Students at Wellesley College voted Tuesday to allow transgender men and nonbinary people who were assigned male at birth to be eligible for admission, a move that could symbolically change the face of the Massachusetts women’s liberal arts college but was resisted by the college’s leaders.
The college did not release the exact vote count or percentages for the ballot initiative, which it said was a standard practice. The Wellesley News student newspaper reported that in addition to the admissions question, the measure also sought “to make the language used at Wellesley more inclusive of nonbinary and trans students.”
The student vote was the latest salvo in long-running efforts to broaden the identities of women’s colleges, reflecting the changing nature of higher education and the culture nationally. For years, some of the best-known women’s colleges, including Wellesley, have admitted transgender women. And for decades, many women’s colleges have admitted men.
Wellesley’s president, Paula A. Johnson, wrote a letter to the campus community last week committing to do more to recognize gender diversity, but she also reaffirmed the school’s mission as a women’s college. The letter drew criticism from many on campus, including the Wellesley News editorial board, which wrote: “We disapprove of and entirely disagree with President Johnson’s email.”
In the 1960s, there were hundreds of women’s colleges. But after historically male universities opened their admissions, that number dwindled. Some dropped the word “woman” from their name, as the former Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, now called Randolph College, did in 2007.
Others began changing their admissions policies, as Texas Woman’s University did, admitting men as graduate students in the 1970s and becoming fully coeducational in 1994. Today, they promote themselves as the country’s largest university system focused on women, according to spokesman Matt Flores. Their three campuses include transgender and nonbinary students, but the university does not track the numbers of those populations.
“Most of the women’s colleges do have men in their student bodies, but most are between 90 and 100 percent female still,” said Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University. “So we are still very much places that identify as women-supporting. But just like HBCUs have White and Hispanic and Asian students, and Catholic colleges have Baptist and Methodist and Muslim students, it’s okay for a women’s college to have many different genders, including those genders that no longer identify by traditional binary characteristics as male or female.
“We are the last kind of institution in America that are expected to be somehow, if you will, pure in the demographic of the student body,” she added. “And that is just ridiculous.”
At Mount Holyoke College, cisgender men cannot apply but transgender men can. A spokesman said the college “is proud to be a women’s college that is gender diverse.”
“Our students, faculty, staff and alums have never been afraid to be out in front. Mount Holyoke will continue to lead boldly on this issue, especially at a time when the lives and livelihoods of women, transgender and nonbinary people are at significant risk around the world,” the spokesman said.
Some said the discussion at Wellesley, whose alumnae include former secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright, draws more attention because of its elite status.
“It’s the Harvard of women’s colleges,” McGuire said. “I have great respect for Wellesley, but I also know that Wellesley, because of its history and tradition, has been much slower to evolve and change than the rest of us women’s colleges.”
She was surprised by Johnson’s stand, she said, “when so many of us have evolved in different directions, and many of us do include men in different programs on our campuses.
About 2.1 percent of Gen Z adults identify as transgender, according to a 2022 Gallup poll.
Some Wellesley students said their divide with college administrators was generational.
“I will say, from my experience, there is a disconnect between the student body and the administration over what students want, particularly the board [of trustees], because a lot of them are older and it’s not a very diverse board,” said Alexandra Brooks, the school’s government president, according to the Wellesley News.
“Wellesley was a refuge for so many of us,” said Katherine Lucas McKay, a 2006 graduate now living in Silver Spring and working at the Aspen Institute. “There is a huge role for women’s colleges, just like there’s a huge role for HBCUs. And yet what it means to serve and fulfill the mission has changed over time.
“The current student body — for longer than I have been alive — has been the force that has pushed Wellesley to live up to its mission in our age,” McKay said. “As a not-super-rich alum, I can withhold the $20 that I donate, and the $20 that my wife donates, monthly. But that’s not a big difference. It’s really the current students who make change.”
Johnson, in her letter to campus last week, pledged changes such as doing more to publicly acknowledge gender diversity on campus at events such as commencement, allowing students and others to upload gender pronouns into a campus network, supporting transgender students and expanding the number of all-gender bathrooms on campus.
But she wrote that Wellesley is not a “historically women’s college” that had chosen to admit men — a decision in keeping with those by some other colleges.
According to its website, “Barnard accepts applications from those who consistently live and identify as women. Applicants assigned female at birth who now identify as male are not eligible for admission.”
“People who identify as women—cis, trans and nonbinary women—are eligible to apply to Smith,” according to the Smith College website.
Spelman College also does not admit male students, according to a spokeswoman and its website, “including students who self-identify and live consistently as men, regardless of gender assignment at birth.”
A previous version of this story incorrectly said that Randolph-Macon College dropped "Woman" from its name in 2006. Randolph-Macon Woman's College, a separate institution, changed its name to Randolph College in 2007. The story has been corrected.