The administration aims to seek an approach that they believe best serves students as the College re-evaluates its role as a women’s college in light of the recent trans and gender fluidity issues that have been gaining traction. President of the College H. Kim Bottomly, Dean of Students Debra DeMeis and Director of Campus and Residential Life Kris Niendorf emphasized this mission as a priority while speaking with The Wellesley News in a press conference on Monday.
The New York Times Magazine published the article “When Women Become Men at Wellesley” last week that focused on stories from Wellesley College students concerning trans issues. The administrators believed the article presented the diverse and conflicting issues that arise when a women’s college explores how gender fluidity affects its admissions policy.
In the article, some students and alumni at Wellesley expressed that the College would defeat its purpose by also serving students who identify as men. The article also points out that women’s colleges aim to remedy the sexism women encounter by breaking down gender barriers. Trans students and students who have fluid gender identities can also accomplish this goal by deconstructing the rigid gender binary. Yet, another student also pointed out that the College would be wrong to exclude one marginalized community for the sake of supporting another.
All three administrators agree that the question of what it means to be a woman today lies at the heart of the discussion.
“It’s important to continue to look at ourselves and what are the questions that we need to ask to best support our students and to be able to educate them really well,” Bottomly said. “If you don’t do that, then we’re missing a big opportunity, and you’re disadvantaging all members of a college community.”
Bottomly explained that as a college president she wants to refer to Wellesley College specifically as a women’s college at the institutional level. Wellesley’s mission is and has always been to grant women the best education, but the College must decide on what it means to be a women today. The term “women’s college” doesn’t necessarily limit the College from accepting trans students.
“I don’t think that says that the people on campus all have to be the same because we are a women’s college, and how we decide to define that is up to the conversation we have in this community on campus,” Bottomly said. “I think these things can go side by side more easily than you think.”
While Wellesley will be defined as a women’s college at the institutional level, the College will review the use of language, such as pronoun preferences, on all levels.
Currently, individual professors and departments determine whether the language they use in classrooms focuses solely on cisgender women. Bottomly stated that their discretion exercises freedom of speech.
“But I think we should absolutely agree that we respect the individual’s desire to have their own preferences for language pronouns — sisterhood, siblinghood — as they wish to participate on campus in our academic community,” Bottomly said.
DeMeis pointed out that the College risks fragmenting its community by not re-evaluating the identity of a woman at an institutional level. The question arises in multiple areas DeMeis oversees such as health or counseling, but she believes that students need know what the College represents as a whole.
“If we don’t come to an answer together, we are each going to craft our own answer, and I worry about the kind of experience students will have, that you’ll get different experiences depending on which office or person you are dealing with,” DeMeis said.
The concept of gender fluidity has gained public attention only within the past couple decades. Therefore, some of the students, faculty, staff and trustees are more familiar with trans issues than others.
“This is a moment when if we don’t bring people along with us in the discussion and educate them about what it means to have gender fluidity as sort of a baseline conversation, we’re going to leave them behind,” Bottomly said.
To avoid dividing the community, the administration believes all members of the Wellesley College community must know enough about trans issues to participate comfortably in future discussions and policy evaluations. The administration will appoint students, alumni, faculty and staff to an advisory committee that will take charge of educating the community among other duties. Bottomly has already appointed Professor Adele Wolfson from the chemistry department as committee chair. She hopes to announce the student appointments by next week at the latest.
Alumni, especially young alumni, have been particularly vocal on social media about trans issues at Wellesley. Kris Niendorf has seen some of the alumni whom she is friends with on Facebook post their opinions. The opinions of the alumni are as diverse as the opinions of current students, according to the administration.
DeMeis mentioned that given the evolution of education, older generations have a different view of women’s colleges than the current students. She stated that the current generation may take the progress women have gained over the past century for granted.
“So I think it’ll be an interesting education about being reflective on what it means for women’s education, which is different now than it was in my generation,” DeMeis said.
Niendorf knows some of the alumni who have graduated within the last fifteen years, the length of time she has been at Wellesley. Several of these alumni know about her involvement with the LGBTQ community on campus. She has noticed that they have been meeting recently to discuss how gender fluidity will affect Wellesley.
“So they’re like, ‘I’m gathering everybody in D.C. for wine tonight, and we’ll have wine and discussion because we want to talk about this,’” Niendorf said. “So they still feel like this is their Wellesley within these last fifteen years of graduates.”
Earlier this fall, Mills College became the first women’s college to formally welcome trans students to apply as undergraduates, followed by Mount Holyoke. Bottomly formally acknowledged trans issues on campus for the first time when she announced the creation of an advisory committee for these issues in September, though the administration began considering them last spring.
Bottomly and DeMeis attended a conference that discussed trans issues with senior staff from other Seven Sisters colleges. Bottomly stated that she wanted to begin addressing trans issues following the conference, but the controversy surrounding the sudden installment of Tony Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” sculpture on campus took precedence.
According to Niendorf, around five Wellesley students have self-identified as male at any given time in recent years. She estimates that additionally, several dozen students identify under the trans or gender queer umbrella. Capturing an exact number of students who do not identify as cisgender women is difficult because gender is considered to be fluid. Students could change their gender identities over their college career.
To support these students, the College has enacted changes across offices over the past few years. For example, all buildings across campus have all-gender bathrooms, except for the Wang Campus Center. Also, a student health plan that covers costs for gender transition has been available since the last academic year.
Over time, women’s colleges have had to reassess their roles repeatedly. Henry Durant founded Wellesley College to give women higher education at a time when critics doubted that women could handle the rigor. As schools turned co-ed in the 1970s, people challenged the necessity of women’s colleges once again.
To begin Wellesley’s re-evaluation of its role as a women’s college, the committee plans to review College policies and practices throughout the fall and develop a year-long program of events to educate the community. By the beginning of spring semester, the committee will present its research to guide the administration’s recommendations to the Board of Trustees.
Photo by Soojin Jeong ’17, Photography Editor
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article stated that Bottomly explained that she “must” refer to Wellesley as a women’s college. In fact, Bottomly explained that she “wants to” refer to Wellesley as a women’s college. The article also said that the Board of Trustees questions whether the Wellesley should consider its role every time a new president joins the College. The board does not actively review the matter, but conversations occur when a new president is selected. The Wellesley News regrets these errors.