The Case for Women’s Colleges
There’s a myth that women’s colleges are no longer necessary; that they are a relic of the past and have no place in today’s higher education. One can easily see how the myth would spread. Women’s colleges began in the U.S. (and, to a lesser extent, around the world) in the 19th C., at a time when the very idea of women’s education was controversial. In most cultures throughout most of human history, women were denied education. By the end of the 19th C., less than 1% of women in the U.S. had any education beyond what we would today call “high school” (secondary school). It was widely believed (even by medical doctors) that too much education would make women sterile or in other ways less female, less able to fulfill the roles of wife and mother that were nearly universally believed to be the primary roles that God and nature had assigned.
It was the cause of missions, in the United States and internationally, that allowed the opening for women’s education. Most of the women’s colleges founded early in the 19th C. began as what were called “Female Seminaries.” Now, today, a seminary (at least in the United States) is a theological college or divinity school, sometimes freestanding and sometimes attached to a university. In the U.S. context, a modern seminary is a professional school (like a law school or medical school) that presupposes the prior completion of a baccalaureate degree at an accredited institution. It’s purpose is to educate priests, ministers, chaplains (civilian and military), and related ministers such as youth ministers, pastoral counselors, etc. The “Female Seminaries” of the 19th C. did not presuppose a baccalaureate and they certainly did not expect the young women who matriculated there to become clergy. They were to train women to share the gospel in strange cultural settings (often in ones where male missionaries would not be allowed to talk to women) and this involved educating them more than women had ever been educated previously. Even the push for the first women physicians (or, at least, the first in centuries) was initially so they could become medical missionaries.
These “Female Seminaries” evolved into liberal arts colleges and some began to offer graduate degrees, too. As 19th C. “First Wave Feminism” gathered steam, some institutions of higher education (e.g. Oberlin College, Cornell University) were co-educational from their founding and others that were once all-male began to admit women, especially the state-supported land-grant universities, but most elite universities stayed all-male (at least at the undergraduate level) until the 1960s. In the 1960s and 1970s, elite, formerly-all-male, institutions began the transformation into co-ed institutions. This led many women’s colleges to merge with their male, elite partners: Radcliffe College (founded in 1879) merged with Harvard in 1977; Pembroke College (1891) merged with Brown University in 1971). When Princeton University decided to go co-ed in the late 1960s, it sought to merge with Sarah Lawrence College (1926), but talks broke down and Sarah Lawrence College remained independent, but went co-ed in 1968 with Princeton following in 1969. The same pattern played out between Yale and Vassar College (1861): Yale started negotiations in 1966, they broke down and both campuses independently went co-ed in 1969. (Across the pond, the same pattern also played out at Oxford and Cambridge: At first all the colleges of both universities were all-male and stayed that way for centuries. In the 19th C., women’s colleges were established first as “private halls” and then as full colleges of the universities. Then, in the mid-20th C., male-colleges began admitting women and, later, women’s colleges began admitting men. Today, there are no single-sex colleges remaining at Oxford and only 3 women’s colleges remaining at Cambridge (Murray Edwards College, Newnham College, and Lucy Cavendish College).
The co-educational movement put huge economic pressure on most women’s colleges. They were now competing with co-educational institutions for students. Many closed and many others went co-ed. In 1960, there were over 200 women’s colleges in the U.S. There are now only about 60 as the same economic pressures continue: In 2005, Hurricane Katrina ended the independent existence of Newcomb College and its remaining assetts were merged with nearby Tulane University. Even many women’s colleges that have remained single-sex at the undergraduate level have had to admit men to graduate programs or weekend programs.
It is clear that economics could end women’s colleges in the near future, at least in the United States. Which leads back to the question of whether or not women’s colleges have any distinctive mission in the 21st C.–any reason they should continue as single-sex institutions? After all, the context is very different now from the 19th C. which birthed the women’s college movement: With only 3 remaining all-male liberal arts colleges in the U.S. (Wabash College in Indiana, Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, and Morehouse College–which also an HBCU or Historic Black College/University–in Georgia), and no remaining all-male research universities, practically all the doors are now open to women educationally that were once closed to them. Further, women have walked through those doors. In 1960 the majority of U.S. women were still not educated beyond high school. Of those which did matriculate in college or university, about 50% dropped out when getting married (obtaining their “M R S degree” as the saying went). (They were also expected to drop out of the work force and give up their own careers–a pattern which continued until the early 1970s, when stagnating wages and rising prices made a middle class lifestyle on 1 salary increasingly rare and difficult.) When many women, inspired by the second wave feminist movement to reclaim dreams not subordinated to their husbands’, went back to college/university in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it resulted in much marital discord and many divorces. But today 55% of all college/university students are women–and the percentage is even higher in most graduate programs, business schools, seminaries/divinity schools, and even in many law schools and some medical schools. Although the Equal Rights Amendment failed to be ratified, Title IX gave, if not yet equality, certainly much progress toward equality in women’s collegiate sports–offering parity in gymnasium locker rooms, equipment, scholarships and recruitment, etc.
