Spelman College President Mary Schmidt Campbell welcomed students and staff alike to the new academic year with a news-breaking short letter. Tucked among paragraphs about strategic planning and enrollment figures, was an announcement about a new task force—one that would recommend whether the storied historically black college for women should admit transgender students.
If Spelman changes its admissions policy, it would join the so-called “Seven Sisters” colleges in opening its doors to trans women.
But even more importantly, breaking down this barrier would strike at the heart of racial and gender hierarchies limiting African Americans.
As a leader in the academic world, Spelman is well situated to make that move. Its history demonstrates how closely linked education is to creating—and challenging—constraining social structures.
For example, in the 19th a common rationale for keeping women out of strenuous academic pursuits was that too much thinking would divert blood from women’s wombs to their brains, and make them infertile.
Hard as it may be to believe today, such ideas guided Spelman’s founding, albeit with a racial twist.
Creating Black Women in Society’s Image
Sophia Packard and Harriet Giles, New England missionaries, established Spelman in 1881, intent on creating a single sex education for Black women, a rarity at the time. They convinced Henry Morehouse, a field secretary of the American Baptist Society, to set aside property for them to create what would become Spelman.
With Packard and Giles at the helm, Spelman’s mission was to prepare young Black women to assume roles appropriate for their race and sex: teachers, nurses, missionaries, or church workers, for example. In addition, as Beverly Guy-Sheftall explained in Daughters of Sorrow: Attitudes toward Black Women, 1880-1920, the curriculum included moral education to “mold. . . Christian Character and eradicat[e] . . . those traits that were a carry-over from slavery—dishonesty, tardiness, drunkenness, idleness, immorality, and irresponsibility.”
Higher education recognized, embraced, and reinforced stereotypes limiting Black women’s ability to achieve.
Twenty years later and hundreds of miles away, famed educator Nannie Helen Burroughs learned the hard way how deeply ingrained gender stereotyping was for Black women. In establishing the National Training School for Women and Girls (NTS) in Washington, D.C., Burroughs promised a focus on the “three Bs: Bible, bathtub, and broom.” But, the “broom” included training in more than domestic science—NTS taught women trades such as typesetting and salvaging. An NTS brochure explained why:
Not many of the colored graduates from normal schools or colleges are accepted in the public school system as teachers in the North. . . a Trade School will open new avenues of employment to girls who are shut out of teaching in public schools because they live in sections where colored teachers are not generally employed.
This pragmatic rationale was controversial and costly. Prominent men from the National Baptist Convention objected to this aspect of NTS’s curriculum because it taught Black women to be “breadwinners,” which of course, was the proper role for Black men. As a result, the organization withdrew its financial support for the school.
Disapproving of Black women as heads of households, that is, Black women encroaching on what’s perceived as Black male territory, should sound familiar.
Father Knows Best? Patriarchy as the Cure for Racism
That was the theme Daniel Patrick Moynihan trumpeted in The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (the (in)famous Moynihan Report). In making the case for a comprehensive domestic policy agenda to improve the status of African Americans, the Report recognized the entrenched racism that had constrained Blacks from the nation’s founding. But rather than identifying strategies to address the myriad threads of discrimination running through the nation’s fabric, the Report zeroed in on Black families—specifically women headed households—which were to blame for the “tangle of pathology” afflicting Black families, from juvenile delinquency and low IQ scores, to high dropout rates. According to the Report, Black women breadwinners “undermined the position of the father;” it warned that if African American families continued the “matriarchal pattern,” Negro children would “flounder and fail.”
The Obama Administration’s My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) initiative sounded similar alarms, if in less dire terms. MBK is a public-private joint venture to address the myriad issues confronting males of color, such as high rates of dropping out of school, unemployment, and criminal involvement. The President formed a Task Force consisting of the heads of all the executive branch agencies to develop assessment tools for boys and young men of color, measure the impact of federal policies on them, and serve as a clearinghouse for data and strategies to address their needs. The Task Force Report observed that being raised by a single mother was one indicator of poor outcomes for these young men. While failing to go so far as labeling such families as dysfunctional, MBK nonetheless assumed that focusing on Black and brown males was necessary and appropriate, despite the fact that poor young women of color equally confront substandard schools, crime-ridden communities, and diminished life opportunities.
As these examples suggest, conforming to gender roles has been lifted up as the balm for what ails Black folks for too long. But it’s a losing strategy. It keeps the focus on individual behavior instead of on the myriad structural barriers to equality confronting people of color. Moreover, the gender conformity prescription only reinforces systemic gender- and race-based discrimination. The quest for performing “true masculinity” sustains a social hierarchy in which white men are at the top. In addition, because traditional masculinity depends upon an opposing force to distinguish itself, emphasis on “real manhood” often leads to physical and psychological violence against women or men who don’t conform to gender norms. Transgender women of color, in particular, have been the targets of such attacks, according to a report co-authored by the Movement Advancement Project, the National Center for Transgender Equality, and the Transgender Law Center.
On the Right Track
So, when a prominent institution like Spelman signals its willingness to admit transgender students, in addition to continuing its excellent academic offerings exploring and critiquing gender and sexuality, it’s noteworthy. Spelman can use its considerable social capital to address transphobia and, in so doing, amplify its academic work challenging a social framework in which gender and race norms mutually support patriarchy and white supremacy.