Behind the green ivy doors of America’s most elite women’s college
by Jay Dixit
First appeared in Rolling Stone, March 15, 2001.
At first, Ross Franklin didn’t notice that Wellesley College women were stalking him. They would bump into him as if by accident as he came out of his classes and casually strike up conversations. Sometimes they would ask him out on study dates. Ross thought it was all just par for the course. He didn’t realize until a friend pointed it out to him that the women were actually planning these coincidences. “Anywhere else, if a girl likes you, she’ll come up to you and be very direct about it,” says Ross. “Here, the girls are so intelligent, they go about it in a different way.”
As a visiting student from Wheaton College studying at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, for one year, Ross enjoys the unique position of being the lone full-time male student at an all-women’s school. “I really don’t have to introduce myself too often,” he says. It’s established wisdom on campus that the “token guy” who comes to Wellesley every few years will get as much attention as he can handle. David Kent, who spent a year at Wellesley in the late Seventies, wrote about the experience for Esquire: “I became incapable of talking to a girl without thinking how much she craved me and what she’d be like in the sack.” He dated three women a night, he writes, and rarely slept in his own room. Neil Schiavo, a Connecticut College graduate who spent part of the 1994-95 academic year at Wellesley, says, “The first week, it took me forty minutes to get to classes because people were so friendly. I felt like in this one little area in the world, I was Tom Cruise.”
Ross won’t put a number on how many Wellesley students he’s slept with, but admits he’s been dating “a lot.” One group of students placed bets on who could sleep with Ross, and there was also an informal competition to see who could get him into bed first. “Wellesley women are different from other women,” Ross says. “They plan everything out in their heads.”
HENRY FOWLE DURANT FOUNDED Wellesley College in 1875 to provide women with college opportunities equal to those available to men, declaring that God was “calling to womanhood to come up higher, to prepare herself for great conflicts, for vast reforms in social life, for noblest usefulness.” The women who went there were chosen not only for their intellectual competence but also for their good health, and the first women who attended were said to look “very rosy and healthy.” In the early years, exercise was strongly emphasized because of a widespread belief that rigorous study could be harmful to a woman’s health. Students were allowed only one day at home per term and could not receive young male callers under any circumstances. On Sundays, no guests were permitted at all. In 1914, the rules were relaxed to allow students to receive their fathers, but no other men, and only on Sundays.
Even in the early Sixties, Wellesley women weren’t expected to have their own careers. “When I went to Wellesley,” says writer-director Nora Ephron, a 1962 graduate, “it was pretty much assumed that if you were interested in medicine, you should marry a doctor.” Marnie Henretig, a social worker who graduated in 1965, says, “The only reason I picked Wellesley was because I thought it was the best location to meet the man I wanted to marry.” And the very idea of women dating other women was taboo. As Ephron told the class of 1996 at their commencement, “While I was here, Wellesley actually threw six young women out for lesbianism.”
But then came the sexual revolution. “When I arrived in ‘67, men could be in the rooms just for an hour or two in the afternoon—and you had to have a box of matches in the door—and we had sit-down meals, where we had to sing hymns and get dressed up on the weekends, and have tea once a week,” recalls Kate Cornwell, a social worker. “By my senior year, ‘71, men could be in the rooms twenty-four hours; there were no more sit-down dinners, no more singing of hymns, and I think they might have had tea once a month.”
Since then, Wellesley has tenaciously fought pressures to enroll male students. Meanwhile, the profile of the Wellesley woman has evolved. No longer are Wellesley women expected to marry society’s leaders; now they aim to be leaders themselves. The college is universally recognized for its academic excellence—it consistently ranks among the top five liberal-arts colleges in the country, and the school has produced a disproportionate number of CEOs. “Corporate” is a word that often comes up when people talk about the reputation of Wellesley grads. As one Wellesley humanities professor puts it, “The public perception is that someone from Smith is more likely to go on to head the National Organization for Women than someone from Wellesley, and that someone from Wellesley would be more likely to be the head of Citibank than someone from Smith—and the business world tends to be pretty conservative.”
Of course, the sexual mores have changed drastically from the days when men were allowed in dorm rooms only if the door was left open and the caller’s feet remained on the floor. While other women’s colleges in Massachusetts, such as Smith and Mount Holyoke, have come to be known for large lesbian populations, Wellesley has sought to avoid that image. “In the admissions tour, parents ask. I know tour guides have said before that Wellesley doesn’t have an exorbitantly high amount of people who are gay,” says ‘99 grad Betsy Hanna, “It’s just that people who are feel more comfortable being out.”
