In an important victory for the transgender and feminist movements, Wellesley College, a women’s college since its founding in 1875, decided in March to allow the admission of trans women and, for students who decide to transition, the graduation of trans men. The decision follows similar recent actions by Mills, Mount Holyoke, Simmons and Bryn Mawr.
Shortly after Wellesley started discussing its admissions and graduation policies last fall, an alarmist article appeared in The New York Times Magazine with the headline “When Women Become Men at Wellesley.” The article drew public attention to the dialogue underway but promoted misunderstandings. Subsequent discussions framed Wellesley’s policies through the negative lens of the question the article posed, “Can women’s colleges survive the transgender movement?”
The question, echoed in the following months, positions women’s colleges as fragile spaces that are being threatened by trans bodies and simultaneously insinuates that co-ed schools are not facing similar questions regarding the needs of trans students. It propagates the false idea that trans students on campus are fundamentally changing the culture of Wellesley and thereby threatening the so-called sisterhood — a colloquial term for the cluster of elite women’s colleges on the East Coast — that so many alumnae and students hold dear. But what these representations fail to recognize is that the move is just the next step in a long feminist legacy of women’s schools challenging expectations of what women are supposed to do and be.
The debate at Wellesley started in September, when President H. Kim Bottomly initiated a discussion of what it means to be a women’s college in her convocation speech. The next month, she created the president’s advisory committee on gender and Wellesley (PACGW) to execute an education campaign. Composed of students, faculty, other staffers and alumnae, it compiled a list of educational resources and organized gender 101 workshops for students and staff. Community members were invited to participate in a discussion after the Wellesley Summer Theatre’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation of “Orlando,” a text by Virginia Woolf that was radical when she wrote it. The play was a reminder that discussions of gender changes are nothing new; they have only grown more complex. Faculty and other staffers participated in a reading group that discussed the book “Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity,” by Julia Serano, a trans woman and feminist. The shared reading and subsequent discussion developed understanding of the oppression experienced by trans women, both pre- and post-transition, and how it relates to gender and feminism.
Before compiling its findings, the PACGW administered surveys to the wider community to ensure that all members had the opportunity to voice their thoughts and opinions. The committee also looked at what policies peer institutions such as Mt. Holyoke, Mills, Hollins, Simmons, Scripps and Bryn Mawr were instituting on their campuses.
The Wellesley decision represents the latest in a series of feminist transformations of womanhood at the college. As Bottomly and trustee chair Laura Gates noted in their announcement of the decision, “The creation of Wellesley College was a revolutionary act, challenging and confounding entrenched views about the roles and capacities of women.” In the late 19th century, women were excluded from elite colleges, and the Seven Sisters women’s colleges — named as a corollary to the Ivy League men’s schools — offered them an opportunity for elite higher education. Advocates argued that women needed college educations to fulfill their educational role of mothers to successful men. Wellesley’s founders, the Durants, called it their “noblest usefulness.” While many graduates went on to work in what were considered women’s professions such as teaching, social work and nursing, the vast majority of those who married became full-time homemakers. Still, at a time when women were considered intellectually inferior to men, the argument for women’s higher education was a radical one.
A century later, the second wave feminist movement successfully expanded the definition of women’s work to encompass jobs traditionally defined as male, including elite professional and managerial jobs. It also normalized the combination of marriage and mothering with a paid career. Amid successful challenges to gender discrimination, women were admitted to men-only colleges and universities. Some women’s colleges, such as Radcliffe and Pembroke, dissolved into their brother institutions (Harvard and Brown), while some, such as Vassar, became co-educational. Others — including Wellesley, Smith and Mount Holyoke — decided to continue as women’s colleges but with new missions: to prepare women for professional success, in traditionally masculine terms. The all-women college environment was recast as a place where women could pursue their studies and assume leadership positions, free from gender-role pressures from male students. Today Wellesley can point proudly to a legacy of successful alumnae in business, politics, arts, academia, journalism and public service.
The late 20th century brought LBGTQ organizing to women’s college campuses as students and faculty fought another form of gender oppression: compulsory heterosexuality. Homophobic parents and administrators worried that the absence of men at women’s colleges would turn their students into lesbians — a fear epitomized by a widely read 1977 New York Times article, “The trouble with Sarah Lawrence.” Activists were not deterred, and after years of their work, the Wellesley trustees banned discrimination against lesbians and gays in 1993.
Meanwhile, another challenge to gender oppression began to shake Wellesley and other women’s colleges. During their time in college, a small but visible group of students began to identify as trans men. Supported by a growing trans movement, they rejected ascribed assigned sex at birth, began to live as men and preferred male gender pronouns. Other students began to self-identify as gender queer, rejecting a binary system of gender limited to men and women and instead adopting pronouns such as “ze,” “sie” and “hir” and using “they,” “their” and “them” as singular. Female students who had taken for granted their gender ascription to womanhood have begun to refer to themselves as cis women.
With its most recent decision, Wellesley continues its rich tradition of liberating womanhood. Its trustees realized that affirming the rights of trans students is integral to its stated mission “to provide an excellent liberal arts education for women who will make a difference in the world.” Wellesley’s commitment to supporting the self-development and choices of all its matriculated students requires supporting those students who begin to identify as trans men. And its commitment to becoming a more diverse and inclusive community requires accepting applicants who are trans women. We hope the implementation of the new policy is as thoughtful and inclusive as the process that led to it.
The decision to admit trans women and graduate all students puts Wellesley on the right side of history. And it demonstrates that, far from being isolated, conservative backwaters, women’s colleges continue to play an important part in feminist transformation.