to admit someone who identifies as both genderqueer and a woman, while rejecting a gender-nonbinary person, or a man raised and socialized as a woman? Does that base belonging on a word?
Then again, with misogyny everywhere on display, how can the idea that we no longer need women’s spaces be anything but utopian?
Rachman chose the college without knowing about its revolutionary admissions policy, and without any plans to transition. In high school, he felt a dissonance when people treated him differently from his brother and other boys, but he didn’t have the language to describe why. “Before coming to college, I hadn’t thought critically about gender,” he says. On campus, he was drawn to trans and nonbinary students. “I think that if I were to be at a coed college, I would have a more similar experience to what I had in high school. I couldn’t find a space with men or boys that made me feel comfortable, and I also couldn’t find a space with women that made me feel comfortable.”
“There are enough people out there hating on the idea of women seeking community with one another. We don’t need to dismantle women’s space ourselves.”
When we meet in the atrium of Mount Holyoke’s library — a covered courtyard of white and gray brick where undergraduates cluster around cafe tables — Rachman is wearing a denim shirt and silver rings on his fingers, which he turns over in his hands while he talks. He speaks quietly but deliberately, pausing to take the measure of his answers. After coming out as trans in his second semester, Rachman spent more than a year feeling his way into that new identity. I reached out to him after reading an article he wrote for the Mount Holyoke News about trying to construct his own version of masculinity before beginning to medically transition. “This isn’t always the case, but some men lose sight of their vulnerabilities and try to cover them up by being as masculine as possible to help them ‘pass’ better,” he wrote. “I feel like when I go on hormones I will need to pay special attention to my actions and still be the person I have always been. I want to remain kind and giving.”
Just as Rachman feels responsible for how he wields his own masculinity, he believes some of his cis peers need to acknowledge their power and privilege as members of Mount Holyoke’s female majority. “The top of Mount Holyoke’s hierarchy starts with white, cis, heterosexual women,” he says. In this inverted dynamic, cis women are, in a sense, “the man.” “In a larger context, outside of Mount Holyoke, women are still struggling against men,” he says. “But that doesn’t change the fact that while you’re here, you have to understand that you have a different positioning in this insulated four years.”
Campus politics aside, throughout the taxing work of self-formation, “the Mount Holyoke community was my safe place,” Rachman says. He feels that to call it a women’s college reduces his life in the place he calls home to an asterisk at best. Like many students, he refers to Mount Holyoke as a historically women’s college, a phrase he finds not only more inclusive but also more accurate.
Francesca Eremeeva, a junior, is one of many cisgender students who also use that phrase. In her view, peers who resist adding “historically” seem to be telegraphing the message to trans students “that ‘this is our space, and we are offering more space to you, but you can’t go changing our language; that professors should be talking about the female perspective, because that’s what we came to do, and the president of the student government shouldn’t be a trans man but a cis woman, or maybe a trans woman, because that’s what we came to see’ — it’s a really problematic perspective.”
But other students argue that as long as cisgender women aren’t equal members of society, Mount Holyoke should still be first and foremost a women’s college. “It’s special and important that Mount Holyoke acknowledges that educating women is still radical in and of itself,” says Madeline Fitzgerald, a cis student in her third semester. “I think it’s a place that is for women, that recognizes there are people who have had experiences similar to women who don’t identify as women.” Some perceive this view, and the very phrase “women’s college,” as a kind of dog whistle. But all the students I heard defend it stressed their support for the inclusive admissions policy. Much like Pasquerella’s 2014 speech, this is a tricky rhetorical balancing act, which asks students who aren’t women to see their place at Mount Holyoke in terms of their connection to womanhood. “Oftentimes, people who have a perspective similar to mine get painted as if we don’t want people to be there,” Fitzgerald says. “I want to emphasize that I do believe that everyone who is currently at Mount Holyoke belongs at Mount Holyoke.”
Across the ideological spectrum, students agree that the administration, which has started unofficially using the nomenclature “inclusive women’s college,” could do a better job explaining what exactly that means. “I understand the theory of womanhood as a class position under patriarchy, and I understand that within that schema the term applies to me,” says Sarah Cavar, a junior who identifies as genderless. “But unless I’m talking to someone who really knows their shit, that is generally not what people are referring to.”
Fitzgerald was an incoming first-year when she heard from a student on a preview-weekend panel that the place she’d be attending was not a women’s college. “I remember that being an earth-shattering, kind of horrifying, moment for me, because what I’ve wanted all of my life is a women’s college,” she says. Once on campus, “I realized that these things I was worried about were very semantic, and didn’t impact my daily life as much as I thought they would.” Still, she feels that the absence of an official line on the institution’s identity creates confusion, and sometimes conflict.
