Students at Wellesley College, the elite Massachusetts women’s school that counts Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright among its alumnae, voted Tuesday night to make transgender men and nonbinary students eligible for admission in a nonbinding ballot initiative.
Despite this vote, Wellesley does not plan to change its admissions policies, which do not allow transgender men to enroll, school President Paula Johnson said in a statement released Wednesday.
The ballot initiative passed as part of the college government election process, according to a spokesperson, who said the school does not release vote counts or percentages. It also proposed using gender-inclusive language at the college, according to the student newspaper, the Wellesley News, which reported that two students originally proposed the ballot measure last month.
“Although there is no plan to revisit our mission as a women’s college or our admissions policy, we will continue to engage all students in the important work of building an inclusive academic community where everyone feels they belong,” Johnson said Wednesday.
Wellesley’s “gender policy” states that it “invites applications from all those who live as women and consistently identify as women,” including transgender women, as well as nonbinary people “who were assigned female at birth and who feel they belong in our community of women.” The college also states that it supports students who transition after being admitted and that they are allowed to remain and graduate.
Of the approximately 30 women’s colleges that exist, several of the top ones — including Spelman College, Scripps College, Bryn Mawr College, Barnard College and Smith College — have similar policies, mainly allowing admission only for students who identify as women. Wellesley was part of a slate of women’s colleges that in 2015 announced they would begin admitting transgender women.
Mount Holyoke College, also in Massachusetts, admits students regardless of gender, including transgender men and nonbinary students.
Students demand stronger support for trans people
The vote comes at a time when the rights of transgender people — and transgender youth in particular — are at the center of national politicized debates about how gender identity and sexual orientation are discussed in schools, and the accessibility of gender-affirming health care, among other related issues.
More than 400 bills targeting the rights of LGBTQ people have been introduced in state legislatures across the country so far this year, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, creating what many transgender people describe as a climate of fear.
Students who support the Wellesley ballot measure say the school’s administrators have not done enough to support transgender students in the light of these political realities.
After Johnson wrote a letter earlier this month defending officials’ refusal to amend its gender-based admissions policies, the editorial board of the student newspaper wrote that its members “disapprove of and entirely disagree” with her email and characterized the college’s rhetoric as “transphobic.”
Johnson wrote in that letter that the school continues “to challenge the norms and power structures that too often leave women, and others of marginalized identities, behind,” and claimed that “some transgender male and nonbinary students whose identities have evolved during their time here … feel that their individual identities are not embraced.”
She said that Wellesley also plans to appoint a new director for its office of LGBTQ+ programs and services to help teach faculty and staff members about gender identity and pronoun use, among other topics, and that it was working to expand the number of all-gender bathrooms on campus.
‘Trans students exist at Wellesley’
Alexandra Brooks, president of the college government, told the student newspaper earlier this month that she sees the divergent views between students and the administration about who should be able to enroll at Wellesley as proof of a generational “disconnect.”
The board of trustees “represents a Wellesley from 50 years ago, which is very much not the Wellesley of today, even Wellesley five years ago is very different from the Wellesley of today,” she told the Wellesley News.
“I think the goal of this ballot initiative is to show the board of trustees and the college administration that this isn’t just something that a few people care about or something that only the trans students care about, but it’s something that is a large opinion of the student body,” Brooks added.
Another student, Ailie Wood, who helped author the ballot initiative, told the student newspaper that the proposal sought to help the college live up to its mission.
“Wellesley was founded as a women’s college because they wanted to create a safe and supportive learning environment for people who were marginalized based on gender,” she said. “Such a place should welcome and support trans women, trans men and nonbinary people as well.”
Founded in 1870, Wellesley sits on a 500-acre campus 12 miles west of Boston and educates more than 2,300 undergraduates. A Wellesley spokesperson said the university does not have data on how many transgender or nonbinary students are enrolled.
In a 2021 editorial, the student newspaper decried the lack of inclusion of transgender and nonbinary identities in the school’s official data collection, characterizing it as “archival silence and continual, active administrative silencing.”
“Anecdotally, it is clear that trans students exist at Wellesley, but we aren’t given the numbers needed to prove that to the outside world,” the editorial board said.