Women’s colleges in the U.S.
There are just over 40 women’s colleges in the U.S. today. Like other tailored educational institutions (such as historically Black colleges and universities), women’s colleges arose in response to inequity and outright suppression. They were not established to separate women’s education from that of men, but to offer a place for women when there was no other. Before the Civil War, only 3 private colleges, all in Ohio, allowed female students. These were Antioch College, Oberlin College, and Hillside College (now in Michigan).
They believed that women have intellectual abilities equal to men and have the right to participate in society.
The founders of the first women’s colleges were activists for women’s rights. They believed that women have intellectual abilities equal to men and have the right to participate in society. They also supported a move for vocational training for women. All this at a time when such beliefs were considered radical or even preposterous.
Sophia Smith, the heiress who founded Smith College, the largest of the historic Seven Sisters colleges, wrote the following in her will: “It is my opinion that by the education of women, what are called their ‘wrongs’ will be redressed, their wages adjusted, their weight of influence in reforming the evils of society will be greatly increased, as teachers, as writers, as mothers, as members of society.” She also left her considerable fortune as an endowment for the college.
Private girls’ academies and seminaries
Throughout much of the 19th century, private academies or “seminaries” for girls were popular. These provided secondary education and were more practically than academically focused. Among their guiding principles was the notion that women who were trained to be teachers—one of the only careers they could pursue with this type of education— would make better mothers. It quickly became evident that the type of education women were receiving at academies and seminaries in no way matched what was available to men at colleges.
The stability of these institutions was also in question. They lacked the security of college endowments, and thus didn’t have the resources for permanent buildings or libraries. Although it’s difficult to determine which was the first women’s college, Georgia Female College, today known as Wesleyan College, was the first chartered U.S. school to confer to women “all such honors degrees and licenses as are usually conferred in colleges and universities.” Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, was the first to have a proper endowment, and thus able to offer a standard of education comparable to what male-only colleges were offering.
The goals of the first women’s colleges
Several factors constituted the climate within which women’s colleges were established. The Civil War had brought women out of Victorian domesticity. Some had served as army nurses, and even more had joined the war effort through volunteer brigades and ladies’ aid societies–baking, laundering, sewing, and knitting for the Union or the Confederacy. Following the war, the growth of community-funded public schools had created a demand for teachers and simultaneously instilled a desire in many schoolgirls a for further schooling. The Industrial Revolution and inventions such as the cookstove and sewing machine had freed women’s time from a number of domestic duties. Women of a certain socioeconomic status suddenly had a lot more time for and interest in getting educated–and social mores had begun to consider education an appropriate endeavor for women.
One of the primary aims of the first women’s colleges was better teacher training.
One of the primary aims of the first women’s colleges was better teacher training. Teaching remained one of the only advanced occupations for women, while being considered a low-status job for college-educated men. Religious and health education were also prioritized, and a select few institutions, primarily the Seven Sisters colleges, focused on the more abstract goal of “developing the intellect.”
The Seven Sisters
The Seven Sisters colleges all opened between 1837 and 1889 in the NE United States as private liberal arts colleges. These colleges were:
- Bryn Mawr
- Mount Holyoke
Their nickname comes from the Greek myth of the Pleiades, the 7 daughters of the Titan, Atlas, who holds up the sky. Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Holyoke, Smith, and Wellesley remain women’s colleges today. Vassar became a coed institution in 1969, while Radcliffe merged with Harvard in 1999.
From their inception, the Seven Sisters were intended as equivalents to the Ivy League colleges that didn’t admit women until the late 1960s. The Seven Sisters were also some of the first entry points into academia for women, hiring many female faculty and administrators. Barnard was founded by the trustees of Columbia University as a compromise in the struggle for women’s education. Columbia was in fact the last Ivy League school to go coed, in 1983.
Though the first women’s colleges provided better education than seminaries and academies, it wasn’t until the Seven Sisters were founded that women’s postsecondary education finally met the standards of men’s colleges.
“It is shocking that many of America’s top colleges denied entrance to women students as late as the 1960s. When schools like Yale, Princeton, and Dartmouth finally went coed, they did so not for reasons of equity, but for marketing purposes–a way to continue to attract the top men, who no longer wanted to attend all-male schools. This long history of exclusion still casts its shadow today, and we can see it in the continued lack of equity for women in college presidencies and tenured professor positions, and the ongoing scourge of sexual harassment.” Anne Gardiner Perkins, author of Yale Needs Women: How the First Group of Women Rewrote the Rules of an Ivy League Giant; winner of 2020 Connecticut Book Award for nonfiction.
Though the first women’s colleges provided better education than seminaries and academies, it wasn’t until the Seven Sisters were founded that women’s postsecondary education finally met the standards of men’s colleges. This was in large part due to financial resources from benefactors and the colleges’ abilities to recruit and retain talented female and male academics.
Opposition to women’s colleges
Although it seems absurd today, opposition to women’s colleges was widespread in the early 19th century. Popular beliefs included the notions that women are too fragile to attend college, that they are not as intelligent as men, and that college could somehow damage their reproductive organs. Charles Davis, professor at the U.S. Military Academy, wrote that higher education for women would “introduce a vast social evil…a monster of social deformity.”