When we got a coffee in September, Fitzgerald’s curly brown hair was braided in pigtails on either side of her pale, oval face, though later that day she would get it cropped short (a move known on campus as the MoHo Chop). She looked wan from a late night at the college newspaper, where she is the features editor, prolonged by a single sentence in an article that referred to Wellesley as “another women’s college,” thus implying that the term also applies to Mount Holyoke. The editors in the room, all cisgender women, feared a backlash and also couldn’t agree whether the statement was accurate. Fitzgerald listened from her desk as voices rose until one editor yelled: “This is a women’s college! God forbid we talk about women here.” The sentence stayed.
“There were two different kinds of motivation behind the founding of women’s colleges,” says Davey Shlasko, a consultant who provides training on gender and social justice, including at Mount Holyoke, and who is a transgender and nonbinary alum of Smith College. “One was a feminist motivation that says sexism has excluded women from particular kinds of education, and we want a space where women get access to that without those barriers in the way.” The other motivation was a sexist one: “Women are delicate and need to be formed and pampered and brought up into proper young ladies” — and protected from the dangers of the coed world. In Shlasko’s view, the debate over whether trans women, in particular, belong at women’s colleges has revived these conflicting ideologies. If the goal is to tip the scale toward gender equality, then the argument for including trans women is obvious: As a group, they face disproportionate levels of discrimination and violence (a 2013 National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs report, for example, found that 72 percent of victims of LGBTQ-hate-motivated homicides were transgender women).
Is a college for anyone oppressed under patriarchy still best understood as a women’s college? And if it is not understood that way, is something lost?
Then again, resistance to rethinking the meaning of “woman” can be strongest in the most avowedly feminist spaces — ones not at all interested in the production of “proper young ladies.” These have generally been quicker to include trans men than trans women. The trans feminist writer and activist Julia Serano coined the term “trans-misogyny” to denote how the privileging of masculinity over femininity intersects with the social toll of gender nonconformity, compounding the disadvantage that trans women face. But in many feminist spaces (most famously the now-defunct Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival), Serano simply sees sexism: Androgyny and masculinity are celebrated as forms of freedom from the social construction of gender, while femininity is considered a trap, and trans women are accused of playing into its grasp. Some feminists have gone farther, refusing to see trans women as women, accusing them of being interlopers, men in disguise. Feminists who reject trans identities or work to bar trans people from women’s spaces are often disparaged as “trans-exclusionary radical feminists,” or TERFs.
The turning point for the Seven Sisters came in 2013, when Smith College provoked a public outcry by refusing to consider a trans woman applicant named Calliope Wong because her father had checked “male” on her Fafsa. At the time, “the refrain was, ‘Oh, we can’t admit anyone who’s a male because of Title IX,’” says Paul Lannon, the lawyer whom Mount Holyoke hired around that time to review its options for expanding its admissions policy. Wong’s case illustrated the problems with treating legal transition, or medical transition — prohibitively expensive for many, but in some states a prerequisite to legally changing one’s gender — as the bar for entrance to a women’s college. Neither was realistic for the average teenager (Wong said her family was afraid they could be accused of fraud if the Fafsa didn’t match her Social Security information, which she hadn’t yet been able to change). And both were unsafe for a youth who lacked family or community support.
Lannon quickly determined that the colleges were not, in fact, bound to accept only students who were legally female. Women’s colleges, in the sole area of admissions, are exempt from Title IX — the statute that prohibits educational institutions from discriminating on the basis of gender — which means they can develop whatever gender criteria they choose. “They can admit trans women, and they can admit trans men, without violating Title IX,” Lannon says. “That myth has been debunked.”
Five years after Mount Holyoke changed its policy, few trans women attend the college (though it says it does not track exact numbers). None of the current students I interviewed knew any women who were out to the college community as transgender or would agree to speak to me on background. Kijua Sanders-McMurtry, who joined Mount Holyoke in the new position of chief diversity officer last year, told me that improving the pipeline for trans women students is a top priority. Trans women and gender-nonconforming youth who were assigned male at birth may not know that the door is open to them. “The larger problem of how trans women experience marginalization affects the pipeline — they may not get to the point where they feel they have access to college, for lots of reasons,” Sanders-McMurtry says. “That’s a pernicious reality that we have to work hard as a women’s college to think about.”
In Cosmedy’s mind, that’s a huge improvement — even if he did feel as if he gritted his teeth through his experience working 2018 reunions, where the swag included bags with the motto, “A Powerful Network of Powerful Women.” “As you might imagine, with 38,000 alumnae, we’ve received feedback across the spectrum,” Jennifer Grow, an alumna and senior director of communications for the alumnae association, wrote to me in an email. “Many have embraced or celebrated our admission policy, and we have also received less positive responses.”
