On Saturday, Smith College, one of the Seven Sisters schools, a.k.a. the Ivy League Ladies' Auxiliary, announced its decision to accept applications from anyone who identifies as a woman, regardless of her legal status.
For me, this is a small victory—finally, my alma mater is not being embarrassing!—as well as a small defeat, since now I have to start giving them money again.
Most importantly, though, this is about giving young trans women the message that they are welcome.
“One of the major problems for trans women is simply the ability to socialize with other women and have that be okay,” said my friend Meredith Ramirez Talusan, a trans academic. “Trans women in coeducational institutions are systematically excluded from spaces that were originally developed on behalf of cis women.” Making the decision to explicitly include trans women sends an important signal to trans women who would otherwise be isolated.
For trans rights in general, it may seem relatively small; it offers new opportunities to the daughters of privilege without doing anything to address the higher murder rates among trans women of color, or the 15 percent of trans people living in poverty, or the sometimes terrible consequences when trans women are incarcerated with men. Smith students are predominantly wealthy and largely white; their problems are usually the first to get solved, and the simplest.
But I believe, or at least I hope, that this will be bigger than it looks, and have resonances well beyond my little school.
For one thing, it finally brings Smith's admission policy more in line with its progressive self-concept. Smith's prior rules allowed trans women to be admitted, but only if they had legally changed their gender to female—a tall order for the high schoolers who make up most Smith applicants. Every year we have a campus-wide event called Celebration (in my day, Celebration of Sisterhood), boosting love and support for all gender expressions and sexualities.
But the policy on trans women always made that look like posturing. If we supported our sisters so much, why not our sisters who were assigned as male at birth? They'd worked harder to embrace their womanhood than those of us who just identified as women by default.
Of course, I say that now, but I probably didn't think it then. It's not that I harbored any particular transphobia when I was in college 15 years ago, but I didn't know anything; I didn't have any openly trans friends in high school, and I graduated college having only met a few trans men. (Smith was, and I assume still is, a relatively popular place to transition as long as you are legally a woman when you apply.) Later, when I finally made more trans friends and paid more attention to trans issues, my experience in the feminist crucible that is Smith helped prime me to accept “trans women are women” as a no-brainer, but I would have understood it better earlier – and had a deeper understanding, earlier, of the political challenges involved – if I'd had a wider range of trans classmates.
I don't mean to make it sound like educating cis women is the most important part of this policy change. But ultimately, the way this policy is going to have lasting change outside the privileged bubble of Smith is by changing attitudes among women – cis as well as trans – who go on to change the world.
Politically-aware people tend to cringe when the Ivies and the Seven Sisters congratulate themselves (and each other, but realistically mostly themselves) for the outstanding success of their alumni. It's a short-sighted, self-aggrandizing view of the value of a high-end education, one that ignores how much graduates trade on the privilege that got them to Harvard or Yale in the first place and the cachet of the name.
Still, whether your alums have influence because they're just better people (no) or because the systems of privilege that got them to your school also install them in the upper echelons of society (yes), it's certainly the case that people who go to these high-end schools end up with disproportionate amounts of power. Smith alumnae include CEOs, diplomats, senators, college presidents, judges, novelists, journalists, policymakers and thought leaders. Our list may not be as long as an Ivy's, because sexism is a thing, but the Smith T-shirt cheekily blazoned with “A Century of Women On Top” isn't just a naughty pun.
Smith will now be producing not only powerful graduates, but powerful trans woman graduates, and powerful cis women who have lived and connected and fallen in love with their trans sisters (and brothers), who don't have to think twice about trans women's personhood or womanhood. I believe that will make a difference, when these women go on to their jobs as CEOs and senators and even their jobs as normal people. I believe this new policy will help put the engine of privilege to work on behalf of trans people and trans-inclusive spaces.
Next step: Make Smith not be so goddamn white.
Jess Zimmerman is a freelance writer and editor who spent most of her time at Smith hitting people with sticks. She is a columnist for Guardian US and also publishes in various places around the internet.