Women's Colleges in the United States

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Women's Colleges in the United States

In the United States throughout the nineteenth century, a fierce debate raged concerning the wisdom of allowing women access to higher education. Proponents argued that women were the intellectual equals and cultural superiors of men, and that the fulfillment of women's duties as mothers and elementary school teachers necessitated they receive the best and most advanced education available. Those opposed maintained that higher education would "unsex" women, rendering them physically and emotionally unfit for traditional roles.

Despite the controversy, as early as the 1830s and 1840s, women gained access to seminaries, academies, and normal schools, some with curricula comparable to those at colleges for men. In the Midwest and West, these institutions tended to be both coeducational and more accessible to middle-class students. Single-sex schools, usually catering to the upper-middle and upper classes, were more common in the South and the Northeast. Not surprisingly, then, the first women's schools to call themselves "colleges" were Georgia Female College (1836), Mary Sharp College in Tennessee (1853), and Elmira College in New York (1855). Indeed, the antebellum Souththe nation's most conservative regionwas home to the largest number of women's colleges in America, staffed by women teachers from the North. Ironically, the strength of Southern gender norms encouraged wealthier parents to support women's higher education, as their daughters were unlikely to be led astray if they received a college degree. Historians disagree as to the rigor of the education offered at these institutions, however, and the Southern women's colleges did not survive the disruption and devastation caused by the Civil War.

In the postCivil War era, pressure from tax-paying parents who wanted their daughters to have a means of economic self-support led to the admission of women to the new state universities in the West and the Midwest, created under the terms of the Morrill Land Grant Act (1862). In the South and the East, however, neither well-established prestigious men's colleges nor new state universities accepted women students. In 1870, only one-third of American colleges and universities were coeducational. Thus, between the 1860s and the 1930s, new women's colleges were founded by a variety of individuals and organizations.

The most prominent and prestigious women's colleges were those designated as the "women's Ivy League" or the "Seven Sisters" schools: Vassar, Wellesley, Smith, Bryn Mawr, Barnard, Radcliffe, and Mt. Holyoke. These East Coast colleges were founded between 1865 and 1893 by individual philanthropists or by private organizations of influential women. In the South, individual philanthropy and church support led to the establishment of Goucher (the Woman's College of Baltimore); Sophie Newcomb (the women's college of Tulane University); and Agnes Scott in Decatur, Georgia; among others. Catholic orders of sisters founded nineteen women's colleges between 1900 and 1930, and many more thereafter.

While a few Eastern women's colleges admitted a very small number of African-American students, Southern colleges were exclusively white until the civil rights era. Virtually all the historically black colleges were coeducational, however, although white women missionaries established Spelman Seminary for African-American girls and women in 1881; it became a college in 1923. Other black institutions Bennett, Barber-Scotia, and Houston-Tillotsonwere women's colleges at various times in their history.

Other demographic features of women's colleges also remained relatively constant until the 1970s. Some schools, particularly the Catholic institutions, had a more diverse student population, but most restricted admission to those who could pay their own wayusually the Protestant daughters of upper-middle-class families. As college attendance became a less unusual choice for young women, more of the socially elite families sent their daughters as well. The Seven Sisters colleges restricted the admission of Jewish students, and probably Catholics as well, until after World War II. Only in the past few decades have financial aid and affirmative action made it possible for women from a wider range of backgrounds to attend women's colleges.

Women's colleges have always prided themselves on offering an education fully as rigorous as that provided by the best men's colleges. Not content to reproduce the Amherst, Notre Dame, or Morehouse curricula, however, women's colleges pioneered in offering laboratory science and fine arts courses. Some established special opportunities for "returning" older students, and programs designed to encourage women scholars and professionals (e.g., the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe). A few women's colleges offer graduate degrees; Bryn Mawr's program in classics and Smith's in social work are particularly well known. Moreover, women's colleges usually have a large number of women faculty and administrators, who encourage their students to excel and to undertake advanced work. Sometimes criticized for not offering a more vocationally oriented education, such as domestic science courses, the women's colleges have successfully maintained the liberal arts curriculum. Indeed, their historic concern about intellectual separatism led these colleges to be followers of the coeducational universities, rather than leaders, in establishing women's studies programs in the 1970s and 1980s.

In the late nineteenth century, motivated by the need to demonstrate their respectability, women's colleges placed many social restrictions on their students; as a result, ambitious and independent young women often preferred coeducational universities. By the early twentieth century, however, students at women's colleges enjoyed many advantages over their coeducated sisters, including the full attention of the faculty; the opportunity to run their own student governments; control of the publication of the campus newspapers, literary magazines, and yearbooks; and a chance to engage in a wider range of activities, such as debate and competitive athletics. Some women's colleges had sororities; most did not, however, and others eventually abolished them as too socially divisive for small homogeneous campuses. Although administrators often frowned upon official support of the suffrage movement and other controversial causes, many students participated in such movements, albeit sometimes clandestinely. In the 1920s, Calvin Coolidge criticized the Seven Sisters as hotbeds of radicalism. At Southern and Catholic women's colleges, however, strict social regulations remained in place for a much longer period, and students were less likely to become politically engaged. Historians have not yet assessed campus activism at women's colleges between the 1920s and 1970s, but anecdotal evidence indicates that at least some students maintained the tradition of political commitment.

Despite their protestations of social conservatism, women's colleges produced a substantial minority of graduates who adopted nontraditional lifestyles. Many alumnae became career women, participated in politics, remained single, had smaller families, and otherwise modified or defied middle-class gender norms. Recognizing this, the public has periodically attacked the women's colleges for producing spinsters (18901920); encouraging lesbian relationships (1920s and 19701990); and teaching women to be discontented with domesticity (19301960).

Since the advent of the second wave of feminism, women's colleges have seemed anachronistic to many Americans. As the colleges of the men's Ivy League and even the service academies began to admit women, the numbers of women's colleges dropped rapidlyfrom 233 in 1960 to 90 in 1986. All Catholic men's and women's colleges became coeducational, as did Vassar, Sarah Lawrence, and other prestigious single-sex institutions. In 1960, 10 percent of women college students attended single-sex institutions; by 1986, less than 2 percent did so. And yet recent social science research demonstrates that alumnae of women's colleges, even those from the less prestigious institutions, include a greater percentage of "achievers" than graduates of coeducational schools, especially in nontraditional fields. Scholars argue that superior mentoring and a more supportive environment at women's colleges account for this disparity. Thus, while it is unlikely that new women's colleges will be established, it is equally unlikely, and undesirable, that the remaining ones will disappear.

See also: Coeducation and Same-Sex Schooling; Education, United States; Girls' Schools.


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Tidball, M. Elizabeth. 1999. Taking Women Seriously: Lessons and Legacies for Educating the Majority. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press.

Lynn D. Gordon

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Women's Colleges in the United States

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Women's Colleges in the United States