Smith College Decides It’s Not Enough to Identify As a Woman

With the school year winding down before summer break, many high schoolers will be preparing for the caffeine-induced excitement of university life. A lucky few will be admitted to their top pick of a college, while others (lucky, still, for receiving an education) will learn to love their second or third choice. For high schooler Calliope Wong, however, college plans have been complicated by something much bigger than SAT scores: the “validity” of her gender.

In case you missed Calliope’s story, which first drew attention last summer on her Tumblr page and has been circulating around the Internet since, let’s take a look at some of the highlights:

  • Calliope is a transwoman who applied to Smith College.
  • She was rejected by Smith on the basis of her financial application (FAFSA report), which still lists her as male.
  • Calliope cannot be legally recognized as female in her home state of Connecticut, as well as in Massachusetts where Smith is located, unless she undergoes sex reassignment surgery.
  • While firm in her female identity, Calliope is still a teenager and not yet ready to commit to an expensive, life-changing surgery.

Though Smith College seems adamant that it does accept trans students, the school’s FAQ on the matter is vague about how one documents her female “status”:

Like most women’s colleges, Smith expects that, to be eligible for review, a student’s application and supporting documentation (transcripts, recommendations, etc.) will reflect her status as a woman.

Calliope believes that FAFSA should not be used as a basis for determining gender. As she wrote on her Tumblr, “The FAFSA sex reported is only used for Selective Service purposes.” And, in fact, it was Calliope’s father who checked “male” on his daughter’s Selective Service form.

Smith, which wants to maintain its own status as a women’s college, would benefit from reexamining the circumstances under which it determines applicants’ gender. Is having female genitalia the bottom line? Trans people would argue that femaleness is not just determined by outward physical characteristics but by a deeper sense of gender identity.

Calliope has since decided on a school other than Smith, but her story is telling of the limitations placed on the trans community, particularly on transteens. Same-sex spaces sound simple enough on the surface, but they fail to acknowledge the undeniable complexity of gender. Calliope’s rejection should serve as a reminder of this, and hopefully prompt a reevaluation of misleadingly simple questions such as, “Who is a woman?”

Photo of Smith College via Flickr user Inkyhack under Creative Commons 2.0


  1. Sex-based personality theory has no basis in scientific fact. Sex-based personality theories are antithetical to the goals and ideals of Sophia Smith.

    As a graduate of Smith College, I commend my alma mater for maintaining a female-only student body. First, it is their legal right under Title IX. Smith’s sex-specific admission standards are both transparent and consistent. What could be fairer than that?

    But secondly, sex and gender are different.

    Gendered social conditioning (as-assigned-by-genital-appearance-at-birth; a.k.a. SEX!) cheats girls out out of an equal education. It is not neurological or biological difference, but SOCIALIZATION that causes gender inequality. Studies have proved that 1> boys’ collective social behavior in classrooms (see Failing at Fairness by Myra and David Sadker) and 2> the internalized gender bias of teachers and professors are significantly responsible for women’s continued under-representation in professional fields including but not limited to: business, academia, science, engineering, and technology (see the link below).

    Women deserve the option of female-only education because these environments offer temporary, but powerful, shelter from the gendered bias that permeates the rest of the world. Women deserve space of our own. We should not have to apologize or explain over and over again how gendered bias works: it favors boys at the expense of girls. Women’s right to exclude male-born-and-socialized persons from female-only spaces– even those who, like Wong, deeply “identify” with the female social experience– should be a social justice no-brainer. At the very least, sex-segregated educational spaces shouldn’t be under constant assault as enacting some kind of reverse *bigotry*! Females have little reason to celebrate our social association with femininity. That some male-born-and-socailized-people think they are “women born in the wrong body” is not sufficient reason to overlook the mechanics and grave consequences of gendered social conditioning as it negatively affects female-born-and-socialized people.

  2. It is a complicated issue, but I support Smith’s decision to maintain its status as a women’s college. The tools may be rudimentary, the definitions unclear, but ultimately, the college made the best decision with things as they are right now. I am curious as to how this will progress in the future.

  3. emergentlifeform says:

    The grossest thing about this situation is that there are quite a lot of trans men who go to Smith, either having come out as trans while at college (and choosing not to transfer) or who knew they were trans before applying but decided they wanted to go anyway. Smith also ‘admits women, graduates people’ – this policy is a direct result of the high number of trans men and trans masculine spectrum people who attend the college. That is the incredible irony of this situation – their biologically essentialist admissions & graduation policy actually explicitly privileges men over women if those men and women happen to be trans. This is a standard practice in many so-called trans friendly women’s spaces, who base their trans friendliness on letting trans men in, even though it’s clearly essentialist and transphobic.