The more time I spent at Mount Holyoke, the more it seemed to me that even disgruntled alumnae would find much in common with the students remaking their alma mater. Kai Chuckas, a member of the Class of 2020, came out as trans in high school but checked “female” on his Mount Holyoke application, not knowing that womanhood wasn’t required. When we meet in the atrium of the college library, Chuckas is wearing a purple knitted hat and a T-shirt that says “Danger: Educated Black Man” with a pair of Apple headphones trailing out of the collar. He says he arrived on campus without a clear plan to transition but quickly found a community of friends — most of them cis women — who made him feel that it was safe to do so. The college itself was a big source of support. When he changed his name in his first year, administrators helped him update the MHC database, meaning that he is “Kai” everywhere from class rosters to the health center, even though he hasn’t yet made the switch legal. He’d been recruited to play basketball, and the athletics department encouraged him to stay involved with the sport after he went on hormones and — per NCAA rules — could no longer play on a women’s team. Mount Holyoke’s health plan also covers his testosterone, which not all insurance companies do. “Without that, I wouldn’t be able to afford it,” he says.
That doesn’t mean Chuckas thinks Mount Holyoke is perfect. He’s a committed student activist; one of his current concerns is the inadequate training received by campus police officers, who often treat masculine-presenting students — especially men of color — as subjects of suspicion. (This issue rose to the top of local consciousness this past summer, when an employee at Smith College, which is 20 minutes away in the town of Northampton, called security on a black student who was eating lunch.)
But he loves Mount Holyoke, and one of the things he values most about the college is its focus on women. “Spaces that are not centered around women are centered around men, and that can create a toxic environment for learning,” he says. That was his experience in his high school in Illinois, where he felt lost among 4,000 students, talked over in classrooms. It wasn’t until he came to Mount Holyoke “that people challenged me and made me realize how smart I actually was.” But Mount Holyoke has also made him “acknowledge my own privilege as a masculine-presenting person,” he says. He’s become hyperaware of the way male voices attract attention, and he thinks about the advantages he may have over his classmates when he graduates into the world as a man — themes I heard over and over from trans students who, off campus, “pass” or are read as cisgender. In response, he says, he tries to prioritize listening to women — in classes, in social settings — over being heard. He refers to Mount Holyoke as a historically women’s college because that seems most accurate to him, and yet, he says, “my identity here is centered on my women’s education, my women’s-college education. I don’t think I would have been the same person if I’d gone anywhere else.”
“I feel like women everywhere are expected to carve out space for another people, and this is just another example of it.”
The sensitivity to identity that has come to define American politics makes it possible for trans and gender-nonconforming students to engage these ambiguities in a way that cis students on campus are afraid to. In conversations about the trans-inclusive policy, cis women often feel they are supposed to remain silent. Some guard their opinions more closely than ever after a viral backlash against an op-ed in the campus newspaper last spring. The piece was by a cis, lesbian student disappointed that an event billed as “Peer Led Queer Ed” focused on penetrative sex and avoided gendered words like “penis” and “vulva.” “Most of the queer sex going on is happening between people with vaginas,” she wrote, “and though that is not always the case, queer women should be able to see themselves in the conversation at a queer sex ed workshop.” (When I spoke with the workshop facilitators, they disputed the claim that they spent most of their time talking about penetrative sex, and explained that they had decided to describe genitalia as “internal” and “external” to avoid gendering body parts in a way that could trigger dysphoria.)
Angry Facebook commenters accused the author of erasing trans students — or being a TERF — by implying that penetrative sex is less “queer” (which some extrapolated to mean that the author excluded trans women from the category of lesbian, and perhaps from being women at all). As is so often the case now in American politics, the argument raged on social media among maybe a couple of hundred students, but most of the 2,200-person student body felt the toxic seepage of the debate. For many trans and gender-nonconforming students, the op-ed was a reminder that their peers’ respect for their identities may be only surface deep. A friend can observe your change of pronouns and yet privately see you as a woman. “It’s the idea that I’m not really a man,” one student told me. “I’m the vagina-man.”
At Mount Holyoke, as everywhere, it’s hard to balance the norms of true respect and open debate. “I think I wish people weren’t so apprehensive and felt they could talk about women’s issues without having to caveat it with, ‘and this includes trans and nonbinary students, too,’” said one cis student who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was worried about being accused of transphobia. “Those issues are very important, but … I feel like women everywhere are expected to carve out space for other people, and this is just another example of it.” The root of her frustration, she says, is the idea that caring about social justice means centering the voices of the most marginalized, and that “the one who isn’t privileged is the one who isn’t a woman here.” In other words, that cis women are the ones who should be holding their tongues at a women’s college.
