Challenged by Coeducation: Women's Colleges Since the 1960s / Edition 1

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Challenged by Coeducation details the responses of women's colleges to the most recent wave of Women's colleges originated in the mid-nineteenth century as a response to women's exclusion from higher education. Women's academic successes and their persistent struggles to enter men's colleges resulted in coeducation rapidly becoming the norm, however. Still, many prestigious institutions remained single-sex, notably most of the Ivy League and all of the Seven Sisters colleges.

In the mid-twentieth century colleges' concerns about finances and enrollments, as well as ideological pressures to integrate formerly separate social groups, led men's colleges, and some women's colleges, to become coeducational. The admission of women to practically all men's colleges created a serious challenge for women's colleges. Most people no longer believed women's colleges were necessary since women had virtually unlimited access to higher education. Even though research spawned by the women's movement indicated the benefits to women of a "room of their own," few young women remained interested in applying to women's colleges.

Challenged by Coeducation details the responses of women's colleges to this latest wave of coeducation. Case studies written expressly for this volume include many types of women's colleges-Catholic and secular; Seven Sisters and less prestigious; private and state; liberal arts and more applied; northern, southern, and western; urban and rural; independent and coordinated with a coeducational institution. They demonstrate the principal ways women's colleges have adapted to the new coeducational era: some have been taken over or closed, but most have changed by admitting men and thereby becoming coeducational, or by offering new programs to different populations. Some women's colleges, mostly those that are in cities, connected to other colleges, and prestigious with a high endowment, still enjoy success.

Despite their dramatic drop in numbers, from 250 to fewer than 60 today, women's colleges are still important, editors Miller-Bernal and Poulson argue. With their commitment to enhancing women's lives, women's colleges and formerly women's colleges can serve as models of egalitarian coeducation.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Leslie Miller-Bernal and Susan Poulson offer a new perspective on the familiar topic of coeducation and women's colleges.
--Catholic Historical Review

...comprehensive, accessible, and offers valuable information for those interested in gender equality in higher education.
--Contemporary Sociology

A fair, balanced account of the circumstances surrounding coeducation--both its benefits and its limitations.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780826515421
  • Publisher: Vanderbilt University Press
  • Publication date: 1/28/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 392
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Leslie Miller-Bernal, Professor of Sociology at Wells College, is the author of Separate by Degree: Women Students' Experiences in Women's and Coeducational Colleges and co-editor of Going Coed: Women's Experiences in Formerly Men's Colleges and Universities, 1950-2000 (Vanderbilt University Press). .

Susan L. Poulson is Professor of History at the University of Scranton. Together with Leslie Miller-Bernal, she co-edited Going Coed: Women's Experiences in Formerly Men's Colleges and Universities, 1950-2000 (Vanderbilt University Press).

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Read an Excerpt

Challenged by Coeducation

Women's Colleges Since the 1960s

By Leslie Miller-Bernal, Susan L. Poulson

Vanderbilt University Press

Copyright © 2006 Vanderbilt University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8265-1543-8



Changes in the Status and Functions of Women's Colleges over Time

Leslie Miller-Bernal

People tend to associate women's colleges with the past, when women's and men's spheres were more separate than they are today. For this reason it may be surprising to learn that the first college in the United States that accepted women was coeducational—Oberlin College in Ohio, which admitted women in 1837. And yet the generalization still holds: Most of the few women who attended college in the mid-nineteenth century did go to women's colleges. Most colleges and universities were for men only, so women's colleges were important to women who wished to receive higher education.

This chapter traces the rise and fall of women's colleges from their beginnings in the mid–nineteenth century to their precarious position in the early twenty-first century. Not only has the number of women's colleges declined dramatically, from 233 as recently as 1960 to about 58 today (see Appendix 2), but the types of students and their reasons for attending single-sex institutions have also changed markedly. Today many people question whether women's colleges will continue to survive, despite the ardent belief of many of their students and alumnae that they provide the best education for women.

Origins of Women's Colleges

Scholars debate which was the first women's college. Some institutions described themselves as "colleges" even though that designation seems unwarranted given the age of their students and the curriculum they offered. Candidates for the earliest women's college include Mary Sharp in Tennessee, which awarded its first degrees in 1855, and Elmira in upstate New York, which opened in 1855. Both these antebellum institutions required their students to study Greek, a hallmark of the curriculum of men's colleges of the time. Neither of these colleges fared well, however; Mary Sharp closed in 1896, and Elmira shut down for a while during the Civil War.