    • emergentlifeform, I urge you to understand the *legal* restrictions placed on the college under Title IX. Expelling female-accepted students because they *identify* as males is against the law. Smith will also lose its status as a single-sex school if it admits a male applicant, like Wong. It is not a voluntary policy, but a legal necessity. If you notice, Smith is very clear: SEX has a clear legal meaning and SEX is the controlling factor for admission.

      Sex and gender are not the same thing. The entire conceptual purpose of discussing “gender” is to differentiate it from physical sex. I’m not sure why this is controversial, but women are NOT fundamentally constituted by their *identification with* the social constructs of femininity. Nor are females *naturally* compelled to exhibit certain behavioral characteristics as a result of their biology, hormones, chromosomes, or genitals: sex-based personality theories are sexist. Sex-based personality theories are essentialist; sex-based personality theories limit the range of what women can and should be. I am opposed to any framing of the concept “woman” that relies compliance with gendered stereotypes for its meaning.

    • Stalking Sarah says:

      I do not think that “gross” is a good word to use here. Trans* students aren’t gross; that’s just not a civil way to describe other human beings, regardless of how you feel about their presence at the college.

  4. Emma Hamer says:

    I have yet to meet a biological female, who can comprehensively explain, in universal term, what “feeling like a woman” means. If biological females can’t provide any definitive definition, why do these young males (or older ones, for that matter, who are even more entrenched in entitlement thinking) think they can? They don’t have the first grasp of what it is like to be socialized as girls and young women, yet they demand entry and inclusion into female-only spaces. They are completely oblivious to the fact that if and when they are (grudgingly? guiltily?) let in, the nature of the female-only space changes dramatically – conversations are different, or stop altogether; the interpersonal relationships change, the safety women feel to express themselves when there are no domineering males present is gone. The presence of this – very insistent and entitled – young man, who “feels like a woman inside” would no doubt whatsoever have that same alienating effect on the female class-mates. Smith College made the right decision – and should be supported for it.

    • T. Garza says:

      Emma, are you a licensed psychiatrist? If not, you have no authority or enough knowledge to pass judgement as to whether or not someone should accurately be diagnosed with gender Dysphoria. The medical experts recognize it, and increasingly local and state governments generally recognize it as a valid reason to be legally reassigned to the gender that matches a person’s gender identity. If we as a society recognize the validity of a recognition internationally agreed upon by psychiatric and medical experts around the world, then there should be no room for bigotry, prejudice, or biological determinism. Open your mind and see this as both a medical and a civil rights issue.

    • for fuck’s sake. domineering males? are you so uncomfortable with your vagina that you literally can only speak your mind in front of other vaginas? your thoughts and opinions can’t be expressed in front of people with -gasp- different parts and experiences? dialogue about gender is really fucking meaningful when you cut out of the conversation all the folks that identify, either physically or emotionally, as different from you.

    • I’m disgusted by the attitudes of you women who call yourselves feminists. I would have no problem speaking woman to woman with a trans-gendered woman. My womanhood is more than just a collection of body parts. It is a feeling of who I am. For all of you to claim that trans-gendered people did not grow up with the female socialization and stigma that the rest of us have is ludicrous. You don’t think there was stigma associated with being trans-gendered? Also many trans-gendered people were RAISED as women despite their body parts, by loving parents who wanted to help their child become who she wanted to be. I am not AFRAID of men, nor am I afraid of men who prefer to be women. I am proud that there are some people who were born male, but desire to be female. To me it is a huge compliment and I am not threatened by it in the least. It makes me sad that feminists, who should have a good understanding of what it means to be discriminated against, are making it their mission to discriminate against trans-gendered women. I want the trans-gendered women out there to know that I accept them just as they are and I am proud that they identify as female.

  5. Astridav says:

    To be honest– its like the whole issue of transgendered status has completely gotten away from the purpose of a women’s college education, which sprang from the need to put women educations on equal terms with men. Women still don’t get paid the same in jobs, women still get raped more frequently as a gender… Women will never be ‘the same’ as men… they just aren’t. Until society evolves enough for these gross to change, then maybe it’ll be time for Smith to be co-ed. Personally– as a Smith graduate– I’d be happy to see the world evolve this way… I’m not too optimistic for it happening in my lifetime.

    • Barbara Saunders says:

      To my understanding, transfolk, f-t-m or m-t-f have employment obstacles the rest of us cannot even imagine.