Still, Wellesley’s sexual culture has more in common with that of its sisters than it would like to admit. “One of our slogans at Wellesley is `Independent women, amazing women,’ ” says sophomore Alyssa Robinson. “Part of that independence is liberation from boxes that women might have been placed in. A lot of Wellesley is about breaking out of those boxes. That encourages a more liberated, a more independent attitude among the students.” The result is a climate of sexual experimentation where no woman, or man— including professors, kitchen staff and campus police officers— is off-limits.
“It was a challenge to be straight at a school like that,” says Melanie Herman, a 1999 graduate who now works on Wall Street. So women at Wellesley who do choose to date men but have given up on the “Fuck Truck”—the student nickname for bus that runs to Harvard and MIT, both about forty-five minutes away—have to find whoever is available. The most alluring candidates are the professors. Different academic departments have different reputations. “Some of the departments are a little racy and some are a little more tame,” says senior Sandra North. “Some professors are notorious for having sex with their students. Everyone knows who they are.”
Understandably, professors are not cheered by the sometimes unkind stories that are spread about them. “I knew a guy who used to pick up a baby sitter on campus, and people said he was picking her up for a date,” says professor Aaron Girard, “And it wasn’t anything like that. So you can get injustice done pretty easily.” Many of the rumors are completely untrue, he points out—although he admits he has had relationships with students. “I’ve heard rumors about me and several students that had no basis in fact whatsoever,” Girard says. “And the one that was true, no one knew about.”
For a straight male professor, a women’s college offers obvious temptations. In every class, there are at least a few admirers, especially if he has that “professor sex appeal.” And having that appeal doesn’t necessarily mean he’s good-looking—indeed, says a student, many of the most sought-after professors “definitely do not fall into the good-looking category.”
Former Wellesley professor Ian Randolph admits that he had relationships with students (he’s since left the college for unrelated reasons). He says his students would come in during his office hours and talk to him openly about sex. “It wasn’t uncommon to get a lot of students coming to my office hours only to talk about who they slept with recently and what had been going on in their lives, how many drugs they did the night before, or how much homework they had that they hadn’t been doing,” he says.
In his case, he maintains, it was always the students who signaled their interest. Women would come into his office and talk to him about the details of their sexual experiences, about “sexual positions and the number of orgasms.” One student would show him pictures of herself, he says, “naked, with pierced nipples and bondage equipment.” Soon, says Randolph, “one student became more directly flirtatious, telling me she was attracted to older men all the time and asking me questions about what I thought about students and professors sleeping together.” Eventually, says Randolph, their intentions became obvious. “These people essentially came out and said, ‘I would like to have sex with you.’”
Randolph had three sexual relationships with students in one year. Two of these began the same night, in the middle of final exams. He’d gone out for coffee with two of his students who were dating each other. As they drove back to Wellesley, the women said, “Oh, we want to stay up. We don’t want to go to bed.” Randolph had liquor left over from a party he’d thrown for a bunch of students the previous week. “We can go back to my office, and make drinks and hang out there,” he said. So they did. Back in the office, says Randolph, “They started sort of making out, and one thing led to another, and there I was joining in, and many hours passed.” By the end, he’d had sex with both of them. “And then everything became very confusing, because one was my thesis student and the other was in another of my classes.” In fact, Randolph was actually dating another student at the same time—in addition to being married—but soon broke up with her and started dating one of the two women from finals week. Later, he broke up with her and started dating the other.
How often does this kind of thing go on? Nobody really knows. Presumably, the vast majority of student-professor relationships are kept secret. “There are rumors about every young faculty member on the campus, and I think about one in ten are true,” says professor Girard. “It’s not something that’s rampant. But there certainly are relationships between young faculty members—both men and women—and students.”
The Wellesley College administration discourages intimacy between professors and students. “Relationships between students and faculty and between students and staff are discouraged, but they’re not banned. And we don’t police or monitor that,” says Mary Ann Hill, director of public information and government relations for Wellesley.
Professors are breaking the rules, however, if they have relationships with students in their own department or classes. The policy also explicitly prohibits a pattern of promiscuity among professors with regard to intimacy with students. Finally, a tenured professor can be fired for “moral turpitude.” Says Hill, “When supervisory relations are present between a student and faculty or staff member, sexual relations are unconditionally unacceptable.”
“It’s got to be very discreet,” says Professor Girard. “Once it’s known, one of the things that works against it is, 2000 women, lots of talk. A junior faculty member wants more than anything to get tenure. You get caught with your hand in the cookie jar, and it’s over real fast.”
