On Tuesday, Sept. 2, Caroline Clowers started her first year of college by joining in on Mount Holyoke's annual convocation tradition. She sat at the top of the stairs in Gettell Amphitheater, dressed in a Rosie the Riveter-inspired costume because her class color is red, and felt a "contagious energy" from the rest of the Mount Holyoke community.
This was when President Lynn Pasquerella addressed the entire student body — and viewers watching on a live stream — about an official admissions policy the administration decided to put into place for transgender student applicants.
The official policy, which can be found on the school's website, allows "any qualified student who is female or identifies as a woman" to apply as an undergraduate at Mount Holyoke.
"I think we woke up the small, sleepy town of South Hadley," Clowers told BuzzFeed. "I know that as a freshman, the announcement truly reaffirmed my decision to attend Mount Holyoke. I feel fortunate and proud to be part of a community that actively works to become more inclusive and diverse."
According to Clowers and other students BuzzFeed spoke to who were present during the speech, loud cheers erupted and many of those in attendance were moved to tears.
"It was an incredibly powerful moment. I think most students at least were shocked and ecstatic," Jennie Ochterski, a Mount Holyoke senior and board member of the student organization Open Gates (which is dedicated to the full inclusion of trans women), told BuzzFeed. "I believe the visibility that Open Gates was able to garner this past spring and summer helped show the administration that we — students, alums, and community members — care deeply about the inclusion of trans women at MHC."
Transgender rights and activism have become more prominent and popularly discussed in recent years, and women's colleges are also at the center of this conversation. During a phone interview, Pasquerella told BuzzFeed that ever since she became president of Mount Holyoke in 2010, the school implemented an inclusionary task force that looked at the quality of life for LGBT students on campus. But what finally drove the administration to create the policy was the controversial news coming out of George Fox University this past summer.
According to Think Progress, a male-identifying student filed a complaint with the small, Christian university located in Oregon because administrators said he wasn't allowed to live with other men on campus. GFU apparently used a religious exemption under Title IX laws as a means of refusing the student's request into the single-sex residence hall.
"While we've looked at applicants on a case-by-case basis in the past, we wanted to make sure that we weren't further burdening an already marginalized population," Pasquerella said. "We retain our commitment to being a women's college because, as I pointed out in my speech, the notion of what it means to be a woman isn't static."
Earlier in August, Mills College — another small women's college in Oakland, California — announced a concrete admissions policy for transgender students, although the language is less specific and more ambiguous than Mount Holyoke's. Schools like Smith and Barnard College have also been criticized by students for failing to protect transgender applicants with standard policies and instead reserve the right to address each applicant on a case-by-case basis.
As a result, Pasquerella said Mount Holyoke wanted to demonstrate greater clarity and transparency as a single-sex institution. This led to the school's new admissions policy for transgender students, with opinions and input from the board of trustees, chair of faculty, legal counsel, and other administrators.
"It really is at the forefront of public discussion, and now is the time to act so we're being seen as proactive and not reactive," Pasquerella said.
Even though she hasn't been on campus long, Clowers said she is hopeful that other women's colleges should — and will — follow in Mount Holyoke's footsteps.
"When women's colleges refuse to consider trans applicants, they are supporting a classic transphobic concept: that trans people are not who they say they are, that their identities are not valid," Clowers said. "No academic institution should be able to deny the legitimacy of any person's gender identity."
Linley Beckbridge, who graduated from Mount Holyoke in 2011, echoed the sentiments of the majority of alumnae who are thrilled the college is becoming increasingly receptive to a more inclusive and diverse community.
"There is so much to learn from one another and the experiences we bring to the table. I believe this policy is Mount Holyoke's way of opening its arms to all women, which demonstrates the college's commitment to diversity and inclusion and puts us on the right side of history sooner rather than later," Beckbridge told BuzzFeed.
"As President Pasquerella said at convocation, 'Human rights begin at home.' To lead change worldwide, we start with ourselves."
When asked if she thinks other women's colleges should adopt similar admissions policies to Mount Holyoke's, Pasquerella said that she wouldn't speak for any other schools.
"But we wouldn't adopt a policy we didn't believe is the correct one," she told BuzzFeed. "We obviously think this is the right thing to do."