Since my graduation from Smith College in 2013, nineteen women’s colleges have publicly adopted admissions policies outlining up to fourteen different combinations of biological/medical, social, and legal criteria for who may apply to their institutions. In effect, these policies define over fourteen different 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 and community means by being with people of other sexes, genders, races, sexualities, abilities, socio-economic statuses, and mindsets. Womanhood in this feminist space, in other words, was about so much more than a singular common experience of biology. Hence, the trans policy raised more questions than answers for me: How do my fellow trans 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 seek to understand and amplify the experiences of trans students enrolled in two women’s colleges by mapping the development, implementation, and impact of these trans-inclusive policies on campus. By working with and alongside students, alumni, staff, faculty, and administrators, I want to know how these policies–and women’s colleges more broadly–shape institutionalized feminist missions of social justice. As a result, we will learn from the ways in which students experience college in order to create inclusive and diverse college environments, especially for transgender students.