At Women’s Colleges, the Fight Goes On

The scene was set: Nearly 3000 alumnae had flown in to attend the college’s Election Night party, glass ceiling cupcakes had been ordered and students were decked out in suffragette costumes (and planning on purchasing “Wellesley in the White House” sweatshirts the next morning). As a recent alumna of Wellesley myself, I had dressed in a tee shirt bearing the name of my alma mater that morning and voted for a fellow alum that afternoon. Hillary Rodham Clinton—class of 1969—was poised to make history as the first female President of the United States.

November 8 should have been a historic night at Wellesley College. Instead, students, faculty, staff and alumnae were shaken by the election results. As generally left-leaning inclusive spaces, the communities at women’s colleges across the country were understandably shocked by the news that millions of people in the United States chose to vote for a misogynist, racist, xenophobic, anti-immigrant, ableist, homophobic, tax-evading alleged serial rapist instead of a woman who was perhaps the most qualified candidate in history.

But the community at Wellesley, and communities at women’s colleges like it, did not rest in defeat after the election. Instead, they fought on.

The morning after the election, a hate crime occurred on Wellesley’s campus.

Two Babson College students were driving around campus in a pick-up truck holding a Trump flag shouting homophobic slurs at students and eventually parked outside the cultural center for students of African descent to heckle and spit at students. The news quickly hit the Boston Globe, and Wellesley students began research to identify the two students and contact Babson College authorities to demand disciplinary action.

The day after Babson students terrorized Wellesley’s community, President Paula Johnson led the campus in a Peace Walk to reclaim campus spaces. In the following days, professors hosted extra office hours to speak with students about community organizing and supporting one another and staff members reached out to students with multi-faith spiritual and religious support and counseling services.

As news of Wellesley’s tragedy spread, news organizations began to comment on the “sanitized” “political-correctness” of liberal arts colleges and women’s colleges. “Wellesley could be considered ground zero for the culture of political correctness that Mr. Trump has criticized,” the New York Times wrote, citing that “in recent decades, it has introduced guidelines for appropriate language and other protections for addressing racial and religious minorities and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.”

President Johnson responded swiftly and without pause, defending efforts to make Wellesley inclusive and the revolutionary nature of women’s colleges in a letter to the editor:

[T]o dismiss anyone’s reaction to hateful acts as oversensitive political correctness is to be complicit in these acts.

I disagree with your characterization that Wellesley was founded as a safe space. Wellesley’s founding was a revolutionary act inspired by a vision for democracy and equal opportunity for women across all socioeconomic backgrounds, and for more than 100 years, we have fought for women.

At Wellesley, we embrace difference and work to assure that all Wellesley students have an equal opportunity to flourish. We stand for equity and justice, for the pursuit of knowledge that is based in fact, and for civil discourse that is inclusive while challenging in its rigor.

It is incumbent upon President-elect Donald Trump to clearly and forcefully condemn episodes of bias against groups too numerous to name here. Far from playing it safe, Wellesley’s plan is to remain vigilant and redouble our efforts on behalf of women.

In an era where politicians and news organizations will undoubtedly dismiss women’s concerns and speak ill of the “liberal rhetoric” that encourages revolutionary equality, women’s colleges are already speaking up and calling out language that normalizes hate.

Not one day later, fellow Massachusetts women’s college Smith College, joined the dialogue with President Kathleen McCartney’s “For Women, Glass Ceilings, And Glass Walls, Too,” also in The New York Times. In her article, President McCartney addresses the devastation that students like hers felt when they realized that although “every student leadership position from captain of the sports team to president of the student government is held by a woman” at women’s colleges, that same belief in the power of women does not exist elsewhere. She also wrote about “glass walls”—the implicit social norms expected of today’s young women that have replaced the more overt sexism of their mothers’ generation.

The underlying message of these pieces was clear. If the media is willing to give neutral coverage to a man who’s spoken poorly of nearly every person in this country—besides, of course, wealthy white men—women leaders will balance the conversation by pushing topics related to diverse and under-reported experiences.

In the weeks since the election, women’s colleges have stayed loud and proud. Wellesley and Babson College students joined together in a march against post-election hate. Mount Holyoke students hosted a sit-in protest called “Love Trumps Hate” and Acting President Sonya Stephens released a statement from the college denouncing hateful rhetoric and encouraging students to remain politically engaged. Bryn Mawr students continued campaigning to have First Lady Michelle Obama speak at their graduation. The presidents of Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, The Radcliffe Institute, Smith, Vassar and Wellesley joined together in a snarky, subversive and standards-setting letter condemning Trump’s Chief Strategist Steve Bannon—a notorious racist, white nationalist and anti-Semite who famously called progressive women “a bunch of dykes […] from the Seven Sisters schools.”

There’s a saying at Wellesley that we are “women who will,” and I think the sentiment still holds true. Women’s colleges believe in the immense power of women and other marginalized groups to bring about substantive change. Already, campus communities which were created in the spirit of expanding democracy—educating women so that they might join in the ranks of informed voters and creating feminist spaces dedicated to inclusivity—have begun to speak out against the sexism and other hateful practices resulting from this election.

Wellesley professor Ismar Volić recently penned an article about his fears for the future and, ultimately the hope that women’s college’s offer—that “one of my students, or one of the millions of smart, strong women like them across this country, will one day become the first female president of the United States.” Hillary Clinton may not have shattered the “highest, hardest glass ceiling”—but if there’s change coming in the next four years, we can rest assured some of it will be coming directly from the students at historical women’s colleges like her own alma mater.

headshotCecilia Nowell is a recent graduate of Wellesley College where she studied comparative literature and political science and spent too much time editing the campus nonfiction magazine Counterpoint. She is currently living and writing in Santiago, Chile with funding from the Emily Cohen MacFarquhar ’59 Grant for International Journalism. Find her on (her brand new) Twitter @cecilianowell.

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    Comments

    1. Kristen Chang says:

      Love this. Well-written and wonderfully articulated the radical, unpopular roots of women’s colleges and the change they bring.

    2. All of us must remember that November 8 is still history making, still meaningful. Live to fight another day. Evelyn ’87.

    3. Judy Augustino says:

      Wonderfully poignant. You articulate so well how so many felt following the election and why. I could not be more proud and grateful that my daughter is a first year at Wellesley College. Well done! Thank you!

    4. from the shores of Lake Waban to the goddess’s ears–women must not be silent

    5. M J Jahnke says:

      Beautifully said. Keep on keepin’ on.

    6. I could not have said it better myself! We were all so proud and honored to cast our vote for the first woman on the ballot. My Wellesley student to her grandfather worked tirelessly for the most qualified candidate ever on the ballot. As the impossible of the election night became possible my Wellesley gal was inconsolable. The only thing proven on that awful night is America’s entirely more sexist than we could imagine.

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