Beyond Cis-terhood: Gender Inclusivity at All Girls’ Schools

On my all girls’ high school’s website, it says, “We help young women succeed by empowering them”. After my seven years here, I do indeed feel that I have become an empowered woman. As a woman, I have been and will be discriminated against because of my gender. But as an empowered woman, it is my responsibility to make my school safe for anyone who can face that same unfairness. So my mission for my senior year is to answer the question that many single-sex schools have been thinking about a lot lately: what do we do if someone who is transgender or gender nonconforming applies to our school?
First, I would like to mention that, at most schools, there are transgender and gender nonconforming students there already. At my school, I know students who identify as genderqueer, agender, bigender, you name it, but none of them are open about their gender to the larger community. As president of our Gender and Sexuality Alliance, these students often come to me, asking why pants aren’t a uniform option, why a dress has to be worn at graduation, why the phrase “us girls” is continuously used. And they aren’t the only ones. Cisgender students approach me all the time with remarks like, “I’m a woman and I love pants. Our school was founded by five women who wanted girls to have the same opportunities as boys. So why are we still required to wear skirts?”

These are all good questions. Yet they don’t have easy or simple answers. How does a school maintain its historic mission of educating girls while also being accepting and inclusive? When all girls’ schools were founded, it was because girls did not have access to the same education as boys. However now there are tons of coed schools and gender is no longer considered binary. 

Luckily, I am not the first to consider this dilemma. 

Many women's colleges have announced formal policies about transgender and gender nonconforming applicants within the past year or so. While these schools have slightly different policies, most agree that an applicant must identify either completely or partly as female, but does not need government or legal verification of gender or sex. Most also agree that if a student, once enrolled, no longer identifies as a woman, they will be supported and given a diploma if all academic requirements are met. These guidelines are vital for transgender and gender nonconforming students. Just a few years ago, Smith returned a transgender student’s application since her FAFSA form did not list her gender as female, while her application did. Now, if she applied, this wouldn’t be a problem.

These formal policies help students know they are appreciated, recognized, and understood. Still, people wonder if, due to these new decisions, the meaning of being an all girls’ school gets lost. The answer is no. Mount Holyoke College puts it perfectly: 

“Mount Holyoke remains committed to its historic mission as a women’s college. Yet, we recognize that what it means to be a woman is not static … 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.” - Admission of Transgender Students, Mount Holyoke College Website

Mount Holyoke not only describes that it is still a women’s college, but also says that the people who founded women’s schools would agree with this decision. Lhana Ormenyi, a Barnard College student, agrees with this: “Trans women, trans men, non-binary people, and cis women all face gender-based oppression and deserve a space that affirms their identity and their right to explore and investigate gender, both theoretically and personally” (Admission from The Blue and White). Ormenyi was also the co-director of “Beyond Cis-terhood”, Barnard and Columbia’s collection of LGBTQ+ monologues about gender. The mission of the monologues was to expand the community’s discussions on gender and sisterhood. At all girls’ schools, the idea of “sisterhood” is often brought up, but are we really a family if we do not affirm each and everyone’s identities?

Creating women’s schools was a revolutionary and progressive idea. So shouldn’t we continue that mindset?  Shouldn’t we all be pioneers in the complex world of gender? I certainly believe so.
Throughout this year, I have been working with students and administrators at my school to create a formal policy for transgender and gender nonconforming applicants and students. While I know that we will still be saying phrases like “us women” for a long time, we can at least create guidelines that let transgender and gender nonconforming students that wish to study in a historic all girls’ school know they are welcome. It’s time for all girls’ schools, not only mine, to do this. We all need to recognize that first wave feminists who strived for women’s education would have supported this. The founders of women’s schools broke societal conventions years ago, and now, it is again time for us to push the boundaries of gender and education.

text: zipi diamond
visual: jon gillbert leavitt
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