So professors who sleep with students take precautions. “It had to be conducted secretly,” says Professor Randolph of his first affair with a Wellesley student.
Valerie Wexler, a member of Wellesley’s class of 2000 and one of the women who had a sexual relationship with Randolph, rejects the stereotype that a professor’s power unfairly influences students. “I think there’s this myth that the younger person is always seduced by the older person,” she says. “These types of relationships can be misconstrued to be some sort of seduction and power situation, but I didn’t feel that way at all. In fact, a lot of the time, I felt like I had the power.” It seems that most of the student-professor relationships at Wellesley are started by students. “It would have been a disaster if I had instigated a relationship and it was unwanted,” says Randolph. “That would be the very definition of sexual harassment: unwanted sexual advances.” Students and professors agree that Wellesley does not have a big sexual-harassment problem—in fact, the school has not had a sexual-harassment complaint for four years.
Senior Claire Denning explains that when women at Wellesley have crushes on professors, the attraction is expressed in terms such as, “He’s so intelligent. He made eye contact with me today in class. He calls on me more than he calls on the other girls.” And the attraction is not usually based on appearance. “Some of these professors are chubby, short, dirty-looking,” says Claire. “But there’s something about them that’s very attractive, and I don’t think it’s necessarily the way they look.”
By contrast, she says, when women are attracted to dining-hall workers, it is purely physical. “It’s like, ‘Oh my God, he’s so fucking sexy, I want to get in his pants.’” Heather Gay, a class of 2000 graduate, mentions a dining-hall worker who dated someone she knew. “He would get off work at the dining hall and just roll on over to her dorm every night,” she says. “The guys in the dining hall—if they’re young and attractive—they get a lot of attention.” Stacy Drummond, another 2000 graduate, knows of many women who’ve had relationships with dining-hall workers. “The guys would take breaks, and go upstairs to these girls’ rooms, and fool around with them and come back down,” says Stacy.
Many working-class men staff the dining halls. “There are some definite class issues on this campus,” says Claire, who worked at a Wellesley dining hall for several years. “I think there’s kind of like that, ‘Oh, I’m such a bad girl, I’m dating this working-class guy.’”
John Flaherty, a twenty-one-year-old dining-hall worker from the Boston area, says, “My friend said he screwed about twenty-six Wellesley girls. And that was in the four months that he worked there. I know it’s true of about at least half a dozen girls. I guess he’s just a ladies’ man.”
Police officers on campus also attract some students. “I have two close friends who have had relationships with two different campus police officers,” says Heather. Stacy was friends with a man who worked in the campus police department. While their relationship never went beyond a few kisses, she was privy to the goings-on in the department. “I know a couple of guys who are still there and are having affairs with students—or at least, they were when I graduated in May,” Stacy says. “For the most part, they’re honest guys. Most of them aren’t having affairs. It’s probably one or two officers, and the rest look down on it and think it’s pretty despicable but don’t do anything about it. So not a lot, but enough to make it interesting.”
“Yeah, it goes on,” says Wellesley College police officer Peter Murphy, referring to relationships between students and officers. “I don’t know how much it has to do with the fact that a lot of women find that attractive, a man in uniform.” Murphy knows five officers who, over a twenty-year period, have married Wellesley students.
OF COURSE, ROMANTIC LIFE DEPENDS largely on the individual. For junior Colbie Paulson, a Mormon and the president of the Wellesley Alliance for Life, a pro-life group, Wellesley’s single-sex environment means taking a step back in time. “For me, I find that the fact that our school is single-sex makes it more of a traditional dating experience. The guy comes to my school, he comes to my door, he picks me up, he takes me out, he makes a real effort to get here. So for me, it just reinforces my conservative upbringing.”
Some women end up not dating at all. Others may turn to their classmates. “I call it the ‘prison effect,’” says Jess Eason, a sophomore from Alaska. “You know how once you’re around the same thing for so long, it starts to appeal to you? That’s sort of my theory on Wellesley College. After a while, you start finding women more appealing.”
Jess’ story is fairly typical. When she arrived her freshman year, she had a boyfriend. But she saw women involved with other women all around her. She joined the rugby team and, she says, “The team was at least sixty percent bi or dyke last year, and this year it seems like it’s ninety percent.” Even so, she says that at first, she “wasn’t getting into the homosexuality thing.” But eventually, her attitude changed. At the beginning of her sophomore year, she broke it off with her boyfriend—by then her fiancé—and started dating a woman.
