Yesterday, students at Wellesley College, the elite, all-women’s college in Massachusetts, voted yes on a referendum allowing trans men and nonbinary applicants to apply to the school. But the affirmative vote is not binding, and it doesn’t seem that it will alter the school’s current stance of only “accepting applications from all those who live as women and consistently identify as women.”
Following the vote, which also recommended updating the school’s communications to reflect gender-inclusive language, President Paula Johnson released a statement saying that the college would not reconsider its opposition to considering applications from trans men.
The college currently accepts trans women and allows current students who’ve come to identify as men during their time at Wellesley to continue their education there. “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,” Johnson’s statement said.
Last week, prior to the vote, Johnson wrote a letter to the Wellesley community expanding on the college’s official stance and reiterating the historical identity of the college: “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.”
The school newspaper, The Wellesley News, wrote an editorial in response, condemning the college’s “transphobic rhetoric.”
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As a cis woman who graduated from a similar college over 10 years ago, I’m intimately familiar with the debate about who ought to be allowed to attend a women’s college and more broadly, what purpose a women’s college serves in the 21st century. In 2015, three years after I graduated, Bryn Mawr College, my alma mater, made the decision to accept trans women and trans feminine nonbinary people (as did Wellesley). I was glad to hear of the decision, though I also felt that it was delayed by the conservatism of many of those who handle these schools’ finances out of a misguided nostalgia at best, and transphobia at worst.
These colleges were founded—Wellesley in 1870, Bryn Mawr in 1885—at a time when the decision to dedicate top-tier education to women was pretty radical. At the end of the 19th century, women were, for all intents and purposes, the “marginalized identities” left behind that Johnson refers to. Now, though, women outnumber men at colleges. And while sexism surely rears its ugly head in academia regardless of that new majority, we are at a critical juncture where transgender people, especially transgender youth at the age when one applies to college, are under imminent attack. So far this year, there have been at least 150 bills opposing the rights of transgender people introduced in state legislatures. Transgender and gender nonconforming youth face heightened risks and rates of suicide due to stigmatization. It seems to me that the truest extension of the original mission of these schools is to act as a bastion of education and community for the currently most marginalized in our society: transgender men and women, and nonbinary people.
It’s a shame those who govern Wellesley are not able to see this as an opportunity to uphold and extend their values in a beacon of solidarity and protection. The college would be smart to listen to vote of their student body.