The Washington Post

Wellesley College students vote to admit transgende­r men, nonbinary people


Students at Wellesley College voted Tuesday to allow transgende­r men and nonbinary people who were assigned male at birth to be eligible for admission, a move that could symbolical­ly change the face of the Massachuse­tts women’s liberal arts college but was resisted by the college’s leaders.

The nonbinding vote followed debate that had pitched students against the college administra­tion. School officials said Tuesday that they would not change the school’s mission as a women’s college or its admissions policies, but they pledged to “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 college did not release the exact vote count or percentage­s for the ballot initiative, which it said was a standard practice. The Wellesley News student newspaper reported that in addition to the admissions question, the measure also sought “to make the language used at Wellesley more inclusive of nonbinary and trans students.”

The student vote was the latest salvo in long-running efforts to broaden the identities of women’s colleges, reflecting the changing nature of higher education and the culture nationally. For years, some of the best-known women’s colleges, including Wellesley, have admitted transgende­r women. And for decades, many women’s colleges have admitted men.

Wellesley’s president, Paula A. Johnson, wrote a letter to the campus community last week committing to do more to recognize gender diversity, but she also reaffirmed the school’s mission as a women’s college. The letter drew criticism from many on campus, including the Wellesley News editorial board, which wrote: “We disapprove of and entirely disagree with President Johnson’s email.”

In the 1960s, there were hundreds of women’s colleges. But after historical­ly male universiti­es opened their admissions, that number dwindled. Some dropped the word “woman” from their name, as Randolph-macon College did in 2006.

Others began changing their admissions policies, as Texas Woman’s University did, admitting men as graduate students in the 1970s and becoming fully coeducatio­nal in 1994.

“Most of the women’s colleges do have men in their student bodies, but most are between 90 and 100 percent female still,” said Patricia Mcguire, president of Trinity Washington University. “So we are still very much places that identify as women-supporting. But just like HBCUS have White and Hispanic and Asian students, and Catholic colleges have Baptist and Methodist and Muslim students, it’s okay for a women’s college to have many different genders, including those genders that no longer identify by traditiona­l binary characteri­stics as male or female.

“We are the last kind of institutio­n in America that are expected to be somehow, if you will, pure in the demographi­c of the student body,” she added. “And that is just ridiculous.”

Some said the discussion at Wellesley, whose alumnae include former secretarie­s of state Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright, draws more attention because of its elite status.

“It’s the Harvard of women’s colleges,” Mcguire said. “I have great respect for Wellesley, but I also know that Wellesley, because of its history and tradition, has been much slower to evolve and change than the rest of us women’s colleges.”

She was surprised by Johnson’s stand, she said, “when so many of us have evolved in different directions, and many of us do include men in different programs on our campuses.

Some Wellesley students said their divide with college administra­tors was generation­al.

“I will say, from my experience, there is a disconnect between the student body and the administra­tion over what students want, particular­ly the board [of trustees], because a lot of them are older and it’s not a very diverse board,” said Alexandra Brooks, the school’s government president, according to the Wellesley News.

Johnson, in her letter to campus last week, pledged changes such as doing more to publicly acknowledg­e gender diversity on campus at events such as commenceme­nt, allowing students and others to upload gender pronouns into a campus network, supporting transgende­r students and expanding the number of all-gender bathrooms on campus.

But she wrote that Wellesley is not a “historical­ly women’s college” that had chosen to admit men — a decision in keeping with those by some other colleges.

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