Since my graduation from Smith College in 2013, over twenty women’s colleges have publicly adopted admissions policies outlining more than fourteen different combinations of biological/medical, social, and legal criteria for who may apply to their institutions in regards to transgender applicants. In effect, these policies define a variety of ways to be a “woman” that honor both the experiences and identities of students as well as the feminist histories, traditions and missions of women’s colleges to challenge restrictive gender roles.
While I was (and am) proud of my alma mater for adopting such a policy, I have been struck by the ensuing tensions and debates that occurred among students and my fellow alumni about who belonged within our community. My time at Smith and in the alumni community since have been vital to my growth into the feminist academic I am today. While I applied originally to be in an environment of like-minded women based on my pre-conceived understanding of my gendered self, I realized that my growth actually stemmed from interacting with students who were unlike me in so many different ways. Smith equipped me with new concepts, identities, and possibilities of what womanhood, gender, and community means by being with people of other sexes, genders, races, sexualities, abilities, socio-economic statuses, and mindsets. Hence, the trans policy raised more questions than answers for me: How do my fellow trans and non-binary peers experience the woman-centered atmosphere of women’s colleges? In what ways do these policies and other institutional practices of womanhood support these students?
Through my dissertation research, I amplify the experiences of trans and non-binary students enrolled in two women’s colleges by mapping the development, implementation, and impact of these trans-inclusive policies on campus. Through my fieldwork in 2018-2019, I collected 123 interviews with students, alumni, staff, faculty, and administrators, attended events, and developed working relationships with transgender and non-binary students to examine how formal inclusion policies–and women’s colleges more broadly–shape institutionalized feminist missions of social justice. As a result, we learn from the ways in which students experience college in order to create inclusive and diverse college environments, especially for transgender students.
This work is supported by the National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant and the National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowship.