Defining “Woman” at Women’s Colleges

By Megan Nanney and David L. Brunsma

Who can attend a women’s college? While it may seem like the answer is obvious—women can go to a college for women—these institutions of higher learning continually face the challenge of defining who qualifies as a woman. Is a woman defined by her sex? Gender identity? Legal status? Must a woman’s sex/gender/legal status align or can they differ?

Institutions such as women’s colleges depend on the use of gender categories in order to define their very existence—they need to be able to somehow determine who a “woman” is in order to be a college for women. As gender is increasingly understood to be fluid and socially constructed rather than a stable biological fact, however, being able to define who a woman is becomes increasingly more difficult. Consequently, with new ideas of who a woman is, these colleges now must find new ways to define the “woman” in the “women’s college.”

Figure 1. Barnard College, 1913. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Allow us to provide a recent example:

In 2013, a talented pianist, artist, and aspiring pre-med major named Calliope applied to her dream school, Smith College, a women’s college in Massachusetts. Like most college applicants, the stress of applying to college is great—are one’s scores good enough, did they get good grades, are their recommendations strong? Yet, for Calliope, she also had the question of whether she can even apply to Smith, as she is a trans woman.

At the time, Smith had what Calliope called an “unpolicy” or a lack-of a policy regarding trans applicants. Rather, it was assumed that only women would need to apply to a women’s college, and no such policy or statement was needed. But, as Calliope questioned, is a woman at a women’s college defined by her identity, legal status, or her biology? After conferring with the admissions office, Smith indicated that as long as her application materials suggested Calliope to identify her gender as a woman, her application would be considered. Yet, her application was returned and rejected, as her Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) indicated her sex as male.

After Calliope made her story known online and to news outlets, Smith College students and alumnae, as well as other women’s colleges, took note of this issue. Quickly, protests, teach-ins, advisory committees, and petitions were created across women’s college campus, demanding for Smith and other women’s colleges to adopt trans inclusive admissions policies. Since then, eight women’s colleges—Mills, Mount Holyoke, Simmons, Scripps, Bryn Mawr, Wellesley, Smith and Barnard—have adopted such polices that explicitly outline who can and cannot apply to women’s colleges based on biological, legal, and identity-based criteria.

In our article, we center our focus around the question, “Who is a woman?” in light of these recent changes in admissions policies. Utilizing newspapers at women’s colleges and the recently developed policies at these eight schools (plus Hollins College, who, notably, adopted a trans exclusive policy in 2007) to understand the types of criteria and reasoning why these policies are formed as well as the shape they take. We are interested in the many different ways that these colleges determine who a woman is. In fact, we find nearly fourteen different combinations of biology, legal status, and gender identities that these policies either say a person can or cannot be in order to attend.

For example, some schools explicitly state that a potential women’s college student who was assigned female at birth (sex) and identifies as genderqueer (gender identity) may attend their college (Mills, Mount Holyoke, Simmons, Bryn Mawr), while some explicitly state that this combination is not admissible (Smith and Barnard), while some omit this combination from their policy altogether (Scripps, Wellesley, Hollins). For a student wishing to apply to these colleges, it quickly becomes confusing, frustrating, and potentially demoralizing as they try to understand how they may fit within these varying parameters across institutions.

Finding this, we were left with the question why is there so much variety across schools? We found that despite legal protections allowing women’s colleges to essentially accept anyone who is not a cis man, these colleges go back and forth depending on their ideas of the tradition of the college as a college for women and their activist mission as a college to challenge gender norms.

While there is no hard or fast rule as to whether or not, as well as how, these colleges should change their policies, it raises concern regarding how gender is defined and used at the policy level to impact students. On the one hand, expanding the idea of who a woman is allows for more people to access the benefits and community of the “women’s college network” and “sisterhood.” Yet on the other hand, these policies still define who a woman is, thus potentially limiting womanhood to a certain number of combinations of sex-gender-legal status that may not be applicable to various applicants’ lives. Thus, we argue that the ways in which women’s colleges utilize gendered policies to structure their institutions need to be reconsidered in light of the mission of the college to challenge gender inequality.

In asking who a woman is, perhaps the answer cannot be defined at all.

Megan Nanney (she/her pronouns) is a doctoral student in the Sociology Department with a concentration in Women’s and Gender Studies at Virginia Tech. Her research applies critical trans and queer perspectives to the construction and institutionalization of gender and sexual normativities. In her spare time Megan is the Founding Managing Editor of Sociology of Race and Ethnicity and she enjoys serving as the editor-in-chief for VT’s LGBTQ Magazine, The Interloper. David L. Brunsma is Professor of Sociology at Virginia Tech. He is Founding Co-Editor of the journal Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, flagship journal of the Section of Racial and Ethnic Minorities of the American Sociological Association. His research focuses on race, racism, identity, and human rights. He lives and loves in Blacksburg, VA. Their article, Moving Beyond Cis-terhood: Determining Gender through Transgender Admittance Policies at U.S. Women’s Colleges, can be found in the April 2017 issue of Gender & Society 31 (2)

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