Seven Sisters Colleges

views updated


SEVEN SISTERS COLLEGES. The Seven Sisters Colleges are prestigious northeastern liberal arts institutions founded in the nineteenth century to educate women. While the schools often drew on each other's alumnae for faculty and consulted each other on matters of policy, the colleges did not officially become Seven Sisters until the 1926 organization of a Seven College Conference to create a united appeal for donations. The Seven Sisters are Smith, Wellesley, Mount Holyoke, Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Radcliffe, and Vassar Colleges.

The oldest of the colleges, Mount Holyoke, was established by Mary Lyon and opened in South Hadley, Massachusetts, in 1837. As the mother of the other schools, it set the pattern for them by instituting rigorous admission standards and emphasizing the sciences. Vassar, the brainchild of Matthew Vassar, opened in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1865. It became the first institution to include an art museum among its facilities. Financial worries prompted Vassar to open its doors to men in 1969; it thereby became the first women's college in the country to turn coeducational. Wellesley, located in Wellesley, Massachusetts, was founded by Henry Fowle Durant in 1870 and opened in 1875. It has long been noted for its strong science program. Smith, a Northhampton, Massachusetts, school begun by a bequest of Sophia Smith in 1871, elected to admit men as graduate students in the 1970s but refused to accept them as undergraduates for fear of detracting from the founding goal of providing the best possible education for women. Smith is noted for two firsts in educational leadership: the first woman college president, Jill Ker Conway, in 1975, and the first black woman to head any top-ranked college or university, Ruth Simmons, in 1995.

Radcliffe, founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts, by students seeking instruction from Harvard University, began in 1879 as the Harvard Annex. In 1894 it became a separate women's college with Harvard professors as its faculty. In 1999, it officially merged with Harvard and, with a commitment to study women, gender, and society, became the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Bryn Mawr, founded by Joseph W. Taylor in 1885 to provide education to Quaker women, eventually became the leader of the Seven Sisters because of its innovative curriculum. This Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, college became the first institution in the United States to offer a Ph.D. in social work and the first to offer fellowships for graduate study to women. Also, from 1921 to 1938 it ran a Summer School for Women Workers in Industry to teach science and literature to factory workers. Barnard, located in Manhattan, was begun in 1889 as an independent college affiliated with Columbia University. Founded by Frederick Barnard, who had argued unsuccessfully for the admission of women to Columbia, the school was included in the educational system of Columbia in 1900 with provisions unique among women's colleges: it was governed by its own trustees, faculty, and dean, and was responsible for its own endowment and facilities, while sharing instruction, the library, and the degree of the university.

Graduates of Seven Sisters schools have more opportunities than women at coeducational institutions to hold leadership positions and they develop measurably higher levels of self-esteem. In addition, a higher proportion of them earn diplomas in traditionally male fields, like math and science. Seven Sisters alumnae include the founder of Ms. magazine, Gloria Steinem (Smith); the first woman secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, and the former first lady, Hilary Rodham Clinton (Wellesley); the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and the first woman governor of Connecticut, Ella Grasso (Mount Holyoke); the first woman UN ambassador, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, and the novelist Anne Bernays (Barnard); the actor Katherine Hepburn, the neurosurgeon Dorothy Klenke, and the poet Marianne Moore (Bryn Mawr); the blind activist Helen Keller and the newspaper columnist Katha Pollitt (Radcliffe); and the author Edna St. Vincent Millay (Vassar).


Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz. Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women's Colleges from their Nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the 1930s. New York: Knopf, 1984.

Howells, Dorothy Elia. A Century to Celebrate: Radcliffe College, 1879–1979. Cambridge, Mass.: Radcliffe College, 1978.

Plum, Dorothy A., and George B. Dowell. The Great Experiment: A Chronicle of Vassar. Poughkeepsie, N.Y.: Vassar College, 1961.

White, Marian Churchill. A History of Barnard College. New York: Columbia University Press, 1954.

Caryn E.Neumann

See alsoAmerican Association of University Women ; Coeducation Movement ; Education, Higher: Women's Colleges .