Women’s suffrage had been achieved in many states, and prominent men were also publicly addressing gender inequality.
Many of these ideas were espoused by distinguished individuals–such as Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard College from 1869 to 1909–lending them scientific and academic credibility. Starting in the mid-19th century, the fight for women’s rights became more systematic, with the first large-scale conventions organized in New York and Massachusetts, and the suffrage movement gaining momentum. At the turn of the 20th century, the tide had turned. Women’s suffrage had been achieved in many states, and prominent men were also publicly addressing gender inequality. By 1880, 33% of all baccalaureate-seeking students were female. Between 1880 and 1910, the number of employed women increased from 2.6 million to 7.8 million.
Women’s colleges today
The 40 or so women’s colleges today are a far cry from the 260 that existed in 1960. In many ways this transition seems logical. Virtually all male-only colleges had gone coed by the 1980s, and unprecedented strides have been made in women’s rights over the past 150 years. Women now outnumber men at most coed colleges. It may even be surprising to find that women’s colleges still exist, given these developments. So what role do women’s colleges occupy today?
Although enrolment at women’s colleges has been waning for years, a sudden surge occurred in 2016. Various stakeholders and journalists have theorized the reason for this increase. Most agree that the rise of the #MeToo movement, the changing political climate, and evolving attitudes towards feminism have been the key factors. Additionally, while women are no longer formally barred from pursuing educational and professional goals, many vestiges or inequality remain. This is particularly true in business, politics, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), fields in which women are significantly underrepresented.
Women’s colleges are thus a key pipeline for women seeking corporate and political leadership roles, largely thanks to networking opportunities.
Hillary Clinton, Geraldine Ferraro, Nancy Pelosi, and Madeleine Albright all attended women’s colleges. The same is true for 20% of women in congress and 30% of a Businessweek list of rising women in corporate America. Women’s colleges are thus a key pipeline for women seeking corporate and political leadership roles, largely thanks to networking opportunities.
When it comes to the gender gap in STEM, it has been reported that gender stereotypes, male-dominated work cultures, fewer role models, and “math anxiety” being passed from female teachers to students are key drivers of the gap, all of which are tackled by women’s colleges.
With ever-increasing numbers of women attending college and entering the workforce, several organizations offer scholarships in support of women’s education. These are offered across a range of industries, from technology to fisheries.
I graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1998. Mt. Holyoke was founded as a female seminary in 1837 and remains single-sex today. From the time I first stepped onto campus, the school felt magical. Rolling hills, ivy covered brick, a wrought iron gate, a pond and large quad, it was like a movie version of how college should look. But the best part was the immediate sense of belonging. Everywhere there were groups of girls talking about everything. All the conversations I heard were about ideas and issues, and how we might solve them. The expectations on us were high (from ourselves, each other and the faculty), yet we were confident that we could rise to the challenge. The atmosphere was supportive on campus and as alumnae, we continue to support each other. This support even extends to the other “Seven Sister” schools. There is an instant bond. It’s better than a sorority. AJ Conroy, Attorney ERA Illinois
Women’s colleges and diversity
The demographics at women’s colleges are much closer to those of public universities than coed liberal arts colleges. More than half of all students at women’s colleges identify as women of color, compared to 38.5% at other private liberal arts colleges. Women’s colleges also have lower median student incomes than coed liberal arts colleges, Catholic colleges, and public and private universities, as well as higher numbers of first-generation students.
In recent years, women’s colleges have led the way in terms of gender inclusivity. In 2014, Mills College in California became the first women’s college in the country to accept self-identifying women and have an explicit policy of admitting nonbinary and gender-fluid students. Today, 20 historically women’s colleges have at least some trans-inclusive policies.
Why we still need women’s colleges
One of the most statistically significant differences between women’s colleges and coed institutions is around students feeling college has prepared them for their first job: 81% of women’s college graduates report feeling “extremely” or “very prepared” for a career, compared to 65% at coed institutions.
Women’s colleges have a role to play in addressing various inequalities, not least of all as a path towards more women in leadership positions across a variety of sectors.
Students at women’s colleges are twice as likely to complete a graduate degree compared to women at coed colleges. At the same time, American women continue to earn less than men–80 cents to the dollar–and are far less likely to be promoted to managerial positions. There are multiple complex reasons behind these facts, and thus successful solutions are bound to be multiple too. Women’s colleges have a role to play in addressing various inequalities, not least of all as a path towards more women in leadership positions across a variety of sectors.
“Historically, women’s colleges provided crucial access to a top-notch education at a time when most elite men’s schools–including Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Dartmouth, and Johns Hopkins–didn’t even let women apply. When these schools finally went coed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, they in fact caused a big financial hit to women’s colleges by draining away their students. The first group of women at Yale, for example, included 100 transfer students from Smith and Wellesley alone. Women’s colleges today provide a different role, but it’s still a crucial one and I for one would view it as a real loss if they disappeared from the U.S. higher education landscape.” Anne Gardiner Perkins