Smith's Unsisterly Move

Flickr/Patrick Giblin

Calliope Wong isn’t woman enough for Smith College. At least that’s what Smith’s admissions office has decided. 

Wong is a charming, smart teenager with a strong writing voice who calls Smith, an all-women’s college in Northampton, Massachusetts, her “dream college.” She’s also transgender. Last summer, she reached out to Smith to see if her application would be welcome. After some back-and-forth, Smith’s dean of admissions, Debra Shaver, told Wong that she was welcome to apply as long as she checked the “female” box on her application and explained her situation in the Additional Information section of the application. Yet on March 10, Smith returned Wong’s application unconsidered, citing her gender as the reason.

If that sounds like an unsisterly way for a women's only college to act, that’s because it is. Feminists have been arguing for decades that neither our genes nor our genitalia should define our lives. Yet Wong has been found wanting in the woman department for exactly such reductive reasons.

The college claims its hands are tied by the law. Even though all of her other paperwork lists her as female, Wong is listed as "male" on her FAFSA, the form required of all students applying for federal financial aid. Smith officials claim this means they can’t consider her application lest they jeopardize their status as a historical women’s college, and thereby their federal funding. Wong can't change her gender listing on her FAFSA unless she undergoes gender-reassignment surgery, a difficult and expensive procedure not covered by most insurance. Few trans women who elect to have such surgery do so at Wong’s young age, and many trans women elect not to have it at all, either for financial or personal reasons. That current law that requires people to surgically alter their bodies in order to “prove” their gender to the government should be a source of outrage, not a bureaucratic snafu.

But it’s not clear that Smith’s claims about the FAFSA form are even valid. Wong cites correspondence with the Department of Education that suggests that admitting her would not risk Smith's federal funding, and this article in the Harvard Journal of Law & Gender backs her up. But even if the Smith officials were correct, the controversy illustrates that, despite the considerable work the feminist movement has done to decouple the link between sex and gender—having a vagina, for instance, does not destine you for motherhood—certain feminist institutions (and certain individual feminists) are still invested in arbitrarily drawing the "lady" line at trans women.

Women’s colleges were first founded in order to give women access to higher education—something they could obtain nowhere else back in the days when most universities were boys’ clubs. They continue today based on the argument that single-sex education is better for women for a whole host of reasons, from eradicating sexism in the classroom, where many professors subconsciously call on men more than women, to modeling women’s leadership and creating an “ageless women’s network” (that’s Smith’s phrase) that can help alumnae get ahead when they’d otherwise be shut out by the “old boys' network.” There’s some research to suggest that women who attend women’s only colleges do better in their careers, according to the Women’s College Coalition’s count. Although only a small percentage of female college students in the U.S. attend women’s colleges, 20 percent of the women in Congress are graduates of women's colleges, as are 33 percent of the women on Fortune 1000 boards and 36 percent of the highest-paid women officers at those companies.

But despite their commitment to gender equality, many feminist institutions have long had trouble seeing trans women as part of the movement. Cisgender feminists of the 1970s often viewed their trans sisters with suspicion, as though they were men in dresses trying to invade “real” womanhood. Some women’s centers, rape-support organizations, and lesbian-rights groups have gone as far as expelling trans women from their midst. The legendary Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival has always barred trans women from entry (and still does). Second-wave thought leaders like Mary Daly called them “Frankensteins” and in her book, The Transsexual Empire, radical anti-trans feminist Janice Raymond accuses trans women of “appropriating” the female body and many other much less pleasant things. After decades of protest and education, many cis feminists and their organizations have “evolved” on trans rights, but it’s not hard to find Raymond’s heirs active today, even in the younger generations. Wong’s case clearly illuminates how quick some feminists still default to some very conservative, essentialist beliefs about gender when it suits them.

The Smith debate is yet another example of transgender women being treated as wolves in sheep's clothing. It’s a fear revealed as even more hypocritical when you consider that, as part of Western Massachusetts’s Five College Consortium, Smith already welcomes plenty of cisgender men into its precious classrooms and onto its campus for social events. Not to mention that Smith is happy to educate and graduate transgender men as long as they identify as female when they originally apply to the school. 

If the purpose of a women’s college is to provide a place free of gender discrimination where women can flourish academically and socially, and to create lifelong networks that will help women overcome sexist roadblocks once they graduate, what argument can be made for excluding women in especially dire need of these advantages, on the basis of what makes them vulnerable in the first place? Transgender and gender-nonconforming people face staggering rates of violence and discrimination in pursuit of their educations, enough so a sixth of those surveyed left school. Employment outcomes are even worse, with trans people facing double the rate of unemployment as their cisgender counterparts.

Hostility toward trans people has not only been a problem for the women’s movement. Last week, as Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan was schooling Charles Cooper, the lawyer defending California’s ban on same-sex marriage, on limiting access to social institutions for reasons based in biology, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC)—the organization whose logo was lighting up our Facebook pages with red equal signs in support of same-sex marriage—was quietly erasing trans-friendly messages from their protest outside the court. It’s just one incident in the long and ugly history between the organization many refer to as “Big Gay” and the transgender community. As far back as Stonewall, leaders of the “gay liberation” movement have echoed Mary Daly, referring to trans women as “misguided gay men” and cutting protection for trans rights from gay-rights legislation in attempts to make it more palatable to mainstream legislators. In recent decades, the HRC has been the standard-bearer for this strategy, including former Executive Director Elizabeth Birch who said that fighting for transgender inclusion in employment legislation would happen “over [her] dead body.” It’s clear that Big Gay sees trans people and their rights as an obstacle to equality for more “acceptable” queers.

Therein likes the key: If Smith has no legal or mission-driven motive to keep trans women out, we can only conclude it’s because they simply don’t want them there. And why would the administrators not welcome trans women? Only two reasons seem likely: Because they personally feel uncomfortable with or challenged by trans women, or because they’re afraid the donors and parents who pay their bills feel that way. 

Smith College positions itself as a leader of and for women. That has to mean all women, or else it’s meaningless. If administrators there were half as outraged by the situation as they should be, they'd be demonstrating that leadership by calling for changes to the law in order to enable them to welcome trans women into the Smith family. So far we've heard not a peep along these lines from the school, or any of the other remaining Seven Sisters colleges.

If last week’s Supreme Court arguments have taught us one thing, it’s that you can’t discriminate against people because they make you feel icky. If we expect our government to uphold that principle, it’s time to start applying it to our own institutions. It’s long past time for all feminists—and gay-rights advocates as well—to recognize what’s been true all along: Transgender rights aren’t some special interest distracting us from our issues. If we mean anything we say about our values, they are our issues.

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