How Women’s Colleges Transformed Education

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They used to be in the minority, but today women’s colleges outnumber their male counterparts.

The Moravians, an early Protestant denomination, were ahead of their time with this radical notion: that women deserved the opportunity to have the same education as men.

Key Women’s Colleges Statistics

StatWomen's CollegeFact
Largest Women's CollegeThe College of New Rochelle2,769 undergraduates
First Women's CollegeSalem CollegeFounded in 1772
Total Women's College EnrollmentN/A54,325
Number of Women's CollegesN/A51

Women's Colleges: "Salem College is considered the oldest U.S. women's college."

So in 1772, they established a school for girls that went on to become the Salem Female Academy, which started granting college degrees during the 1890s. Today, its modern-day equivalent, Salem College, is considered the oldest women’s college in the nation and is the 13th oldest college overall in the nation. (They also helped establish Moravian College & Moravian Theological Seminary, which is considered the first boarding school for young women in the United States.)

Today, women make up 57 percent of undergraduates nationally. There are many reasons why women’s colleges came into existence, including everything from helping them become better child-rearers to giving them something to do when the industrial revolution started doing their jobs for them. The story is a long and winding one and coincides with a bit of African American history as well.

The Rise of Women’s Colleges

Before the Civil War, there were only three private colleges that admitted women, including Antioch College, Hillsdale College, and Oberlin College, which actually was the first college to regularly admit women. In terms of public universities, the University of Iowa and the University of Utah admitted women during this time period as well. However, while the Civil War naturally saw a decline in male enrollment, state universities started to accept women starting in 1870 in order to keep up numbers.

While some all girls colleges started to pop up, the schools were mostly in the form of seminaries, which some critics argued against, mainly because of the limited subjects and training. Because of this, and the influence of the anti-slavery movement, a progression toward strengthening women’s higher education started to grow.

Women’s colleges didn’t just sprout up overnight, but they especially started to grow due to several 19th century societal trends:

  1. With women’s role as child-rearers at home, many believed that women needed to be more educated in addition to being nurturers.
  2. Literature started to be written for women, and gas lights and oil lamps made it possible to read past daylight.
  3. Growth of the common public school system increased the demand for teachers (a mostly female profession at the time).
  4. The industrial revolution increased leisure time, meaning women had less to do when it came to domestic labor.
  5. There was a growth of employment opportunities, especially during wartime periods.
  6. As many women championed the end of slavery and equality among whites and blacks, they realized that their situations weren’t much different than the people they were fighting for.

However, women’s education only existed in the following forms:

  • Republican education, which prepared women for roles as wives and mothers who  taught religion, singing, dancing, and literature.
  • Academic education, which prepared women for roles as community leaders and social benefactors, with limited elements that were also offered to men.
  • Seminaries, which prepared women for teaching (only unmarried women could be teachers).

Women's Colleges: "Mount Holyoke College served as a model for women's colleges."

As women started to be offered educational opportunities at seminaries, some figures like Catherine E. Beecher, who had helped establish seminaries for women, realized that these institutions were inadequate, as men still had educational advantages. Mary Lyon, who founded Mount Holyoke College (which started out as the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary), also saw seminaries’ limitations, and through Mount Holyoke, helped create a model for women’s colleges throughout the country.

Many modern-day colleges soon popped up throughout the 19th century in the form of seminaries, including Wesleyan College (1839), Lasell College (1851), and Mills College (1852). Some colleges that were specifically tailored for women’s undergraduate education, as opposed to seminary teaching instruction, also surfaced, including Elmira College (1855) and Smith College (1871).

The Seven Sisters and the Women’s College Coalition

Women's Colleges: "By the late 1970s, women's enrollment in college exceeded men's."Mount Holyoke was a part of something big in the early 20th century. A historic conference with Vassar, Smith, and Wellesley colleges started a discussion to promote education for women at a level more equal to what was offered to men, calling itself the “Four College Conference.” By 1926, the group expanded, inviting Barnard, Bryn Mawr, and Radcliffe (now part of Harvard) to participate. Additional conferences were held, and by 1927, seven colleges emerged as “the Seven Sisters,” or elite women’s colleges parallel to their male Ivy League counterparts.

By the late 1970s, with more opportunities available for women, women’s enrollment in college exceeded men’s. In 1972, the Women’s College Coalition was founded as an association of women’s colleges and universities coming together to strengthen the case for women’s education to the higher education community, to policy makers, and general public. The WCC draws on research conducted by the National Survey of Student Engagement, among other resources like the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Trend Toward Coeducation

Many women’s colleges started to go coed in the later part of the 20th century, after Supreme Court cases highlighted some single-sex universities violating the Equal Protection Clause, like the 1982 Supreme Court case Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan, which involved a man being denied admission to a women’s nursing program despite being qualified. Seven Sisters colleges started to admit men, too,  including Radcliffe (now Harvard University) and Vassar College.

Today, there are still more than 45 women’s colleges that are active in the United States, while there are only four all-male colleges.

Ranking of Women’s Colleges

A look at the Top 10 Women’s Colleges by Niche Grade.

Niche Grade
Name
City
State
Size
Control
Type
A+Wellesley CollegeWellesleyMA2368Private Non-ProfitTraditional
A Barnard CollegeNew YorkNY2466Private Non-ProfitTraditional
ABryn Mawr CollegeBryn MawrPA1309Private Non-ProfitTraditional
AMount Holyoke CollegeSouth HadleyMA2290Private Non-ProfitTraditional
AScripps CollegeClaremontCA940Private Non-ProfitTraditional
ASmith CollegeNorthamptonMA2643Private Non-ProfitTraditional
A-Agnes Scott CollegeDecaturGA869Private Non-ProfitTraditional
A-Mills CollegeOaklandCA894Private Non-ProfitTraditional
A-Cottey CollegeNevadaMO288Private Non-ProfitCareer
B+Wesleyan CollegeMaconGA443Private Non-ProfitTraditional

Here’s a look at all women’s colleges by Niche Academics grades.