In the nineteenth century, American women found few opportunities to pursue any higher learning because collegiate education was available only to men. During this century, most women who chose to attend college went to a women’s college, and the majority of those women enrolled at one of the “Seven Sister” schools in the Northeast. These schools are Mt. Holyoke (1837), Vassar (1865), Wellesley (1875), Smith (1875), Radcliffe (1878), Bryn Mawr (1885), and Barnard (1889). From their experimental nineteenth-century origins to their presently declining numbers, these colleges provided unique environments that fostered rigorous intellectual growth. This entry briefly recounts their history and accomplishments.
In the early nineteenth century, common schools rapidly cropped up across the country and provided instruction in the basic rudimentary skills (reading, writing, and arithmetic), but these new schools required cheap labor to run them. Society looked to hard-working young women of middling backgrounds to fill this role. Although academies and seminaries both offered higher learning to students, seminaries emphasized their mission to prepare young women for teaching. These seminaries evolved into the Seven Sisters.
Other schools followed the precedent set by Mount Holyoke Seminary, which administered rigorous entrance examinations and offered a three-year course that did not include instruction in domestic pursuits or refinement of polite manners. Mount Holyoke, like its post–Civil War successors (such as Vassar and Wellesley), never offered a classical curriculum, but it maintained an English curriculum composed of history, philosophy, modern languages, and natural sciences. These schools followed the seminary model, with only one large building that housed students, faculty, classrooms, chapel, and dining room, providing a familial, domestic atmosphere that allowed faculty to strictly supervise students.
Smith College offered the first four-year course of study, which included the classics and higher mathematics. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, a hybrid form of women’s colleges developed in response to pressure to educate women. Radcliffe (associated with Harvard University) and Barnard (affiliated with Columbia) were able to educate women without admitting them outright to their male counterpart. This movement protected the elite status of men’s colleges and continued to keep men and women separated.
Critics of early women’s colleges argued that higher learning would “unsex” women, lead them away from traditional feminine aspirations, damage their reproductive organs, inculcate masculine behaviors and desires, and ultimately lead them away from their proper place within the home. This criticism intensified in the early twentieth century, as a backlash against the women’s movement into the public sphere centered on women’s colleges. The opposition argued that women contributed to a form of “race suicide” (a term popularized by Theodore Roosevelt) by choosing education and careers over their family.
Women’s colleges aimed to preserve their students’ femininity in a variety of different ways. Mary Lyon (founder of Mount Holyoke) hoped to create a more progressive understanding of womanhood that encompassed female agency, independence, and critical thinking, whereas other institutions, including Vassar, hoped to preserve a Victorian sense of womanhood by organizing the school in a familial hierarchy. The male president served as a father figure, and female professors operated as mother figures who shaped behavior, habits, and religious life through daily interactions. Bryn Mawr was the first to organize central academic buildings surrounded by smaller homes for the students (each as a private household) in an effort to recreate a refined, proper home.
Both the students and the faculty shaped their own experiences in these colleges and created their own sense of community. The female faculty at these institutions found the opportunity to become professionals as the colleges provided an important entry point into academia. They developed close personal and professional relationships with one another as they worked and lived together. Likewise, students thrived in this environment. They learned and exercised leadership skills that they took with them into their future endeavors. They stratified themselves according to class, but this system took on significant gendered implications within this female world. Upper-classmen played the masculine roles in dances and plays, whereas freshmen played the traditionally feminine roles. With the sexual revolution of the 1920s, women wanted to be viewed as independent sexual beings, and this produced a fear of female intimacy at women’s colleges. This, in turn, shifted student culture from its previous internal all-female focus toward an external, heterosexual program (men were involved more frequently in on and off-campus activities).
Tide Of Change
By the 1930s, the elite women’s colleges of the Northeast positioned themselves as the “Seven Sister Schools” (the counterpart to the men’s Ivy League schools) as the composition of the student body came primarily from the elite strata of American society. As the twentieth century rolled on, however, enrollment increased at women’s colleges, but the percentage of women who enrolled in women’s colleges declined. This had to do with several factors.
In the post–World War II period, veterans took advantage of the GI Bill and enrolled in colleges and universities in unprecedented numbers. More women were admitted to postsecondary schools, but although the number of female college students increased, the influx of male students was so considerable that the proportion of women decreased.
Due to a growing economy in the 1960s, there was increased aid for higher education, and colleges had the opportunity to expand and to be more selective. Diversification occurred among students and faculty in response to the national civil rights movement, and as a result, many men’s colleges responded by admitting female undergraduates. In the early 1970s, the economy experienced a period of high inflation; by admitting women, men’s colleges could increase their enrollments and prevent further economic stress. In this climate, women’s colleges coped in four different ways: (1) go coeducational; (2) develop a coordinate relationship with a nearby institution; (3) create programs to attract more revenue; and (4) close, merge, or be taken over by another institution (Harvard subsumed Radcliffe College).
- Faragher, J. M., & Howe, F. (Eds.). (1988). Women and higher education in American history. New York: Norton.
- Gordon, L. D. (1990). Gender and higher education in the Progressive Era.
- New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Horowitz, H. L. (1984). Alma mater: Design and experience in the women’s colleges from their nineteenth century beginnings to the 1930s. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
- Miller-Bernal, L., & Poulson, S. L. (Eds.). (2006). Challenged by coeducation: Women’s colleges since the 1960s. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.
- Palmieri, P. A. (1995). In Adamless Eden: The community of women faculty at Wellesley. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
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