Some women's colleges developed from seminaries, for example, Mills (see Chapter 7), Mount Holyoke, and Wheaton (see Chapter 3). Seminaries were not institutions for religious training but rather combined secondary education with some college work while they strictly regulated students' lives. Even if they were not first seminaries, early women's colleges often modeled themselves after seminaries. Vassar College, for example, opened in 1865 with one large seminary-like building in which all students and women faculty lived together (see Chapter 2). Such living arrangements enabled women teachers to monitor students closely to fulfill the colleges' claims that they provided a homelike atmosphere in which young women were trained to be "ladies" Students' posture and voice, for example, could be improved on a daily basis.

The heyday for women's colleges occurred at the end of the Civil War. Vassar, located in Poughkeepsie, New York, was the most famous women's college of that era because from its beginning, it had an endowment and a rigorous curriculum. Wells College in Aurora, New York, opened only three years later, in 1868 (see Chapter 6). Only for its first two years was Wells called a seminary, but its lack of endowment, its weak academic standards, and its large preparatory department for students not ready to do collegiate work meant that it functioned as a seminary for many more years. By 1885 such famous women's colleges as Smith, Wellesley, and Bryn Mawr had opened.

Opposition to Women's Higher Education

While today it is common to ask why women were prohibited from studying at most colleges in the nineteenth century, at the time people often asked: Why should women go to college? After all, women's "natural" place was in the home, looking after their husbands and children. Even if a woman did not marry and needed to support herself, most occupations, including such prestigious ones as medicine and law, did not require a college degree; many practitioners in these fields learned through apprenticeships. Also retarding the development of collegiate education for women was the widespread belief that women harmed their reproductive organs by too much study. In a book that was very popular at the time, Sex in Education; or a Fair Chance for the Girls, retired Harvard professor and doctor Edward Clarke claimed that women would experience dire effects if they failed to obey the "law of periodicity." He based his research mainly on seven women, including a student at Vassar who fainted during gym because, Clarke argued, she should have been quiet at that time of the month. Moreover, when she was examined, she was found to have "an arrest of the development of the reproductive apparatus" and, in place of developed breasts, "the milliner had supplied the organs Nature should have grown."

Women researchers and organizations that favored women's higher education, such as the influential Association of Collegiate Alumnae (ACA), refuted Clarke's research. Yet his book resonated with popular beliefs and managed to frighten young women, including the later president of Bryn Mawr College and famous feminist M. Carey Thomas. Opposition to educating women may have been overcome more by practical concerns than by rational argument. As more and more communities established public schools, they favored hiring women as teachers since they received half or less of men's salaries. Teachers, of course, needed to be educated. A few other occupations opening up to women, such as clerical work, also required education.

Women's Educational Options by the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

Women's colleges remained important for women's access to higher education throughout the nineteenth century. Many people saw them as more appropriate for women than were coeducational institutions, since their curricula could be modified in ways that were believed to fit women's talents and proclivities. The suspicion that women's colleges were thus not as intellectually challenging as men's colleges led most nineteenth-century women's rights advocates to favor coeducational institutions. Yet women's colleges did improve academically in response to student and alumnae pressures, as well as to the exacting standards of the ACA, the forerunner of the American Association of University Women. They closed their preparatory departments and offered only collegiate-level education, all the time employing mainly women faculty, thus providing "critical entry points" for women wishing to enter academic life. Nonetheless, even by 1880, a majority of women were being educated in coeducational institutions.

Single-sex institutions for women and men were more prevalent in certain areas. Women's and men's colleges were mostly found in the Northeast, where many older colleges existed and which was a fairly wealthy region, and in the South, where people tended to adhere to traditional gender roles. In the Midwest and West, in contrast, frontier conditions often necessitated economizing through coeducation; gender roles were also more flexible and egalitarian, not as supportive of the separate-spheres ideology favored in more settled regions. Because of such practical and ideological factors, colleges like Oberlin (1833) and Antioch (1852) in Ohio, as well as some universities like Chicago (1892), opened as coeducational institutions.

Significant differences in preferences for single-sex education also existed among segments of the population defined by religious and ethnic affiliation. Catholic institutions, almost all single sex, were founded later than were the first secular or Protestant-affiliated women's colleges. They developed as the daughters of Catholic immigrant groups increasingly sought higher education and would have attended secular institutions in their absence. They also provided education for nuns or, more generally, the women religious. The earliest Catholic women's college to grant a bachelor's degree was College of Notre Dame in Maryland, which awarded its first college degrees in 1899 (see Chapter 10). The rate of founding of Catholic women's colleges increased over the first few decades of the twentieth century, with the greatest number, thirty-seven, opening between 1915 and 1925.

