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A College of One’s Own (Gender)

The New York Times' reports on education most of the time exhibit a constitutional poverty of imagination and insights, but the other morning I was caught by a story entitled “When Women Become Men at Wellesley” while I dutifully surfed the titles on NYT’s Education page. The hero of this story is Timothy Boatwright, a trans man and a student at Wellesley, one of the well-known women’s colleges in this country.

The New York Times' reports on education most of the time exhibit a constitutional poverty of imagination and insights, but the other morning I was caught by a story entitled “When Women Become Men at Wellesley” while I dutifully surfed the titles on NYT’s Education page. The hero of this story is Timothy Boatwright, a trans man and a student at Wellesley, one of the well-known women’s colleges in this country. Timothy checked “female”--an identity that seemingly belonged to him--in his application to Wellesley. He did not hide his gender identity after being admitted to Wellesley, and people in College seemed cool with it. After all, as the NYT write puts it, “he wasn’t the only trans student on campus. Some two dozen other matriculating students at Wellesley don’t identify as women.” The story made news, however, when Timothy decided to run for the “multicultural affairs coordinator,” a position in the student-government last spring. An anonymous campaign was started on Facebook, lobbying students not to elect Timothy. The campaigners claimed they had no objection to Timothy as a person; instead, they argued, “of all the people at a multiethnic women’s college who could hold the school’s ‘diversity’ seat, the least fitting one was a white man.”

The story at Wellesley reminded me of a controversy surrounding the rejection of a transgender applicant to another well-known women’s college: Smith College. In the spring of 2013, I spent a semester at Smith College doing field research of its Picker Engineering Program, the first ABET accredited engineering program in a women’s college. Sitting in classes, research meetings, and campus activities, I was deeply impressed by a learning environment that encourages women to pursue their intellectual interests in diverse fields, including engineering, which is a traditionally dominated by white males. Smith students also told me numerous stories about how their academic and personal development was empowered by the college’s commitment to supporting women. The college in the recent decades has also made significant efforts to embrace cultural, national, ethnic, and economic diversity. Besides, the campus of a vibrant women’s liberal arts college is super friendly to other genders. I never once felt embarrassed or unwelcome as a foreign male on Smith campus.

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It was thus quite a shock when Smith College rejected an application from Calliope Wong--a  transgender applicant--on the ground that she checked the box for “male” on her Free Application for Federal Student Aid, a choice mandated by the state laws. Smith students, especially the organization Smith Q&A (which stands for Queers and Allies), coordinated a campaign to support admission of trans women. Unfortunately, the campaign did not change Smith’s decision on Calliope. The Q&A is not to give up. They are continuing their campaign, until trans women students are treated equally by their college.

In 1928, Virginia Woolf famously wrote “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” The necessity of a women’s space, forcefully articulated by Woolf’s metaphor, had been realized by thoughtful activists even earlier. For the past six years I lived in Troy, New York. It was here Emma Willard founded the Troy Female Seminary, the first school for women’s higher education in the U.S. in 1814. For two hundred years, women have thrived in colleges of their own gender. Today, as we gradually relearn the notion of gender, perhaps it is also time for educators to revisit the idea of a college of one’s own gender?