There’s no reason the college, and its students, can’t be concerned with women’s and trans equality at the same time, says Shlasko, the gender and social-justice educator. “The most marginalized people are not a single group, and not always the same group,” Shlasko says. “Trans men benefit from being seen as men in some ways and moments, and in some ways not. Cis women benefit from being read as normatively feminine and are harmed at the same time. Both are true, and you have to engage with that complexity. It’s not about centering one rather than the other.”
President Stephens made a similar point: “Mount Holyoke thinks of itself as being ‘both-and,’” she said when we spoke. For one alumna I interviewed, that emphatically means continuing to call Mount Holyoke a women’s college. Tamar Westphal is proud to have advocated for the trans-inclusive policy before graduating in 2012. But when, as a senior, she was chosen to give the commencement speech, she agonized over whether to use the word “woman” in her remarks. In the end, she let the word sneak in only once, in a quote from someone else. Looking back, she’s frustrated by the way she used to police her own language, “overcompensating” for her identity as a cis woman.
“I wish I hadn’t bought into this idea that if you’re saying ‘woman,’ you’re excluding everybody else,” she says. “There are enough people out there who think women’s space is not only unappealing but wrong. There are enough people out there hating on the idea of women seeking community with one another. We don’t need to dismantle women’s space ourselves.”
No matter what the administration does, masculine people will continue to draw attention at this majority-women’s college. In social settings, this is often positive. “Ever since I started a low dose of T and got top surgery and began looking less like I did in high school, I have noticed a greater social capital among the cool queers at Mount Holyoke,” says Sarah Cavar. In classrooms, drawing notice can be more negative. Leo Rachman, usually the only man in his classes, doesn’t think his style of contributing to seminars has changed much since his transition: He was always the kind of person who waited until he was sure of his opinion to share it. But people seem to respond to his voice differently now that he’s male. “I can’t help but sometimes feel that I’m not welcome, or that I’m taking up too much space in the department,” he says. Recently he contributed to a seminar discussion about the philosophy of music, and saw other students rolling their eyes while he spoke. The experience was hard to shake in part because of how deeply he hates the idea of becoming the kind of man who talks over women. “I’m just another person in this classroom,” he says. “I’m not mansplaining music to you — I’m just trying to say how I feel.”
Sanders-McMurtry, the new chief diversity officer, says a lot of marginalized populations “have this question of, ‘Do I belong? Am I changing the space in ways antithetical to why the space was created?’” It’s the college’s job to put that question to rest, she says. She previously helped develop trans-inclusive policies at Agnes Scott College and consulted with the women’s center at Spelman College, a historically black women’s college, and she compares Mount Holyoke’s evolving approach to gender to the conversations about race at an HBCU. Today not all students at those institutions are African-American, but anyone who attends an HBCU chooses a community that celebrates blackness.
Both HBCUs and women’s colleges disrupt what educators call a “hidden curriculum” — a quiet inculcation of cultural assumptions about who will be top of the class, or editor of the newspaper, or student-body president. Could this advantage be undermined if students start electing men into these roles, as many Wellesley alumnae argued when the school elected a trans man to student government several years ago? To Sanders-McMurtry, elevating gender minorities “only adds to the diversity and excellence you can have around how you problematize gender — to how this place interrupts injustice.”
Again, she sees parallels between the work the college needs to do around gender and race, class, and other forms of diversity. Mount Holyoke wasn’t created just to serve women, after all; it was established to educate white women. Today no single student could represent the other 2,200 demographically.
There are many stories you could tell about why any institution was created, but Mount Holyoke has chosen one in which, for almost 200 years, its mission has been to counter the forces of sexism. Many trans men at the college, like many of their cis peers, chose it because they struggled with sexism when the world saw them as girls. Others are concerned more with what the trans feminist Serano calls “oppositional sexism,” the social forces that police the gender binary and privilege being straight over being gay, being cis over being trans. Whether a person identifies as a woman doesn’t determine belonging in a community founded on shared experiences of gendered injustice.
This is increasingly the story the college tells about itself — the one shaping its future, and the one through which its students understand its past.
Leo Rachman spent the summer working in the college archives, looking for evidence of the generations of gender-nonconforming students who preceded him. He didn’t find much, so he started collecting it himself, and his work became an exhibition in the library atrium this fall. The oldest object on display was an abstract painting by a trans alum who graduated in 1999. The newest included a woodcut print by one of Rachman’s classmates, Levi Booker, depicting the artist’s beaming face from the nose down, alongside the smiles of three friends. All are trans Mount Holyoke students. The title of the print is “Gender EUPHORIA.”
I walked by these images a few times on my way in and out of the library. The first time, the print, in particular, drew my eye, and I stopped to consider how it will enter the library’s collections after the exhibit ends, filed away and then maybe rediscovered by some future student looking for themself in the archives. But then I got busy with appointments and interviews. I walked by the exhibit half a dozen more times, joining the foot traffic of people who saw it as just another part of the room.