Approximately one year ago, the Wellesley News published a staff editorial on Wellesley College’s usage of gendered language. To this day, no noticeable changes have been made by the administration; the College has continued to utilize gendered terminology in all official documents and on its website. Most recently, this issue has been brought up through student feedback in response to the College’s five-year strategic plan, which in its draft released on April 5 refers to “women” a total of 22 times in its 12 pages.
When a student brought this issue up in the April 19 Senate meeting, President Paula Johnson responded, “The word ‘woman’ or ‘women’ will not be erased from the plan because that is a major board decision that would need to be made, but we’ve heard you and we will go through the plan.”
This should not be a board decision. The Board of Trustees has shown time and time again that they will not make progressive decisions because of their interest in attracting donors, as evidenced by the proposal this year to divest from fossil fuels — which the board is only paying attention to in its smaller, defanged iteration, after several years of nearly constant student pressure. The board has demonstrated repeatedly that it lags behind in embracing Wellesley’s progressive values. This also applies to the continued conversations around the place of transgender students at Wellesley.
This lack of gender-affirming language is one of the many continued affronts to the transgender community at Wellesley. The school’s Missions and Values page states that “Wellesley’s mission is to provide an excellent liberal arts education to women who will make a difference in the world.” This is followed by a list of values, including diversity, inclusion and gender equality. This claim of valuing inclusivity and gender equality is contradictory to the language they use and the ways in which Wellesley may confirm applicants’ gender status, such as requesting letters from healthcare providers, clergies, parents and/or teachers. To this extent, it comes across not as a way to openly accept non-men, but a mode to continue the erasure of transgender and non-binary students at Wellesley.
In order to fulfil the College’s original stated goal of making the world better, that mission must change. And in order to do so, we must update the mission statement and start acknowledging in public what we’ve known on-campus for years: we are not all “Wellesley Women” anymore. (Not that we ever were, really—as reported in the News, Wellesley class of 1936 alum N.E.B. Ostermann was one of many students at this school who challenged normative ideas of gender decades before much of the world began to catch up).
The experiences of transgender students at Wellesley are not well-documented. The News has published fewer than ten articles that include “transgender” in their headlines since 2015, when Wellesley began its policy of accepting applications from transgender women. And the College’s official publications, such as the alumnae magazine, mention transgender students even less; there is one, single article with the word “transgender” in a headline in Wellesley’s alumae magazine’s online archives, and only 17 that mention the word “transgender” at all.
In Wellesley’s official data regarding demographics of the student body, transgender students are not mentioned, either. Anecdotally, it is clear that trans students exist at Wellesley, but we aren’t given the numbers needed to prove that to the outside world. The only dataset our editors were able to encounter that even stated the number of trans students on campus was the NCHA-II schoolwide health survey from Spring 2018.This survey placed trans and nonbinary students at 7.8% of the student body: so, roughly 200 students, give or take — and this was three years ago.
As explained in Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren Klein’s Data Feminism, the selection of which datasets are collected and published is not without bias: the numbers that we choose to observe and interpret always say something about which things — and which groups of people — we value. So, the lack of accessible data on trans students at Wellesley is either a deliberate administrative choice or a form of neglect on their part.
But despite this archival silence and continual, active administrative silencing, transgender students at Wellesley are not going away. Those of us on the Editorial Board of this newspaper certainly won’t be staying silent.
Trans students are not a small, insignificant part of Wellesley; they lead and contribute to this College’s community in every way possible. They are your student leaders, RAs, tutors, organizers and student government members. Simply put, Wellesley would not be the same without the contributions of trans students.
While the Editorial Board understands that using “women-only” language might appeal to elderly donors, those of us at the College now must consider withholding our future donations if this continues. Why would students donate to the preservation of a place that doesn’t want to acknowledge that transgender and non-binary students exist?
What makes Wellesley special is its student body, and trans students are a necessary part of that. By embracing that, Wellesley can become a much more beautiful and meaningful community for all of us, trans and cis students alike. Our diversity is what makes us strong, after all. So, to the Board of Trustees: acknowledging and uplifting transgender students’ contributions to Wellesley isn’t something to fear, but something to celebrate.
Wellesley College’s administration must stop lagging so shamefully behind its student body in its conception of what gender means. This school must recognize that transgender and non-binary students make Wellesley better, and start putting in more effort to become a supportive environment for those students, too.