Susan Estrich: Wellesley is for women
From the commentary: Sometimes, for some women, separate is not only equal but better.
Wellesley College, my alma mater, is one of only 30 women's colleges left in the country. Should it stay that way?
This week, students overwhelmingly passed a non-binding referendum calling for open admissions to all nonbinary and transgender students, and for making communications more inclusive by using the word students or alumni instead of "women."
The referendum was opposed by the College's president, who said that the mission of the school was to educate women. In a statement, the college said that it "will continue to engage all students, including transgender male and nonbinary students, in the important work of building an inclusive academic community where everyone feels they belong."
I sympathize with the students and their concern that all women — including all those who identify as women — should feel welcome on campus. What I don't understand is what's wrong with the current college policy, which offers admission to anyone "who lives as a woman and consistently identifies as a woman," a policy that was adopted in 2015.
Not all women's colleges are so open. Sweet Briar College, for example, requires birth certificates or amended birth certificates that identify an applicant as a woman. Wellesley does not. In fact, as the student body president acknowledged to reporters, "trans men go to Wellesley, nonbinary people go to Wellesley, and they kind of always have." In her view, "we're just asking the administration to put on paper what's already true of the student body."
According to the college president, however, more than that is at stake. No one is trying to exclude students who identify as women. The question is whether there is a place for a college for women that focuses on educating women. To lose that in the name of nondiscrimination would be to lose a very special mission.
What's wrong with using the word "women"?
What's wrong with focusing on the history of discrimination against women?
What's wrong with a culture that ensures that women are encouraged to become anything and everything they can be, in a supportive culture that is special and unique because it is a community of women?
Wellesley was the only women's college I applied to. To be honest, it was my last choice. Wellesley picked me, with a scholarship too big to say no to, while my first choice offered me nothing at all. So off I went, to a world where, for the first time in my life, I met women in positions of power, women who could do anything, where I found a community of supportive classmates, lifelong friends and sisters.
In a coed high school where smart girls weren't popular, I learned to twirl a baton and do splits in the mud. In a women's college, I learned to speak up in class, speak my mind, debate with vigor, run the show. I had women professors, more women than men; the college was run by women administrators; every student organization was run by women, no more sitting back and letting the men take over. Seeing women who could do anything, I came to believe that I could, too. What made Wellesley special was not its beautiful campus and iconic buildings but the special culture that came with it being a women's college. In so many ways, I became the woman I am now at Wellesley, precisely because it was a women's college — and a safe haven.
Would the referendum change that?
If it wouldn't, why is it needed?
If it would, why is it needed?
Sometimes, for some women, separate is not only equal but better.
This Susan Estrich commentary is her opinion. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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