Wellesley College proudly proclaims itself as a place for “women who will make a difference in the world.” It boasts a long line of celebrated alumni, including Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright and Nora Ephron.
On Tuesday, its students will vote on a referendum that has divided the campus and goes straight to the issue of Wellesley’s identity as a women’s college.
The referendum, which is nonbinding, asks whether admission should be open to all nonbinary and transgender applicants, including trans men. Currently, the college allows admission to anyone who lives and consistently identifies as a woman.
The referendum would also make the college’s communications more gender inclusive — for example, using the word “students” or “alumni” instead of “women.”
The vote is in some ways definitional: What is the mission of a women’s college?
The referendum’s supporters say women’s colleges have 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.
The activists also say that the referendum will reflect reality on campus, as there are already trans male students at the school who, for example, transitioned after admission.
The college, which has roughly 2,500 students, has no data on the number of students who identify as trans or nonbinary.
Opponents, including the president, Paula Johnson, say the referendum is a rewriting of the mission of Wellesley, which they say was founded to educate women.
In a message to the campus last week, Dr. Johnson, held firm on her stance.
She described Wellesley as “a women’s college that admits cis, trans and nonbinary students — all who consistently identify as women.”
There was fierce pushback. Students have 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 have 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 the referendum, which will be voted on anonymously, was a way to demonstrate just how many students support such a change — and how it reflects the reality on campus now.
“We’re just asking the administration to put on paper what’s already true of the student body,” she said. “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.”
“It’s still, and always will be, a school to educate people who are of marginalized genders,” she said.
Women’s colleges have been grappling with trans issues over the last several years. In 2015, Wellesley College announced a policy that allowed admission to any student “who lives as a woman and consistently identifies as a woman,” opening the door to trans women applicants.
Some women’s colleges have stricter policies. Sweet Briar College, a small private school in Virginia, requires a birth certificate or amended birth certificate indicating the applicant’s gender as female.
The college’s president, Meredith Jung-En Woo, says Sweet Briar welcomes trans students if they meet the admissions policy. She has not received much pushback, she says.
Mount Holyoke has among the most open of admissions policies, accepting applications from all female, trans and nonbinary students.
But when Mount Holyoke changed its admissions standards in 2014, many alumnae voiced deep concerns sometimes in a vitriolic and personal way, said Lynn Pasquerella, the president at the time.
One sent her a college sweatshirt with “Mount Holyoke” crossed out and wrote in blood-red ink that she was destroying Christianity. Another made a dig at her educational background, writing in a letter that if the president “hadn’t started at a community college, I’d understand what a women’s college really is,” Dr. Pasquerella said.
Even so, she said, the support for the policy change among current students was enthusiastic.
Women’s colleges have reputations for being a refuge for transgender students, including transgender men, said Genny Beemyn, the director of the Stonewall Center at University of Massachusetts Amherst. The schools tend to have very progressive student bodies and large numbers of lesbian and bisexual students, who can be more welcoming to transgender students, she said.
“For people who are gender nonconforming, they may feel more comfortable in an environment that doesn’t have men in it, cis men in it, because of the greater likelihood of experiencing harassment,” Dr. Beemyn said.
Lawrence A. Rosenwald, a retired English professor who began his career at Wellesley in 1980, said he had gradually noticed a shift in how students talked about gender.
The most vivid manifestation of that change, he said, was listening to students at graduation sing “America the Beautiful,” written by an alumna, Katharine Lee Bates.
Students traditionally had changed “brotherhood” in the penultimate line to “sisterhood,” Dr. Rosenwald said. But now, some students say “sisterhood”; others say “siblinghood.”
Dr. Rosenwald, who just retired, says he supports the admission of trans men and nonbinary students. Wellesley, he said, has always been a home for people who are “not in positions of power in a patriarchal society.”
But opponents of the referendum say that Wellesley would be effectively coed if trans men were allowed to apply for admission. And they worry about the erosion of the institution’s mission at a time when women’s colleges are dwindling. There are roughly 30 left, from a peak of nearly 300 in the mid-1960s.
Elizabeth Um, a senior and president of the campus’s anti-abortion group, Wellesley For Life, said she chose to attend Wellesley because she is from Boston and wanted to stay close to home but also because of its identity as a women’s college.
“If you don’t think you can fit in here, then you have your pick of thousands of other coed colleges in the country or the world,” she said, adding, “We’re a women’s college. That’s the core identity of the school, and we can’t start watering that down.”
But Ms. Um has not been actively opposing the referendum, partly because it is destined to pass, she said, adding that pushing against it on campus is akin to “social suicide.”
With emotions high and division deep, Dr. Johnson thinks the debate so far has been unhealthy. There is enormous social pressure for students to support the referendum, she said, adding that she has received messages from students, faculty and staff saying that they could not voice their opposition for fear of being ostracized.
“I’ve been personally booed at public gatherings where I’ve referred to Wellesley as a women’s college, which it is,” Dr. Johnson said.
Still, even if students vote overwhelmingly for the referendum, she said she will not rethink her opposition.
At the same time, Dr. Johnson says the college has been paying more attention to the needs of its trans students, noting that administrators are working to reduce instances of students being misgendered. Students should soon have the option to upload their pronouns into the college’s information management system to be included in class lists and the directory.
She also said that the college removed language on its website that stated students who transition would be supported if they no longer felt a women’s college was the right them. She said that no students had ever been kicked off campus because they were transitioning but that the previous language created that misperception.
“There’s been an evolution in our country, and we’re a microcosm of that,” she said. “Yes, it is representative of a changing world and a changing conception of gender. It does not mean that Wellesley isn’t a women’s college and an inclusive community. Those two can live together.”
Kaleb Goldschmidtt is a music professor who transitioned while at Wellesley. The college culture is becoming more welcoming to gender diversity, but not as quickly as many students would like, said Professor Goldschmidtt, who identifies as transmasculine.
At the same time, Professor Goldschmidtt questioned the outsized attention that students were paying to the debate.
“I definitely want the trans and nonbinary and questioning students to feel welcome and loved and supported and encouraged to explore,” the professor said, “but my goodness do I wish they would rally like this for disabled students or for other things.”
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