  6. Suggested reading on trans feminism by Julia Serrano:

  7. Megan Locatis says:

    As a Wellesley student, I personally don’t think that allowing a transwoman onto campus threatens the safe space in any way. In fact, I think that the shelter of a women’s college is just as important to our trans sibs (male, female, and other) as it is to the rest of us, if not more important. Anyone struggling with their gender is already exposed to more open hostility than those of us who identify “normally”.

    The issue at hand, it seems, is the presence of female genitalia. I like to think that my vagina has no bearing on who I am as a person. This young woman clearly feels she has something to gain from attending a women’s college. I’m certain she, like me, would prefer to have her mind valued above her reproductive organs.

  8. Vivian Taylor says:

    It’s tremendously sad that a place that prides itself on diversity and inclusion of all women is still so discriminatory. It amazes me that a place that is so “Trans-Friendly” to trans men is so unfriendly to women who are trans.

    It’s also very see the ridiculous transphobic comments on this article.

  9. Always refreshing to see an institution which was founded for those who were ostracized and excluded to then ostracize and exclude in their turn. Profoundly disappointed in my alma mater.

  10. what about people at smith who go through transitioning female to male, including taking hormones and such? do they click the male or female box? furthermore, is it really just a matter of the FAFSA? If so, it seems easy enough to just click the other box.

    The real strange thing is to me, though, is why it really matters in the end. It seems a little like people who claim that legalizing gay marriage is going to suddenly cause straight people all over the place to start getting fake gay married for tax purposes. Does anyone REALLY think that some frat dude is going to say he’s a chick so he can see some girl’s boobs in the shower?

    Smith going co ed (which lets face it, is really what this is all about- the only reason people oppose trans women going there is because they think its a step in that direction) would make me sad, but theres a fair chance that its inevitable, eventually. I struggle with the idea a lot, but I don’t think that it going co ed would necessarily prevent it from being a safe place for women to learn. In fact, I tend to think itd stay female dominated for some time, much like vassar and Sarah Lawrence, and other former female schools. I also think that opening it up in that way may be the only way to evolve with the concepts of gender in general. We no longer have all white or all black or all male schools, and even most or all religiously based colleges that I know of still admit people of differing or no faith if they choose to go there. It just seems like a losing battle and frankly antithetical to all the things we’re taught going there.

  11. read Naomi Wolfs book “VAGINA”. You will learn that genitals are bound up with our brains.It matters very much what your gender we are.. Its a physical/mental /emotional combination. They cannot create you female genitals and hook them up to your brain. You will never make it.
    Fortunatelly the ratio of these ambiguous sexuality assigments is very low, 0.03 percent.
    Not really worth throwing the all female collage under the bus.

    • Hipocalypse Now says:

      What you really mean then is, “Everyone born with a vagina comes from the Goddess”, that would be more accurate in the future. You really should re-write that song, since it’s not accurate to what your actual feelings on the topic are.

  12. Gillem Defoe says:

    Smith does not exclude transgender women. Trans women have been accepted and have graduated from Smith with masters degrees.

    • There is usually a difference between Undergraduate and Graduate. A college can have a co-ed graduate program and still be single-sex as an undergraduate institution – and the issue is that women’s undergraduate colleges discriminate against trans women.

  13. Yeshe Rabbit says:

    Sadly, it would appear that in this situation and many others like it, the success of a woman’s institution is measured the ability to replicate the abusive structures of patriarchy: exclusion, body-shaming, and “power over” dynamics. What an unfortunate and painful legacy for what was once a noble and radical institution.

  14. Disclosure: I’m a woman who was born male, went to an all male college (Wabash), and am now physically and legally (so says the state of Texas) female.

    The idea that gender is created culturally was an unproven assumption based on the concept that since we didn’t know how gender was determined we might as well assume that it’s something that we could alter. The evidence refutes this; a prime example are the cases of inter-sexed children who were surgically altered to be female, but as teenagers “come out” as male. There is increasing evidence that gender is determined not by culture and not entirely by DNA, but by DNA expression or exogenetic factors. For myself I don’t see how it could be cultural as I knew I was female from the age of consciousness; about 2 – 3 years old.

    Even if gender were cultural, it appears to be set at an early age and is thereafter unchangeable.

    No one chooses to be transgendered, it’s too much of a problem to be trans in our society.

    Yes, culture plays a part; I was not “pinked”, I’m too old to have had that choice. As a result I have spent much of my adult life trying to shed my culturally enforced male behaviors.

    But now trans children do have a chance to be brought up female. We just want to be whole, to be part of your female environment, to be assets rather than victimized outsiders, please give these brave children the chance to be who they are.

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