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Students want this women's college to rethink its notion of gender in admissions

Wellesley College, in Massachusetts, was founded in 1870 to educate women. Its students are now pushing for more inclusive policies in admissions and communications.
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Wellesley College, in Massachusetts, was founded in 1870 to educate women. Its students are now pushing for more inclusive policies in admissions and communications.

Student government positions weren't the only item on the ballot at Wellesley College's elections on Tuesday. It also included a referendum on gender inclusivity, which passed.

Students at the women's liberal arts college in Massachusetts approved a ballot initiative proposing that it change its admissions policy to welcome all transgender and nonbinary applicants.

Currently, the school only accepts applications from "those who live as women and consistently identify as women," which includes trans women and nonbinary students who "were assigned female at birth and who feel they belong in our community of women."

The initiative also called on the school to use gender-neutral language when referring to its student body in official communications, for example replacing "women" with "students" and "they/them" instead of "she/her."

"While we acknowledge that Wellesley College was founded as a college for women, we recognize the many transgender and gender non-conforming students and alumni," reads a copy of the ballot question obtained by NPR, which said it was proposing the changes "to align the College's messaging with the demographics and lived experiences of the student body."

The question specifically asked whether students support the student body officially adopting this policy and asking the Board of Trustees to do so as well.

It passed, a Wellesley spokesperson confirmed to NPR on Wednesday. She said the school does not release vote counts or percentages for either student government positions or ballot initiatives "based on well established practice."

The college issued a statement acknowledging the result of the ballot initiative, which it stressed is non-binding.

"Although there is no plan to revisit its mission as a women's college or its admissions policy, 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," Wellesley said.

Students and alumni say that hasn't always been the case.

(Re)defining a "women's college"

Wellesley College students bike across campus in 1942. The school now accepts applications from trans women, but not trans men, and only certain nonbinary people.
GH / AP
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AP
Wellesley College students bike across campus in 1942. The school now accepts applications from trans women, but not trans men, and only certain nonbinary people.

Wellesley was founded in 1870 as a female seminary (it had rebranded by the time it opened its doors five years later). It's one of the so-called "Seven Sisters," a consortium of selective liberal arts colleges in the Northeast that either started as, or remain, women's colleges.

Wellesley is ranked one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country and boasts notable alumnae including former U.S. Secretary of State and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, writer and director Nora Ephron, artist Lorraine O'Grady and journalists Diane Sawyer and Cokie Roberts.

It says its alumni network is sometimes called "the most powerful women's network in the world."

The college of about 2,300 students changed its admissions policy in 2015 to allow transgender women to apply, and welcomed its first openly trans students in 2017, member station WBUR reports.

Trans men (those who are assigned female at birth and identify as men) are not eligible for admission, which the school says is because of 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 to prepare them to thrive in a complex world," reads an FAQ about its gender policy. "This singular focus on women is a critical part of the Wellesley education and the Wellesley experience."

All Seven Sisters schools accept transgender women as of 2015, though Mount Holyoke is the only one who welcomes applications from "female, transgender and nonbinary students" regardless of whether they identify as female.

"We propose Wellesley College adopt the same wording," Tuesday's ballot initiative reads.

Students support a more inclusive policy

Assistant professor Kenneth Van der Laan teaches a biology class at Wellesley College in March 1975.
jp / AP
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AP
Assistant professor Kenneth Van der Laan teaches a biology class at Wellesley College in March 1975.

Students wrote the referendum and approved it for the ballot last month.

The Wellesley spokesperson told NPR that ballot initiatives are "not put forward in every election, but they are not infrequent, either." It is believed to be the first one focused on gender inclusivity.

While it is not clear what percentage of Wellesley's student body identifies as transgender or nonbinary, students told The Wellesley News that many on campus feel excluded by the college's use of words like "women" and "alumnae" to describe the population.

"Wellesley is not currently a women's college. You interact with students of all genders every day," said Ailie Wood, who helped author the proposal. "Your classmates are trans and nonbinary, your favorite events are run by trans and nonbinary students, and the people you pass in the dining hall or on the sidewalk every day are trans and nonbinary students. If the administration were to create policy to support this ballot question, this fact would not change."

Alexandra Brooks, the college government president, hopes the referendum will help bridge the gap between the student body and the administration when it comes to using gender-inclusive language — and that it will show trustees and administrators that this is an area with widespread support.

More than 600 alumni, faculty, staff and community members have signed a letter in support of the ballot initiative, in which they call the college's prioritization of cisgender women "a reductionary interpretation of its history and mission."

They note that while cis women continue to struggle for equal treatment and opportunities, "much of the most violent, vitriolic and institutionalized gender-based discrimination happening today is directed towards trans and non-binary people, especially those who are Black, brown and Indigenous" — and that excluding them "wholeheartedly abandons the radical elements of its inception."

"We assert that the best way to honor Wellesley's history is to allow the College to embrace the benefit of nearly 150 years of cultural, linguistic, and social change and fully embrace the trans and non-binary students who have always existed as integral members of the College community," they added.

What the administration is saying

Wellesley College President Paula Johnson speaks at commencement as Hillary Clinton looks on in May 2017.
Darren McCollester / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Wellesley College President Paula Johnson speaks at commencement 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's taking to promote diversity, support trans students and clarify its admissions eligibility.

"Wellesley was founded on the then-radical idea that educating women of all socioeconomic backgrounds leads to progress for everyone," Johnson wrote. "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."

She described Wellesley as both a women's college and diverse community — noting that it admits cis, trans and nonbinary students who "consistently identify as women" and also embraces students, faculty and staff of "diverse gender identities" — but said she thinks it could do a better job finding that balance.

Some of those new commitments include letting students upload their pronouns to an online system that will add them to class lists and the directory, appointing a new director for the LGBTQ+ office before the end of the semester and expanding the number of all-gender bathrooms on campus.

"In addition, our gender policy on our website previously stated that students who transition during their time at Wellesley will be supported if they feel a women's college is no longer the right fit for them," she added. "We have removed this language to make clear that every student who is admitted to Wellesley belongs here."

Wellesley's referendum isn't happening in a vacuum

Many students and alumni took issue with several aspects of Johnson's memo.

The signatories of the open letter denounced her statement, saying it "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 is particularly disappointing that Wellesley is not doing more to stand up for trans and nonbinary people at a time when the national political climate is "violently hostile" towards them.

Current students made a similar point.

"We disapprove of and entirely disagree with President Johnson's email. As journalists, we understand the power of rhetoric to do good or harm," the Wellesley News editorial board wrote last week.

The six-person board pointed to what they called The New York Times' anti-trans coverage and the real-world consequences of bias, including a spike in anti-trans legislation in the U.S., with 39 states proposing or passing legislation affecting "trans peoples' ability to access healthcare, public facilities and safe spaces to be themselves in 2023."

They said it is "telling" that Johnson didn't mention those legislative attacks in her letter. They also characterized it as "part of a broader trend of Wellesley's administration and the Board of Trustees intervening in student discourse."

Isha Gupta, a Wellesley alum, tweeted that the school "has always been a space for students of marginalized gender identities."

"If stripping the 'women's college label means that Wellesley can be a more inclusive place, so be it," she added.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.