Black colleges and universities, in contrast to Catholic institutions, were almost all coeducational, with a few notable exceptions. For about one hundred years, these separate institutions were virtually the only place African Americans could receive higher education. Two black women's colleges opened in the first two decades after the Civil War: Barber-Scotia in Concord, North Carolina (1867), and Huston-Tillotson in Austin, Texas (1877), but both later became coeducational. In contrast, Bennett College was founded in 1873 in Greensboro, North Carolina, as a coeducational institution, but it became a liberal arts college for women in 1926. The best-known historically black college for women is Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, which opened in 1881 and remains to this day a women's college (see Chapter 9).

While most women's colleges were small and private, a few public institutions for women also existed. Some state women's colleges developed in the South and Southwest. The first state women's university was the Mississippi Industrial Institute and College (later called the Mississippi State University for Women), which opened in 1884. By 1908, state women's colleges had been also been established in Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama, Texas (see Chapter 5), Florida, and Oklahoma. New York City supported a women's college for the training of teachers—Hunter College, which opened in 1870 as the Normal College of the City of New York. Many states developed colleges for teacher training; these were usually referred to as "normal schools" and enrolled all or mostly women.

Founding dates influenced the nature of women's colleges. Women's colleges that began in the nineteenth century tended to stress liberal education for women's refinement. Simmons, in contrast, which opened during the Progressive Era, focused on career preparation for working- and lower-middle-class women (see Chapter 8). Mills, in Oakland, California, changed from a seminary to a college in the early twentieth century. Its curriculum changed over time, with more practical courses offered in the early part of the twentieth century and purely liberal arts later.

A Hybrid Form: Coordinate Colleges for Women

In addition to women's colleges and coeducational institutions, a third form of higher education developed in the late nineteenth century: coordinate colleges. Essentially, coordinate colleges were "sister" colleges of men's institutions, established in response to pressure to educate women. Educators could point to Girton and Newnham, two women's colleges of Cambridge University, as models of how prestigious men's institutions could incorporate women without admitting them outright (see Chapter 12). Some of the most famous examples in the United States were Radcliffe, the coordinate of Harvard; Sophie Newcomb, the coordinate of Tulane; Barnard, Columbia's coordinate (see Chapter 11); and Pembroke, Brown's coordinate. Many lesser-known men's colleges or universities had coordinate colleges for women, for example, William Smith, the coordinate of the men's college, Hobart; Westhampton, associated with University of Richmond; and Saint Mary's, affiliated with University of Notre Dame. Still other universities had what were essentially coordinate colleges, but because they did not have a different name, they tended not to be widely recognized as such. This was true, for example, of Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania.

Coordinate colleges represented a desire to keep women separate from men students to retain the prestige of men's institutions. Nonetheless, such separation had unanticipated benefits for women in terms of the support they received, as well as leadership opportunities.16 Coordination was also one of the ways coeducational institutions sometimes considered dealing with the "threat" of women, whose attendance rates were increasing faster than men's and who were receiving disproportionate shares of academic awards. Middlebury College and the University of Rochester, for instance, created coordinate colleges for their women students, although Middlebury lacked sufficient funds to implement coordination fully. Other coeducational institutions responded differently to the fears of "feminization" that were particularly acute at the beginning of the twentieth century. Stanford was one of the universities that established quotas on the number of women admitted. Wesleyan ceased to admit women altogether, thereby reverting to its previous all-male status.

Women's Colleges: Paradoxical Roles and Images

Ambivalence about women's higher education did not cease as women's educational opportunities increased. In fact, the early twentieth century, when male dominance seemed less secure than it had earlier, was a period of backlash against women. New arguments against educating women included the idea that educated women were less likely to get married or have children and hence caused "race suicide," a term popularized by Theodore Roosevelt in 1905. Women's colleges were blamed in particular, although some commentators felt that coeducation caused greater damage, either by encouraging promiscuity or by contributing to the opposite problem—indifference to the opposite sex due to overfamiliarity. In the early 1920s, Vice President Calvin Coolidge wrote that some of the eastern women's colleges fomented radicalism and Bolshevism. The 1920s was also a decade when students experienced increased sexual freedom and when many Americans became familiar with Sigmund Freud's ideas. The "crushes" between women at women's colleges that had previously seemed innocent were now suspected of indicating lesbianism. Administrators at women's colleges felt compelled to take special measures to avoid such imputations.

