Wellesley College proudly proclaims itself as a place for “women who will make a difference in the world.” A long line of celebrated alumnae has graduated from its ivy halls, including Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Diane Sawyer and Nora Ephron. In a world where gender is being redefined, Wellesley is still a college that only admits people who identify as women. This may be changing.
Wellesley was founded in 1870 by Pauline and Henry Fowle Durant, believers in educational opportunity for women, who intended that the college should prepare women for “…great conflicts, for vast reforms in social life.” One of these anticipated conflicts is now playing out right on its campus and its core identity is at stake.
On Tuesday, Wellesley students supported a referendum that had polarized the college. The referendum, which was nonbinding, called for opening admission to all nonbinary and transgender applicants, including trans men. The referendum also called for making the college’s communications more gender inclusive — for example, using the word “students” or “alumni” instead of “women.”
Supporters said that women’s colleges had always been safe havens for people facing gender discrimination, and that with trans people under attack across the country, all transgender and nonbinary applicants must be able to apply to Wellesley. That is the spirit of the founding mission.
But opponents of the referendum said that if trans men or nonbinary students were admitted, Wellesley would become effectively coed; its foundational mission erased.
Wellesley’s president, Paula Johnson, objected that enacting the referendum would rewrite Wellesley’s founding mission to educate “women” and in a statement after the vote, a spokesperson for Dr. Johnson said the college would not reconsider its opposition to the changes proposed by the referendum. Dr. Johnson aims to stick to the letter of Wellesley’s foundation.
“The college will continue to engage all students, including transgender male and nonbinary students, in the important work of building an inclusive academic community where everyone feels they belong,” the statement said. “It’s still, and always will be, a school to educate people who are of marginalized genders,” she said.
In many ways the present policy, which already admits non-binary applicants, but without making it official, is similar to the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) policy that was the official United States position on military service of non-heterosexual people, instituted during the Clinton administration and which was in effect until 2011.
The policy did not ban serving in the military, and prohibited military personnel from discriminating against or harassing closeted homosexual or bisexual service members or applicants, but at the same time it barred openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual persons from military service. Since 2011, openly gay, lesbian and bisexual men and women have been officially permitted to serve in the military.
The college, by established practice, did not release the breakdown of the vote, making it hard to measure the depth of support behind the referendum. But both supporters and opponents expected it to pass.
“Wellesley,” Dr. Johnson said, “was founded on the then-radical idea that educating women of all socioeconomic backgrounds leads to progress for everyone. As a college and community, we continue to challenge the norms and power structures that too often leave women, and others of marginalized identities, behind.”
There was fierce pushback. Students held an ongoing sit-in at the administration building. The student newspaper’s editorial board wrote that “we disapprove and entirely disagree” with the president.
Departments issued statements in support of the referendum. An associate provost for equity and inclusion said the employees in her office were “deeply challenged” by the president’s email.
And an open letter, signed by hundreds of faculty, staff and alumni, said the college was abandoning the radicalism of its creation “by focusing on the letter, rather than the spirit, of its founding.”
Alexandra Brooks, the student body president, said in an interview before the vote that the referendum,“We’re just asking the administration to put on paper what’s already true of the student body.”
“Trans men go to Wellesley, nonbinary people go to Wellesley, and they kind of always have.” A new policy, she said, “would not in any way change the culture of the school.”
For now, as long as Dr. Johnson has any say in the matter and the referendum is non-binding, Wellesley’s policy will remain unchanged. It’s still a college “for women.”
Discussion about this post