WELLESLEY, Mass. – Until last year, Ninotska Love would have been barred from attending Wellesley College. She's an accomplished student who has persevered through hardship, but under longstanding rules, the college would have rejected her.
Now the rules have changed. This week, Love will become one of the first transgender women to attend Wellesley in the school's 147-year history.
"For me to be accepted to one of the best colleges for women in the nation, it is a big validation of the person that I have become. At first I couldn't believe it," said Love, 28, who was born in Ecuador but fled to the U.S. in 2009 after being kidnapped and threatened because of her gender identity. "I'm so thankful to be here."
Her arrival on campus reflects a quiet but momentous shift that's taking place at a wave of women's colleges that have begun allowing trans women. On Tuesday, Spelman College in Atlanta became the latest to say it will accept students who identify as women, "regardless of their gender assignment at birth." But even as many schools embrace shifting views on gender, some have been reluctant to change amid lingering differences over the role of women's colleges.
At least nine women's colleges have moved to allow trans women since 2014, starting with Mills College in Oakland, California. Joining Wellesley in 2015 were Smith, Bryn Mawr and Barnard colleges, the last of the so-called Seven Sisters women's colleges to make the change. Spelman, a historically black college, announced its new policy will take effect for students enrolling in the 2018-2019 academic year.
Advocates say others have likely done so without advertising it.
"I think it's a step forward, one that's long overdue," said Genny Beemyn, director of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, a resource group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. "If they say they're women, then saying that they can't attend is denying their identities and marginalizing them."
Just how many trans women are attending women's colleges remains unknown. Many schools that now accept them won't say how many they enroll, if any, citing privacy concerns. Schools including Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges say they don't track the gender identities of their students.
Chicora Martin, vice president of student life and dean of students at Mills College, said some fear backlash from alumni or donors who don't support the change, and they want to protect students from outside scrutiny. At Mills, 8 percent of more than 700 undergraduates identify as trans women.
"I think that's something they don't want to draw to their students," Martin said. "Ultimately the attention is drawn to them, and that can be negative attention."
Colleges of all types have faced increasing pressure to meet the needs of trans men and women, who make up an estimated 0.7 percent of the nation's youths. Some schools have responded by offering gender-neutral bathrooms and medical insurance that covers hormone treatments, or by letting students pick their gender pronouns .
Still, alumnae of some women's colleges have opposed the admissions change, saying it undermines the institutional mission to empower women. Leaders at some schools counter that women's colleges were founded to educate those who have been marginalized because of their gender.
"That's always been the historic role of women's colleges," Martin said. "The definition of gender and gender identity has broadened, and yet it's still very much that mission."
Some schools have resisted widening their gender policies. At Hollins University, a private school of about 800 in Virginia, trans women can be accepted only if they have completed a legal and surgical transition from male to female, which legally entitles them to consideration anyway.
Hollins spokesman Jeff Hodges said the policy "supports how the university defines its mission as an undergraduate institution of higher learning for women."
At Wellesley, Love said she knows of at least one other trans woman starting this week. Wellesley leaders said that they don't comment on the gender identities of specific students but that they welcome Love to the school's "community of outstanding women."
"As the leading liberal arts college for women, Wellesley's mission is to educate women who will make a difference in the world — and those women represent diversity in every dimension," Sofiya Cabalquinto, a college spokeswoman, said in a statement.
Love is considering a major in women's and gender studies and later hopes to become a civil rights lawyer for LGBT students and immigrants. It's a goal shaped by her own past; Love says she illegally entered Texas from Mexico before being granted asylum because of her persecution in Ecuador.
Her first job in the U.S. was cleaning dorms at a college in North Carolina. She later moved to New York City and started classes at LaGuardia Community College, where she earned academic honors and gained support from the Kaplan Educational Foundation, which helps low-income and minority students transfer to four-year universities.
Love was accepted to a dozen colleges but says Wellesley was always her top choice.
"I knew that it would be a challenge; I knew that it would be difficult," she said, "but at the same time I knew that I can make a difference — and I knew that I can show to other people that we transgender women are humans, too."
Follow Collin Binkley on Twitter at @cbinkley