Since it was founded in 1870, Wellesley College has been a hub of activism. From students allegedly protesting the founder, Henry Durant’s ban on sweets by making contraband chocolate cake, to taking in displaced British children over the summer during WW2 and most recently petitioning in support of the Campus Union workers striking for Climate Change, there have always been outspoken student voices on campus.
More officially than secretly baking, Wellesley’s activist history began with the Temperance and Missionary societies that were established soon after the College was founded and aimed to practice Christian charity on campus and beyond it. The Missionary Society was responsible for bringing guest speakers to campus, and members donated to support missions in India and New York. The social concerns of the student body expanded quickly, and the two early organizations merged to form the Wellesley Christian Association in 1884, although membership was nondenominational.
In the 1890s, coinciding with the American Progressive Era, students became interested in women workers in nearby South Natick, as well as in workers on campus. Students turned the residence hall, Eliot House, which was razed in 1953, into a summer resort for factory employees and started a library for maids. Efforts at this time were still focused on Evangelism but were slowly diversifying; the $1700 fund raised by students in 1892 went to a school for children of color, a hospital for epileptic children and to providing homes for Native Alaskans, to name a few. Many students joined the Settlement House Movement which was dedicated to providing aid for the poor and worked in refuges like the Dedham Female Asylum.
Progressive faculty members also had an important impact on students at this time. Economics Professor Katharine Coman had a reputation for teaching students that became social activists and English Professor Vida Dutton Scudder was controversial because of her role as an outspoken labor unionist and socialist. The campus was also visited by prominent activists and lecturers, such as Jane Addams, who would go on to be the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.
Influenced by this progressive environment, students’ discussions on campus shifted to topics of settlement, immigration, child labor and women’s suffrage. Campus involvement looked very different by the end of the decade than it had at the start of it; the outspokenness of the student body was cemented with the first publications of the Courant, the Prelude and the Wellesley Magazine, as well as the establishment of the Agora Society, which centered on understanding political issues to inform action.
The 20th century ushered in yet another type of activism on campus. Searching to connect with democracy locally and nationally, students formed study groups with faculty advisers and created many more organizations including a “Social Studies Club” and even a popular “Socialist Club.” By this time, proselytizing was a much smaller part of activism, although religious life continued to be significant. Pre-World War I efforts included demonstrations for peace, but transitioned to knitting bandages during the war. Supporting the War was not just local to Wellesley’s campus but extended all the way to France and Italy where four Wellesley Units, consisting mainly of alumnae, were stationed. Students also raised funds for the Edith Wharton Tubercular Hospital in France.
By the 1920s, activism became an established component of the college. Student outspokenness became more evident as social awareness of issues such as racism, fundamentalism and anti-immigration increased. Students were even pegged as radicalists after some appeared at the infamous Stacco and Vanzetti trials in 1920. The Christian Association evolved to the Intercollegiate Community Service Organization, and Wellesley student Barbary Kruger ‘23 presided over its 18 branches.
In the ‘50s, after similar participation in WWII as in WWI, Wellesley and other college students were castigated as the “silent generation” due to their hesitancy to speak out during the Second Red Scare but came back in full force during the ‘60s onward. In the Wellesley News, there were frequent articles and Op-Eds about the issues of race and civil rights in the 1960s; feminism, equal opportunities and human rights in the 1970s; and protests for LGBTQ+ Rights in the ‘80s. These issues were discussed in relation to campus life and their broader effect on the country and in the world.
Wellesley’s activism has roots as deep as the school’s history itself, and students are still fighting for issues over 100 years later. Sometimes even for the same issues like the recent news article on housing problems mirrored a 1977 article on a couple dozen students relegated to the College Club due to overcrowded housing. Overall, however, Wellesley’s activism has changed significantly, growing more demonstrative and becoming a central component of the College, touching on almost all of its values of inclusivity, connection, academic freedom, and empowerment.