So, is there a good rationale for the continued existence (and good health) of women’s colleges in the 21st C. U.S.? Are there reasons that one would wish a daughter, a granddaughter, a niece or some other young woman in one’s life to at least consider a women’s college when deciding where to apply for admission? Yes. Despite the enormous gains of women in the last 35 years, this is still a patriarchal, sexist society–and sexist assumptions and attitudes are still firmly interwoven into American higher education, although usually in more subtle forms than previously. As recently as January of 2005, the economist Larry Summers, then the President of Harvard University, spoke at an academic conference and gave the opinion that the reason women are underrepresented in the STEM fields (Sciences, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) was because of biological differences that mean that, according to Summers, most women are simply not good at math and science!
Most teachers and administrators are not so openly sexist (and, to be fair, some have said that this speech did not reflect Summers’ true record on promoting women’s equality), but in co-ed institutions, the expectations often remain sexist. Women who graduate from women’s colleges are better prepared for life after college: Women who graduate from women’s colleges are accepted into law schools, medical schools, and graduate programs at a higher rate than women in co-ed colleges. They go into the STEM fields and other male-dominated fields at higher rates than women who graduate from co-ed institutions. In general, women at single-sex colleges are more engaged (academically and socially) than women at co-ed institutions. Seniors at women’s colleges are more likely to be engaged in higher-order thinking activities than women seniors at co-ed institutions. They see more female role models in both professors and fellow students. This makes a radical difference. The results are seen in the alumnae produced by women’s colleges: Today, Harvard’s president is a woman, Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust, an alumna of a women’s college (Bryn Mawr College, class of 1964). The U.S. has had 3 female Secretaries of State and two of them (Madeleine Albright and Hillary Rodham Clinton) went to a women’s college (in fact, the same one, Wellesley College–Albright, class of ’59, Clinton, class of ’69). Other leading women in politics are also women’s college graduates including House Minority Leader (and former Speaker of the House) Nancy Pelosi (Trinity College–now Trinity Washington University, class of ’62); Secretary of Health and Human Services (and former Governor of Kansas) Kathleen Sebelius (Trinity Washington University, class of ’70). 12 of the 77 women in the U.S. House of Representatives are alumnae of women’s colleges, as are 2 of the 17 women in the U.S. Senate. Of the very few women to become U.S. astronauts, only 3 have been shuttle pilots and one of them, Pamela Melroy, is a Wellesley College alumna (’83).
The alumnae networks are often major resources for jobs, internships, interviews to graduate programs, etc., providing an alternative boost to the “old-boys’ networks” that still thrive in academica and the professions. This adds to the success rate of women’s college alumnae after college.
And, now, women’s colleges are also continuing their original mission of providing education to women who would otherwise have no opportunities for education: Recruiting international students, especially from areas of the world where the very idea of women’s education is still controversial. Also, some women’s colleges in the U.S. are sponsoring or partnering with women’s colleges in some of these same patriarchal places, especially Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Now, I am not saying that every woman should go to a woman’s college. Obviously, most will go to co-ed colleges and universities. But bright, high-achieving, and ambitious young women should at least be exposed to such colleges. They should be part of the mix in the college search and application process. Because, until sex and gender equality is achieved globally, our world and our daughters need such institutions to thrive and continue to lead.
On a purely personal note, my oldest daughter is in the college search process and while she has definitely looked beyond women’s colleges, I am glad they have been part of the search process. Three women’s colleges will probably be among those to which she applies early in the Fall of 2012: Bryn Mawr College (Lower Merion Township, PA), Agnes Scott College (Decatur, GA), and Wellesley College (Wellesley, MA).
If a young woman of high school age in your life might profit from exploring the women’s college option, introduce her to the website of The Women’s College Coalition.
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