Sandra North explains the process: “For a while, someone might go around telling people she’s asexual, saying, `I’m not attracted to anyone,’ which sometimes is a cover for starting to become attracted to women.” If she develops a crush on somebody, she might check the woman’s “résumé,” the electronic profile on Wellesley’s e-mail system. “That’s actually a pretty big part of Wellesley’s sex culture,” says Sandra. “That’s where a lot of flirtation goes on.” It can also act as an informal registry of who’s straight and who’s gay or experimenting. “One girl wrote on her resume, ‘I am now open to dating women. If you want to talk to me, here’s my extension,’” Sandra explains.
It helps that dating women is so convenient. “You just run upstairs and there’s your girlfriend,” says Jess. “Here, you can practically have an apartment set up with your girlfriend. At most coed places, a girl would probably have trouble getting a room with her boyfriend.”
And the atmosphere is so open that even the more conservative groups on campus tend to be socially liberal. Sarah Spurgeon, a member of the Wellesley Republicans, says, “I don’t care what someone does in their bedroom or whom they marry, and I also think women should be able to play like men do in the battle of the sexes. It is simply a matter of personal freedom.” Heather Gay says, “It’s an environment where being a lesbian is considered almost cool.” Growing up, Heather was always embarrassed about her name. “But once I came out at Wellesley, it became a big joke,” she recalls. “We’d have posters advertising the Café Hoop that would say BE GAY and just have a big picture of my face.”
Michelle Carby, a class of 2000 graduate, recalls how she and some of her friends lived in a dorm called Lakehouse, then known for its heavy lesbian concentration. Michelle and her friends were just friends, but they had an odd sort of sexual tension with one another. “We had a party one night, and we all wound up in a room sort of making out with each other,” says Michelle. “Then we all went and had breakfast together at the dining hall like it was nothing. We never did it again. It was like we needed a sexual release, and we got that.”
The supportive atmosphere at Wellesley also tends to build sexual confidence. “It’s an environment where sex is fun, sex is good, and you’re not supposed to be ashamed of your body,” says Michelle. “It’s like something changes over in you from being at Wellesley.” As a result, a lot of women are having sex who might not at all at a coed school. “I think of couples that I knew at Wellesley, people who never dated in high school, people who may have been overweight or not that attractive,” says Michelle. “And they wind up meeting someone who they can be that way with, and who is fine with it, and they end up getting it on. So therefore they’re having sex, whereas if they’d gone to a coed environment, they might not be.”
The waiting period between meeting someone and having sex is also diminished. “For women to be with other women, there’s not that threatening aspect, like, ‘Maybe he won’t stop when I want him to stop,’” says Michelle. “So therefore it happens more often, and people are more likely to sleep with someone on the first date than they would be with a guy.” Heather agrees: “Time is so sped up. The cycles of getting to know someone, dating them, breaking up are on hyperspeed.”
Wellesley has an atmosphere that professor Randolph calls “erotically aware,” where sexuality, sexual practices and sexual orientation are openly discussed all the time—on radio shows, on campus panels, and in classes. The Dyke Ball, a dance put on by Wellesley Lesbians, Bisexuals, Transgenders and Friends, is an all-out celebration of female sexuality. “There’s no such thing as a normal formal dance like there are at other schools,” says Melanie Herman. “Instead, it’s more normal to see ten girls wearing wings on their backs.” The dress code for the Dyke Ball is “creative black tie,” which means that women show up either dressed extravagantly or practically naked. Women routinely arrive nearly topless, or wearing only Saran Wrap or body paint (which inevitably sweats off by the end of the night). The few men who show up come in drag. And over the course of the night, women are “all crazy getting on each other, stripping off their clothes and getting it on with each other,” says Michelle. Says senior Charlotte Boutz, “I’ve seen more T&A at the Dyke Ball than in the locker room.”
From the day they set foot on campus, Wellesley women are told that they are equal to men, that they can do anything men can and more, and that the old rules don’t apply to them. Nora Ephron told the class of 1996 at their commencement, “I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there.”
Could it be that this sense of empowerment bleeds over into sexuality? Michelle thinks so. “It’s like, `Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to do a certain thing because you’re a woman.’ I think that translates to every aspect of life.” Alyssa agrees: “It’s an extension of their liberation—to go out and be just as sexually aggressive as you would see a male be. It’s about defining your own self instead of being defined by others.”[Footnote] Many names have been changed. [Footnote] Collegelife2001