Tuesday’s election at Wellesley College didn’t just include student council positions on the ballot. It also included a referendum on gender integration, which was accepted.
Students at the Women’s Liberal Arts College in Massachusetts approved a voting initiative in which they proposed changing their admissions policy to welcome all transgender and non-binary applicants.
Currently, the school only accepts applications from “those who live and consistently identify as women,” including trans women and non-binary students who were “identified female at birth and feel a sense of belonging to our women’s community.”
The initiative also asked the school to use gender-neutral language in official communications when referring to its student body, such as replacing “women” with “students” and “she/them” instead of “they/them”.
“While we recognize that Wellesley College was founded as a college for women, we recognize the many transgender and gender non-conforming students and alumni,” said a copy of the poll question obtained by NPR, which said it was hitting the changes to “align the college’s messages with the demographics and lived experiences of the student body.”
Specifically, the question was whether the students support the student body in officially adopting this policy and ask the foundation board to do so.
It passed, a Wellesley spokesman confirmed to NPR on Wednesday. She said the school does not release vote counts or percentages for positions in student government or for ballot initiatives “based on best practice.”
The college issued a statement acknowledging the outcome of the voting initiative, which it describes as non-binding.
“While there is no plan to revise its mission as a women’s college or its admissions policy, the college will continue to engage all students, including male and non-binary transgender students, in the important work of building an inclusive academic community that everyone can embrace feels like belonging,” Wellesley said.
Students and alumni say it wasn’t always like that.
(Re)definition of a “women’s college” Students at Wellesley College ride bicycles across campus in 1942. The school now accepts applications from trans women, but not trans men and only from certain non-binary individuals.
Wellesley was founded as a women’s seminary in 1870 (it was renamed five years later when it opened its doors). It’s one of the so-called “Seven Sisters,” a consortium of select liberal arts colleges in the Northeast that either began as, or remain, women’s colleges.
Rated as one of the top liberal arts schools in the country, Wellesley has notable alumnae including former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, writer and director Nora Ephron, artist Lorraine O ‘Grady and journalists Diane Sawyer and Cokie Roberts.
The alumni network is sometimes referred to as “the most powerful women’s network in the world”.
The college, which has about 2,300 students, changed its admissions policy in 2015 to allow transgender women to apply and welcomed its first openly transgender students in 2017, member station WBUR reports.
Trans men (those who are female at birth and identify as men) are not admitted, which the school says is due to its mission and history of educating women.
“Every aspect of Wellesley’s educational program is, and will continue to be, designed and implemented to serve women and prepare them to thrive in a complex world,” reads a gender policy FAQ. “This unique focus on women is a critical part of the Wellesley education and experience.”
All Seven Sisters schools have been accepting transgender women since 2015, although Mount Holyoke is the only one that welcomes applications from “female, transgender and non-binary students” regardless of whether they identify as female.
“We propose that Wellesley College adopt the same wording,” Tuesday’s ballot said.
Students support a more inclusive policy Assistant Professor Kenneth Van der Laan teaching a biology class at Wellesley College in March 1975.
The students wrote the referendum and put it up for voting last month.
The Wellesley spokesman told NPR that ballot initiatives “are not brought up in every election, but they’re not uncommon either.” It is believed to be the first to focus on gender inclusivity.
Although it’s not clear what percentage of Wellesley’s student body identify as transgender or non-binary, students told The Wellesley News that many on campus identify themselves by using words like “women” and “alumnae” to describe them feel left out of the college population.
“Wellesley is not currently an all-women college. You come into contact with students of all genders every day,” said Ailie Wood, who helped draft the proposal. “Your classmates are trans and non-binary, your favorite events are hosted by trans and non-binary students, and the people you meet every day in the dining room or on the sidewalk are trans and non-binary students. If the administration created policies to support this election issue, that fact would not change.”
Alexandra Brooks, the president of the college government, hopes the referendum will help bridge the gap between the student body and the administration when it comes to using gender-sensitive language — and that it will show trustees and administrators that this is an area of broad support.
More than 600 alumni, faculty, staff and community members signed a letter in support of the ballot initiative, calling the college’s prioritization of cisgender women “a reductive interpretation of its history and mission.”
They note that while cis women continue to fight for equality and opportunity, “much of the most violent, hateful, and institutionalized gender-based discrimination happening today is directed against trans and non-binary people, particularly Black, Brown, and Indigenous people ‘ – and that their exclusion ‘wholeheartedly abandons the radical elements of its beginnings’.
“We contend that the best way to honor Wellesley’s story is to allow the college to reap the benefits of nearly 150 years of cultural, linguistic and social change and to empower the trans and non-binary students who have always been considered integral Members of the college community existed, to be fully considered,” they added.
What the administration says
Darren McCollester/Getty Images
Paula Johnson, President of Wellesley College, speaks at the beginning as Hillary Clinton looks on in May 2017.
Last week, ahead of the referendum, Wellesley College President Paula Johnson issued a memo explaining why the college is defending its focus on women and outlining the steps it is taking to encourage diversity, trans students support and to clarify his authorization.
“Wellesley was founded on the then-radical idea that the education of women of all socioeconomic backgrounds would lead to progress for all,” Johnson wrote. “As a college and community, we continue to challenge the norms and power structures that all too often leave women and others with marginalized identities behind.”
She described Wellesley as both a women’s college and a diverse community — noting that it admits cis, trans, and nonbinary students who “consistently identify as women,” and also admits students, faculty, and staff with ” different gender identities” — but said she thinks they can do a better job of striking that balance.
Some of these new commitments include allowing students to upload their pronouns to an online system that adds them to class rosters and the directory, appointing a new director for the LGBTQ+ office before the end of the semester, and expanding the number of all-gender restrooms on campus .
“In addition, our gender policy on our website previously stated that students transferring during their time at Wellesley would be supported if they felt a women’s college was no longer right for them,” she added added. “We removed this language to make it clear that every student accepted into Wellesley belongs here.”
Wellesley’s referendum is not taking place in a vacuum
Many students and alumni criticized several aspects of Johnson’s memo.
The signers of the open letter denounced her statement, saying she “falsely positions the inclusion of trans and non-binary students as a threat to the education and advancement of students who identify as women.”
“We find it frankly offensive to suggest that Wellesley’s long and valuable tradition of advocacy for women could be undermined by extending the most basic institutional courtesies and protections to trans and non-binary students,” they said.
They said it was particularly disappointing that Wellesley was not doing more to advocate for transgender and nonbinary people at a time when the national political climate was “violently hostile” towards them.
Current students made a similar point.
“We disapprove of President Johnson’s email and do not agree with it at all. As journalists, we understand the power of rhetoric to do good or evil,” the Wellesley News editors wrote last week.
The six-member panel cited the New York Times’ anti-trans coverage and the real-world consequences of bias, including a surge in anti-trans legislation in the United States, with 39 states proposing or passing legislation affecting “trans ability”. people to have access to healthcare, public facilities and safe spaces to be themselves in 2023.”
They said it was “revealing” that Johnson failed to mention these legislative attacks in her letter. They also characterized it as “part of a broader trend of the Wellesley administration and board of trustees encroaching on student discourse”.
Isha Gupta, a Wellesley graduate student, tweeted that the school “has always been a place for students with marginalized gender identities.”
“If removing the ‘women’s college’ label means Wellesley can be a more inclusive place, then so be it,” she added.
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