Hollins University is one of the oldest women’s colleges in the country but now faces a growing challenge over the use of gender as a defining characteristic. Some students and faculty are demanding that Hollins allow for non-binary individuals to apply for admission. However, that step raises additional questions as to applicants who were born female but identify (or have transitioned) as males . . . or biological males.
Women’s colleges have long struggled with the conflict of resisting gender classifications in society while enforcing gender classifications for admissions.
At Hollins, the issue previously came up as some students decided to transition to being male. The school eventually agreed that they could remain at the all-women’s school despite being male.
Now students are objecting to barring non-binary applicants who do not identify as women. According to NPR, the small Hollins University still specifically excludes non-binary applicants due to its “guiding principle” to serve those who “consistently live and identify as women.” The school’s transgender policy states:
“Since its founding in 1842, Hollins’ mission has been to provide an exceptional undergraduate liberal arts education for women. In furtherance of our mission, tradition, and values as a women’s college, and in recognition of our changing world and evolving understanding of gender identity, Hollins will consider for admission those applicants who consistently live and identify as women, regardless of the gender assigned to them at birth. Enrolled students who transition during their time at Hollins may graduate.”
However, some faculty and students have denounced the policy while acknowledging that the entire school is based on a gender discriminatory premise by only allowing women to be students. Hollins senior Kendall Sanders, who identifies as non-binary and uses “they/them” pronouns, insists that “My womanness, my femininity does not define me.” That can prove a difficult view to accommodate at a school that is defined by gender.
If gender should not define students or admission, the question is whether Hollis should maintain its identity as a “women’s college.”
For Hollins professor LeeRay Costa the answer is that the college must change. The “feminist cultural anthropologist” who teaches a course on “Girlhood Studies,” the school needs to “reject that binary” and get rid of the emphasis on “woman-ness.” Instead, she calls for opening admission to anyone “whose gender makes them marginalized in society.”
Other women’s colleges have struggled with the same contradiction in defining their institutions along gender lines while opposing gender definitions. Smith College, for example, will admit biological men who now identify as women but will not admit biological women who now identify as men:
Are trans women eligible for admission to Smith?
Applicants who were assigned male at birth but identify as women are eligible for admission.
Are trans men eligible for admission?
Smith does not accept applications from men. Those assigned female at birth but who now identify as male are not eligible for admission.
Under this newly clarified policy, what is required of applicants to be considered for admission?
Smith’s policy is one of self-identification. To be considered for admission, applicants must select ‘female’ on the Common Application.
It is not clear how the Smithsonian’s newest assistant, Q, would fare in the admissions process. Q is being showcased as the future in a “genderless world.” It is a voice “synthesized by combining recordings of people who identify variously as male, female, transgender, or nonbinary.”
Smithsonian’s purpose of developing Q was to realize “a future where we are no longer defined by gender, but rather by how we define ourselves.’”
Since Q does not identify as a female, an application to Smith would be barred since the school states “to be considered for admission, applicants must select ‘female’ on the Common Application.”