Another image of women's colleges was as "finishing schools" for privileged white Protestant women. Some researchers in the early twentieth century criticized them for not providing enough vocational guidance or training. It was true that at many women's colleges, students received training in social graces, including how to be proper hostesses, how to talk in a refined manner, and how to develop good posture. While such training was not unknown in coeducational institutions, women's colleges generally gave more emphasis to the importance of women's refinement.

Regardless of these conflicting images, women's colleges had a respectable place among institutions of higher education. By avoiding such applied subjects as home economics and keeping their student bodies homogeneous, many women's colleges retained or even enhanced their prestige. Women's colleges were known to be academically rigorous; some such as Wells College instituted demanding honor programs. By the late 1920s the most elite women's colleges—Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley—had come to be known as the Seven Sisters and were frequently seen as women's counterpart to what were later called the Ivy League colleges (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale). In the 1920s some private women's colleges, including Wells, had many more applicants than they could admit. Wells considered expanding; since the president was concerned that this would mean the college would lose its "family" atmosphere, the college planned to open a "sister" college on the same grounds. This never happened, however, as the Great Depression intervened, affecting college enrollments and finances.

Enrollment Trends over the Twentieth Century

Increasing numbers of women attended institutions of higher education throughout the twentieth century, from about 141,000 in 1909–10 to more than one million in the mid-1950s. At the same time, the percentage that enrolled in women's colleges decreased. Even as early as 1920, more than four-fifths of women attended coeducational colleges and universities. This proportion gradually grew, so that by the mid-1950s, nine of ten women attending institutions of higher education were enrolled in coeducational institutions. These increases in enrollments at coeducational institutions affected women's colleges not only directly but also indirectly, as more and more faculty were likely to have received their education at coeducational institutions. Thus most people connected to higher education began to take coeducation for granted.

The rise of state universities affected women's colleges, since most women's colleges were and are private. Particularly at times of economic hardship—for instance, during the Great Depression—students found the lower tuition of state institutions attractive. Traditional private liberal arts women's colleges responded to enrollment threats by offering more scholarships and becoming slightly more diverse, enrolling some Catholics and a small percentage of Jews. Nonetheless, some new private women's colleges opened—many Catholic women's colleges but also some secular ones, notably Sarah Lawrence (1928) and Bennington (1932) in the Northeast, and Scripps (1926) in California.


Excerpted from Challenged by Coeducation by Leslie Miller-Bernal, Susan L. Poulson. Copyright © 2006 Vanderbilt University Press. Excerpted by permission of Vanderbilt University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents



Part One: The Place of Women's Colleges in Higher Education

Chapter 1: A History of Women's Colleges
Leslie Miller-Bernal

Part Two: Case Studies of Women's Colleges That Have Become Coeducational or Closed

Chapter 2. Vassar College: A Seven Sisters College Chooses Coeducation
Elizabeth Daniels and Clyde Griffen

Chapter 3. Coeducation at Wheaton College: From Conscious Coeducation to Distinctive Coeducation
Alan Sadovnik and Susan Semel

Chapter 4. A Catholic Women's College is Absorbed by a University: The Case of Mundelein College
Prudence Moylan

Chapter 5. Texas Woman's University: Threats to Institutional Autonomy and Conflict Over the Admission of Men
Claire L. Sahlin

Chapter 6. Wells College: The Transition to Coeducation Begins
Leslie Miller-Bernal

Part Three: Case Studies of Women's Colleges That Have Remained Single-Sex

Chapter 7. Reaffirming the Value of a Women's College: Mills College Changes Its Mind About Admitting Men Undergraduates
Marianne Sheldon

Chapter 8. Simmons College: Meeting the Needs of Women Workers
Susan Poulson

Chapter 9. Spelman College: A Place All Their Own
Frances D. Graham and Susan Poulson

Chapter 10. College of Notre Dame: The Oldest Catholic Women's College Changes with the Times
Dorothy Brown and Eileen O'Dea, SSND

Part Four: Case Studies of Affiliated Women's Colleges

Chapter 11. Rekindling a Legacy: Barnard College Remains a Women's College
Andrea Walton

Chapter 12. Cambridge University's Two Oldest Women's Colleges, Girton and Newnham
Leslie Miller-Bernal

Part Five: Conclusions

Chapter 13. The State of Women's Colleges Today
Leslie Miller-Bernal and Susan Poulson

Appendix 1. Statement of Six Past Presidents of Formerly Women's Colleges, 2000: "Exceptional Coed Colleges: A New Model for Gender Equality"

Appendix 2. List of Women's Colleges in Spring 2005 and Some Summary Characteristics

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