Students at Wellesley support their trans and non-binary peers as they advocate for a change in admissions policy and language at the school.
Wellesley College, located right outside Boston, is a historically women’s liberal arts college. Founded in 1870, the school’s mission is to provide a high-quality liberal arts education to “women who will make a difference in the world.”
On March 14, Wellesley students voted in support of a referendum that answers the Gender Inclusivity Ballot Question, which aims to make both the admissions process and language sued at Wellesley more inclusive of trans (both transgender women and men) and non-binary students.
Paula Johnson, President of Wellesley, emphasizes the idea that Wellesley is a women’s college and that passing the referendum would redefine the mission of the school. The college released a statement opposing the referendum, declaring that there is “no plan” to change policies regarding the language used by the college or its admissions.
Johnson clarified in a statement, “Wellesley admits eligible applicants who consistently identify and live as women, including cis, trans and nonbinary students.” She added, “We will continue to engage all students in the important work of building an inclusive academic community where everyone feels they belong.”
Supporters of the referendum emphasize the idea that there is already a transgender and non-binary population at Wellesley, and the referendum only seeks to provide institutionalized support for that population.
“If we shift the admissions policy to admitting all marginalized genders, that’s not going to make a huge compositional difference at the college anyways because trans and non-binary students already go here,” Andreea Sabau, Head Managing Editor of the Wellesley News, explained.
Sabau said that the referendum was not a surprise to most students; in fact, she says it was “way overdue.”
Another student, Cricket Liebermann, who is a senior from Vermont, told the Boston Globe that “this is a community where people of marginalized genders can feel safe.” She has been selling T-shirts with the slogan “Trans Students Belong at Wellesley” across campus, along with a cohort of other empowered students.
An exit poll was conducted by the college government that proves the referendum was voted “yes” by 90% of students, but the administration’s lack of support was expected.
It is difficult for students to be successful with their advocacy on campus because, according to Sabau, “administrators really rely on the fact that (they’re) only (there) for four years.”
Wealthy alumni, however, are thought to have a greater say in the decision-making process, but they often double down on the idea that Wellesley is a women’s college, and thus should not admit transgender and non-binary people. This creates “institutional barriers” that make it difficult for this type of progressive legislation to be implemented on campus.
President Johnson’s rejection of the referendum was “particularly disappointing” to students like Sabau because “her words have real impact” on campus.
“If there is not a significant change in how they communicate with students, I’m worried about the future of the college,” said Marty Martinage in an interview with The Boston Globe. They are a junior from Virginia who, like Liebermann, was selling T-shirts in support of the cause.
It is a growing pattern that historically women’s colleges are re-considering their admissions policies. In 2015, many of these colleges, including Wellesley, opened their admissions up to transgender women. Mount Holyoke College has taken a further step and allows transgender men to apply.
“We as a society are grappling with what gender boundaries even mean nowadays and kind of rejecting them as increasingly useless, so I think at some point [change] is bound to happen,” Sabau said.