Mount Holyoke, My Alma Mater, Giving ALL Women a Voice
It’s the time of the year for new beginnings, and many schools and universities are starting the 2014-2015 academic year this week. My alma mater, Mount Holyoke College, annually hosts Convocation, a welcoming ceremony celebrating new students and the graduating class with music, speeches by the College President among other esteemed professors and guests, and a picnic. Some of my fondest memories from my four years at MHC are from Convocations, but it looks like this year’s ceremony has left all of the others in the dust.
During President Lynn Pasquerella’s welcome speech, she made an announcement that brought the house down. After much discussion and activism, Pasquerella announced that Mount Holyoke College will be admitting transgender students. For those who aren’t familiar with just how powerful this decision is, allow me to explain: admission policies regarding trans women have long been a topic of conversation on campus, and on many single sex campuses. This past spring students came together to form Open Gates, an organization with the goal of educating the MHC community about the college’s discriminatory admission policies and campaigning for inclusion. The organization’s work was covered by media outlets such as Buzzfeed, and their message quickly spread. Similar activism was sparked at other women’s colleges, including Smith and Barnard.
As a pioneer in women’s education since its founding, this change in policy is an enormous step forward for Mount Holyoke. The original policy required that students be “legally female” at the time of application, which is more fraught than many people realize. Requirements for changing one’s legal documents vary by state and country—ranging from a therapist’s letter to proof of multiple surgeries—but most are prohibitively difficult and expensive, meaning that the majority of young, trans women have no hope of changing their legal sex by age 17 or 18. In effect, the previous policy barred an entire group of women from even applying.
And, most important of all, the steps that Mount Holyoke is taking are giving ALL women, regardless of their biology, a voice and place in the rigorous academic environment of these institutions. Mount Holyoke’s new official policy on the Admission of Transgender Students states:
“Traditional binaries around who counts as a man or woman are being challenged by those whose gender identity does not conform to their biology. Those bringing forth these challenges recognize that such categorization is not independent of political and social ideologies. Just as early feminists argued that the reduction of women to their biological functions was a foundation for women’s oppression, we must acknowledge that gender identity is not reducible to the body.”
Slowly but surely, our society’s notions of gender and sex are evolving and we’re developing an understanding that gender can be fluid, not fixed inextricably to anatomy. By bringing transgender rights to the forefront of our minds and national dialogue, activists such as Laverne Cox and institutions like Mount Holyoke are helping expand opportunities for people who have long been marginalized. As a Jewish woman, I hope we can start to integrate their stories and voices into our consciousness.