In 1861, Matthew Vassar’s vision for his college was radical: an elite university for women that would provide a similar education to that of male students. Vassar at once boasted higher education for women and exclusivity in terms of status and institutional strength. Strong House exemplified these qualities—built in 1893 and named after donor John D. Rockefeller’s daughter Elizabeth Rockefeller Strong, it was the first freestanding student dormitory outside of Main Building. The building allowed Vassar to provide its unique educational merits while accommodating a growing student body (Vassar Encyclopedia, “Strong House,” 2013).
The College’s mission adopted greater resonance as other women’s colleges cropped up. Soon, in the early 1900s, these institutions designated themselves as the “Seven Sisters,” a loose consortium that still exists today (Vassar Encyclopedia, “The Founding of The Seven Sisters,” 2007). During the mid-1900s, the Seven Sisters, particularly Vassar, faced an identity crisis, and the College seriously considered an offer from Yale in ’66 to merge into one coeducational university. Vassar ultimately rejected the proposition, instead opting in ’69 to become a coeducational institution on its own (Vassar Encyclopedia, “The Vassar-Yale Study,” 2007).
But where did this immense adjustment of the College’s century-long identity leave Strong? In ’72, the College designated Strong as a permanent all-women’s dorm, considering tradition and the relatively small number of male students in the early ’70s (Vassar Encyclopedia, “Strong”). As the recognition of trans* and gender-nonconforming (GNC) identities has grown in recent years, however, historically all-women colleges have had to reconsider their admission policies, which seemed narrow in defining gender identities. Thirteen of the 34 U.S. women’s colleges now have formal acceptance policies granting admission to transgender students, and six of the Seven Sisters admit trans women, though they vary on their policies relating to non-binary students and trans men (Campus Pride, “Women’s Colleges with Trans-Inclusive Policies,” 2018).
At the beginning of last year, Strong changed its residential policy, moving away from language such as “all-women’s dorm.” Discussing the motivation for these changes, Strong President Mari Robles ’21 stated via email, “There is no one type of Strong resident and I think that this mission statement acknowledges and celebrates that.” In the past decade, trans, non-binary, genderqueer and other non-cis students have been living in Strong, so the House created the new mission statement to embrace and celebrate all of its residents. It reads, “Historically, Strong House has been labeled as all-women’s housing but the House actively welcomes and celebrates our trans*, nonbinary, questioning, agender, and other gender-nonconforming residents and community members” (Office of Residential Life, “Strong House”). Strong House Advisor Michael Drucker stated, “[The transition is] less of an actual change and more of a necessary, inclusive shift towards congruence aligning the reality of the wonderfully rich gender-diversity in our House and the language we all use to describe it.”
Considering campus engagement and awareness, Robles urged, “I would call on the Vassar community to reflect on and change the ways they think and talk about Strong and its residents.” The Office of Residential Life has changed the language on its housing application and website to accurately represent Strong. Drucker acknowledged: “We have a great sense of relief knowing that we are outwardly celebrating all the genders living and creating community in our House.” These language changes reflect intentionality and community engagement, which leave a mark on Vassar history.
Other historically all-women’s student groups have also been working to create more inclusive spaces. Their’ historical identities empower them and create community. However, as a cappella group the Night Owls also stress, “It is important to us to be inclusive to those beyond the gender binary and to ensure that this empowering space does not become one of exclusion.” The group now uses the term “all-women’s gender inclusive,” while also acknowledging the complexity of labels. Another a capella group, Measure 4 Measure, has switched their language to all-female and/or non-binary. The group maintains a space where all members are encouraged to share their voices and be heard, while also aiming to “honor the practice of having majority-femme spaces on campus.”
We at The Miscellany News commend Strong and other historically all-women’s organizations on campus for their decisions to alter their policies. These groups have undertaken necessary conversations about the identity of their members or participants, admirably judging an expanded view of inclusivity more important than outdated traditions. We urge all historically women’s organizations on campus to engage in or continue having similar conversations and to prioritize members’ and applicants’ identities over potentially exclusionary historical precedent. Such a policy change constitutes a crucial step in building the inclusivity for which we as a College strive. It is also key to recognize the significance of these conversations occurring in a wide variety of contexts while still affirming the value of exclusive spaces for trans*, GNC and LGBTQ+ students and community members. We call on all orgs to reflect on who feels welcome and to improve accessibility and minimize unjust exclusion.
Vassar has long prided itself on its initial designation as a women’s college. However, it celebrates its origins while constantly challenging the very definitions of womanhood and inclusivity that it previously lauded. The dissolution of binaries and the recognition of perpetuated marginalization have inspired noteworthy alterations to campus life and functions. We as students are both the inheritors and drivers of these changes, and the orgs in which we participate and the spaces that we occupy are necessary starting points for crucial conversations. Let us use Strong, Night Owls, Measure 4 Measure and other traditionally all-women’s groups as examples of the importance of such productive reevaluations.
—The Staff Editorial expresses the opinion of at least 2/3 of The Miscellany News Editorial Board.