Wellesley Women Seethe Over Web Site

March 25, 2010

When asked to pick the “hottest” freshman to represent them for a Web site’s contest earlier this month, the students of Wellesley College couldn’t help but be disappointed and, frankly, offended.

Of the three nominees they could choose from for the first round of voting in Her Campus’s Mr. Campus Freshman 2013 competition, none represented Wellesley students. One was a freshman at Stanford University, another was at the University of Arizona and the third went to Vassar College. All three were male.

In the comments section on the Web site (which targets female readers at two dozen colleges with features and advice columns), in e-mail chains and on campus, students at the women’s college erupted in anger. The students didn’t go to Wellesley; they were men asked to represent a women’s college; and the only options for “the coolest, sexiest and funniest freshman” were men after whom, presumably, the site’s female readership would lust.

One student wrote that she was “OUTRAGED.” Another said she did not “need a male to represent me, and I expend [sic] my sympathies to the women who think I do,” adding that Wellesley “has no genetic males, but it can boast plenty of guys -- men, even." Some students’ private e-mail complaints to Her Campus’s editors were posted to -- and then removed from -- the site.

But that all came after the initial nomination process when Katie Chen, a Wellesley freshman who is editor of the college’s section of the site, said she would have accepted students of any gender identification. "I’m sure if someone had sent me an e-mail that they wanted to nominate a female or transgendered student I would have been O.K. with that,” she said in an interview. “I don’t believe the competition was ever specifically closed to anybody.”

In her blog post asking for nominees, though, Chen did seem to narrow the kinds of submissions she was looking for. “Now you don’t have to remind me that Wellesley is a women’s college,” she wrote on Feb. 22, “but that isn’t going to stop us from putting forth our best boyfriends and guy pals from schools across the country to compete for the title of Mr. Campus Freshman.”

Stephanie Kaplan, a Harvard University senior who co-founded Her Campus, said Chen “made her best judgment for how to run the contest.” Her thought process, Kaplan speculated, might have been, “we don’t have guys here, so why don’t we nominate guys from other schools?”

Neither Chen and Kaplan nor any of the site’s other leaders anticipated complaints about sexual and gender norms from students at Wellesley; at Simmons College, the other women’s college with a Her College page; or at the other 20 institutions included in the contest.

The idea for the contest, said Windsor Hanger, another co-founder and Harvard senior, came from a contest she had run for Harvard’s Freeze College Magazine, which had increased the site’s web hits tenfold and attracted 6,000 votes. “We got a lot of positive feedback on that,” she said. “So we thought we could do the same thing for Her Campus.”

At Wellesley, Kaplan added, “none of these issues were brought up before the initial nomination phase closed.” Though tempers raged at Wellesley for about a week at the beginning of the month, it was not until about a week later, Kaplan said, that said she and her two co-founders at Harvard heard about the complaints.

“[I]t seems that this lighthearted contest has generated a lot of controversy over at Wellesley! Wellesley is an all-women's college, so the Her Campus Wellesley team had students nominate guys they know to compete for the title of Mr. Wellesley Freshman and then represent Her Campus Wellesley in the national Mr. Campus Freshman contest amongst all our branches,” they wrote on March 11. “But, many women at Wellesley are up in arms over the fact that Her Campus Wellesley is going to be represented by a guy from another school, rather than by a transgender student at this women's college.”

Like all good Internet protest campaigns, this one ended with Her Campus choosing to yield to the will of its readers. Last week, students had the choice of two female Wellesley freshmen. By a slight margin, Christianne Wolfsen won.

“I know what you’re thinking and yes, I am, in fact, a girl,” she said in a video now posted along with those of the male winners from Her Campus’ other colleges. “Wellesley’s community -- and I -- agree that you don’t need to be a biological male to compete with the men.”

Voting ends Saturday.

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