How the Seven Sisters Colleges Became the Women’s Ivies

Smith College Botanical garden

When men dominated the Ivy League, these seven elite women’s colleges convened to discuss how to provide more opportunities to women.

Seven Sisters: "The Seven Sisters name comes from Greek mythology."

At one time, Ivy League schools were reserved for men. But in 1915, a historic conference between Mount Holyoke, Vassar, Smith, and Wellesley colleges started a discussion to promote education for women at a level more equal to what was offered to men.  During the early 20th century, women’s schools were having difficulties raising endowment money to compete with men’s schools.

Initially, only Mount Holyoke, Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley met, calling themselves the “Four College Conference.” However, by 1926, the group expanded, inviting Barnard, Bryn Mawr, and Radcliffe to participate. Additional conferences were held, and by 1927, seven colleges emerged as “the Seven Sisters,” a group of elite women only colleges parallel to their male Ivy League counterparts. The “Seven Sisters” name comes from Greek mythology, specifically to the Pleiades, the seven daughters of Atlas who Zeus changed into stars.

Goals of the Seven Sisters Colleges

  • Secure more funds to pay Seven Sisters professors the same as Ivy League professors
  • Call attention to more generous public support of schools like the Seven Sisters colleges
  • Increase professor salaries so female students can receive high-quality instruction equal to their brothers

List of Seven Sisters Colleges

Niche Grade
Name
City
State
Size
Acceptance Rate
Ivy League Affiliation
ABarnard CollegeNew YorkNY246623 percentColumbia University
ABryn Mawr CollegeBryn MawrPA130941 percentPenn, Haverford College, Princeton University, Swarthmore College
AMount Holyoke CollegeSouth HadleyMA229042 percentDartmouth College, Amherst College
Radcliffe College (now part of Harvard University)Harvard University
ASmith CollegeNorthamptonMA264343 percentAmherst College, Yale University
AVassar CollegePoughkeepsieNY237023 percentYale University
A+Wellesley CollegeWellesley MA236835 percentHarvard University, MIT

Ranking of Seven Sisters Colleges

Seven Sisters: "Excellent academic reputations paired with low acceptance rates."

There’s a reason why Seven Sisters colleges are viewed as Ivy League sister schools. Like their Ivy League counterparts, they generally have excellent academic reputations paired with low acceptance rates. Barnard and Vassar colleges are the hardest to get into, each with 23 percent acceptance rates, and none of the colleges have Niche Academics grades below an A, with Wellesley ranked the highest at an A+.

Changes at Vassar and Radcliffe

In 1969, Vassar went coed, becoming the first of these female colleges to do so. This came after the school rejected the idea of merging with Yale, which would have moved the New York state women’s college to New Haven, Conn. While the Vassar–Yale study was conducted to prepare University students for the arrival of women, in 1967, after a year of weighing the pros and cons, Vassar trustees struck down the idea of moving the college. However, the info from the study helped Vassar College follow through with adopting coeducation.

Seven Sisters: "Vassar was the first to go coed, rejected the idea of a Yale merger."

Radcliffe College, founded in 1879 as a Harvard coordinate institution, was a women’s liberal arts college parallel to its Cambridge brother. For the first 70 years, Radcliffe students received diplomas from Radcliffe. Then, around 1963, diplomas came from “Harvard-Radcliffe.” In 1977,  a formal merger was signed, and by 1999, Radcliffe College officially dissolved into Harvard University. Today, remnants of the Radcliffe name exist in the form of the Radcliffe School of Advanced Study.

Seven Sisters Colleges Today

Today, the other five of the Seven Sisters still function as private women’s colleges (Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Smith, and Wellesley). While the colleges have changed over the years, the Seven College Conference still meets seasonally to discuss diversity, equity, and achievement, and also to share school histories.

Although all of the Ivy League schools are now coed, that doesn’t make the Seven Sisters any less relevant or important. They continue to educate both men and women alike, with reputations similar to the Ivy League counterparts they set out to compete with all those years ago.

Famous Seven Sisters Alumni

Name
Seven Sister College
Madeleine AlbrightWellesley College
Barbara BushSmith College
Stockard ChanningRadcliffe College
Julia ChildSmith College
Hilary Rodham ClintonWellesley College
Emily DickinsonMount Holyoke College
Nora EphronWellesley College
Jane FondaVassar College
Betty Friedan Smith College
Katharine HepburnBryn Mawr College
Zora Neale HurstonBarnard College
Erica JongBarnard College
Helen KellerRadcliffe College
Lisa KudrowVassar College
Edna St. Vincent MillayVassar College
Cynthia NixonBarnard College
Jackie Kennedy OnassisVassar College
Sylvia PlathSmith College
Bonnie RaittRadcliffe College
Nancy ReaganSmith College
Joan RiversBarnard College
Diane SawyerWellesley College
Gloria SteinemSmith College
Meryl StreepVassar College
Twyla TharpBarnard College
Wendy WassersteinMount Holyoke College


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