Murray Edwards College, which is within Cambridge, voted Sept. 25 to change its admissions requirements to account for women who were identified male at birth but have taken steps to live in the female gender or who have been legally recognized as female.
College President Dame Barbara Stocking said in an op-ed for "The Telegraph" that it is necessary to remain a college for women due to continued gender inequality.
“We have made this change recognizing that the definition of female is changing – legally, socially and generationally – and in order to be true to our values as a College that is open to all outstanding women,” the statement said.
Transgender policies at women-only colleges in North Carolina
While some universities across the United States, like Spelman College and Mount Holyoke College, have taken similar steps to Murray Edwards College, Bennett College is the only women-only school in North Carolina with a similar policy — which the school implemented in January 2017. Meredith College and Salem College — the state’s two other women-only colleges — do not currently have policies explicitly addressing transgender admissions, although Salem College recently changed its nondiscrimination statement to include gender identity and expression.
Bennett College admits self-identified women and people assigned female at birth who do not fit into the gender binary. The school does not accept applications from men, and those assigned female at birth who identify as men are not eligible for admission.
Steve Willis, interim provost and vice president for academic affairs at Bennett College, said the policy keeps the school contemporary.
“Part of being a lifelong learner, part of being a college student and part of being a college professor is to continue to grow and to learn and to see how to look at the world and how we look at each other today might be different than the way we did years ago,” he said.
Salem College spokesperson Johnny Johnson said in an email that the school decided to address a transgender policy in the form of updating its nondiscrimination statement. Salem College considers for admission transgender women with a valid government-issued ID that identifies them as female.
"This was done through the nondiscrimination statement rather than a specific transgender policy to clarify the protections afforded to all students on the basis of protected classifications rather than specifying one particular group," Johnson said.
Shery Boyles, director of admissions at Meredith College, said the school admits qualified women at the undergraduate level. Meredith’s admissions policy does not mention gender identity.
“I think all same-sex institutions probably should take a look at their policy and their thoughts on this particular topic and have the conversation,” Willis said.
Transgender women and non-binary students on campus
The Bryn Mawr student said they don’t know any transgender women at the college despite its trans-inclusive policy. They also said even though queerness is prominent at Bryn Mawr, there is a cisgender-normative, heteronormative internalized viewpoint that sometimes alienates transgender people of color.
“Bryn Mawr has a lot of assigned female at birth, non-binary folks or transmasculine folks, and I think that experience is very different than a trans woman going to a historically women’s college,” they said.
Some women-only organizations at UNC have also recently altered admissions requirements to be more inclusive, including sororities like Sigma Rho Lambda.
UNC senior Harper Moskowitz, the sorority’s president, said the organization changed its constitution last spring to include any non-male undergraduate student in admissions processes.
“This language is pretty much to clarify to any potential members that it’s a place for everyone and we’re not trying to exclude people based on anything,” she said.
Moskowitz said she wasn’t sure if the change would necessarily bring more people in — but that it would open up more opportunities for transgender women.
“I think if people are looking for a place, hopefully they’ll be able to find one,” she said.
Many women-only colleges, including Bryn Mawr, Salem and Meredith, do not have sororities.
Future debate and action
The Bryn Mawr student said the college's administration may be hesitant to use less woman-centric language because of worries about continued alumni support.
“The idea is that if we use language that doesn’t center around women, the alums are going to feel less compelled to donate money because they feel like they’re not donating money to the institution they attended and that they benefited from,” they said.
Devin Lentz, director of the Transgender Initiative at the LGBT Center of Raleigh, said in an interview it is important that women-only colleges recognize that transgender women are women.
Lentz, who identifies as a woman who is transgender, said one argument for banning transgender women from female-only spaces where nudity might be involved is the notion that some survivors of sexual assault may be triggered or re-traumatized by the sight of male genitalia.
She said this is not a common phenomenon and that many survivor-advocacy groups, like the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, support transgender inclusion.
"I've never actually heard a sexual assault survivor say that they found the (sight) of a penis triggering," Lentz wrote in an email. "I've only heard the possibility advanced hypothetically as an argument against trans women."
Transgender women want to go to women-only colleges for the same reasons as cisgender women, she said.
“They want a space that’s safer or that supports women more so than a traditional college might,” Lentz said. “We are oppressed because of our gender as much as cisgender women are — and basically we need all the help we can get because we’re in a fairly difficult situation.”