Smith College in Northampton, Mass., circa 1900. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

In the decade before her death in 1870, Sophia Smith had a problem. She was the wealthy heir of a Massachusetts farmer, but had no children of her own — what should be done with her fortune? An avid reader with a profound hearing problem, Smith thought about endowing a school for the deaf — but was beaten to the punch when another opened in New England first.

So, Plan B: She donated almost $400,000 to start Smith College, the first female college founded by a woman in the United States.

“I hereby make the following provisions for the establishment and maintenance of an Institution for the higher education of young women,” her will read, “with the design to furnish for my own sex means and facilities for education equal to those which are afforded now in our colleges to young men.”

Now, more than 140 years later, Smith has made a policy change its benefactor could not have envisioned: Over the weekend, the school announced it will admit transgender women to a school known as a bastion of female education. This is a reversal for Smith, which previously refused to admit transgender students.

“The board’s decision affirms Smith’s unwavering mission and identity as a women’s college, our commitment to representing the diversity of women’s lived experiences, and the college’s exceptional role in the advancement of women worldwide,” a statement posted to the school’s Web site read. “… In the years since Smith’s founding, concepts of female identity have evolved. Smith alumnae have been leaders in the movement to afford women greater freedoms of aspiration and self-expression. At the same time, educational settings in which women are central remain powerfully transformative.”

The announcement — which comes amid a national conversation about sexual identity fueled by transgender former Olympian Bruce Jenner’s high-profile interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer — left some unanswered questions as it interjected Smith into the highly charged territory of gender identity. Even the language of debates about gender identity — which often uses terminology unfamiliar to many such as “cisgender,” “non-binary” and “genderqueer” — is a minefield.

[Santorum on Jenner: “If he says he’s a woman, then he’s a woman"]

[Why we can’t show you those alleged Bruce Jenner dress photos]

Perhaps in anticipation of the confusion, Smith issued a detailed FAQ with its news release. Some particulars:

  • Is Smith still a women’s college? Yes: “Smith College’s mission — to educate women of promise for lives of distinction — remains unchanged. The board’s decision reaffirms this mission in light of society’s evolving understanding of female identity.”
  • Will the school admit women who identify as men? No: “Smith does not accept applications from men. Those assigned female at birth but who now identify as male are not eligible for admission.”
  • Will the school admit those who identify as neither male nor female? No: “Our focus on women’s education means that we consider for admission applicants who identify as women and who seek entrance into a community dedicated to women’s education.”
  • How does a trans applicant signify her identification — particularly if she doesn’t want her parents or teachers to know she is a “she?” “Smith’s policy is one of self-identification. To be considered for admission, applicants must select ‘female’ on the Common Application.”
  • What if a woman at Smith decides she is a man? No problem: “The admission policy does not affect students who transition during their time at Smith. Once admitted, every student has the full support of the college and this includes transmen.”
  • How does this affect campus life? Wait and see: “President Kathleen McCartney is establishing a working group to develop a comprehensive approach to supporting transgender and gender non-binary students at Smith.”
  • Who decided all of this? The process was “deliberative and inclusive”: “The Admission Policy Study Group held a number of small-group meetings with students, faculty and staff representing a range of views on the topic of transgender admissions at Smith. In addition, the group hosted four ‘town hall’ calls with alumnae around the world and offered an online comment option on its website. More than 1,800 comments were received through that site, from students, faculty, staff, alumnae, parents and friends.”
  • When does the admission policy change take effect? The new policy pertains “to any student applying in the fall of 2015 and thereafter.”

The policy changes were met with measured praise by some in the transgender community.

“It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” Eli Erlick, a 19-year-old second-year student at Claremont University who is the director of the nonprofit Trans Student Educational Resources, said in a telephone interview with The Washington Post. “I’m really happy to see Smith College taking a very explicit stance on this issue and actually explicitly allowing transgender women at the college.”

Yet: “While it is a huge step forward for the trans community and academia, some students are still marginalized on the basis of gender identification,” Erlick said. Smith “should really be accessible for trans women, trans men and people with non-binary identities.”

Smith’s new policy is a bit late — Wellesley and Mount Holyoke colleges, two other big names in all-female education, already admit transgender students. It also comes after a high-profile dust-up concerning a transgender woman denied admission to Smith in 2013: Calliope Wong. Wong’s application was rejected because a federal financial aid form indicated she was male.

“No one should have to go through what I went through,” Wong, who now attends the University of Connecticut, said at the time. “Schools should be focused on building our next generation of leaders, not discriminating against them.”

Wong praised Smith’s policy change this week.

“When I put my story out into the world, I originally just wanted one thing: for those institutions and individuals in power, to recognize that trans oppression is not silent,” Wong wrote in a post at Transwomen at Smith. “We will not be this time, are not to be, will never be crushed and silenced by you.”

But some wondered whether it was appropriate to admit transgender students to an all-female institution.

“A theoretical deconstruction of the social category ‘woman’ such that anyone and everyone can identify as a ‘woman’ does not reflect the historical purpose of Smith College or the needs of its students,” one Smith graduate wrote to the school’s board of trustees. “Being a woman is not a spiritual or metaphysical experience. It is not a feeling and it is not a performative utterance. Being a woman is a lived experience with material consequences.”