Last week, the student body of Wellesley College voted to allow transgender men and nonbinary individuals to apply to the all-women’s college.
The referendum, which was non-binding, passed, although the college did not elaborate on what the margin of victory was.
The college has roughly 2,500 students, but has no data on the number of students who identify as transgender or nonbinary.
Regardless of the result, administrators at the college refused to change the college’s admissions policy.
Under the current policy, adopted in 2015, the college accepts applicants who “lives as a woman and consistently identifies as a woman,” regardless of their assigned sex at birth. However, some students who identified as women when they first enrolled may no longer identify as female.
“Wellesley College acknowledges the result of the non-binding student ballot initiative,” the institution said in a statement. “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.”
The referendum also included a vote on making the language used at Wellesley more inclusive of transgender and nonbinary students, or to use gender-neutral terms like “students” rather than “women.”
Current college policy is to use female pronouns and gendered language in institutional communications, reports CBS News.
In a March 6 letter to students prior to the referendum, Wellesley President Paula Johnson reiterated that the school will move forward with “our mission as a women’s college,” arguing that recent developments have underscored the need for women-only spaces.
“For nearly 150 years, Wellesley’s mission has been to provide an excellent liberal arts education to women who will make a difference in the world,” wrote Johnson. “Events of the last few years — including a pandemic that has had a disproportionate economic impact on women, especially women of color, new restrictions on reproductive health and freedom in the United States, and attacks on women’s rights and education across the globe — have shown that this mission is as urgent as ever.
“Wellesley 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,” she continued. “We are not a ‘historically women’s college,’ a term that only applies to women’s colleges that have made the decision to enroll men. We have chosen a different path, one that aligns with peer institutions including Barnard, Smith, and Bryn Mawr colleges.”
Johnson noted in her letter that some students who began identifying as male or nonbinary during their time at Wellesley may feel excluded by the college’s use of the words “women” and “alumnae.”
“We commit to doing more to acknowledge and respect individual identities,” she wrote. “Despite the best efforts of faculty and staff, we know that students regularly report being misgendered.”
She also listed the efforts that the college has undertaken in order to be more welcoming of transgender students, including plans to appoint a new director for the Office of LGBTQ+ Programs and Services, offering LGBTQ-affirming therapy via the college’s Counseling Service, and expanding the number of unisex restroom and locker room facilities to provide additional privacy options for transgender and nonbinary students.
Moreover, the college’s gender policy has been amended to remove language that implied that students who transition would be forced to transfer elsewhere.
In response to the letter, students on campus subsequently organized an ongoing sit-in to show support for the transgender community.
The editorial board of The Wellesley News, the college’s student-run newspaper, also wrote a column criticizing Johnson’s response as “part of a broader trend of Wellesley’s administration and the Board of Trustees intervening in student discourse,” accusing the college and the Board of Trustees of “monopoliz[ing] conversations about Wellesley’s community and future, conversations that should be led by students.”
“Transgender and nonbinary students have always belonged and will continue to belong at Wellesley, a historically women’s college,” the editorial board wrote.
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