Women's Colleges Through Time EDHE 500

By: Ayonna Fair, Brian Marshall, Trish Gordon McCown, Danielle Wood


Our project will focus on women's colleges across the United States. Women's Colleges were founded to educate women in various areas when they were not necessarily involved in the world of higher education. These institutions were developed with women in mind to develop friendships, but also to provide an education without distractions. Women's Colleges have gone through many transformations as the Higher Education system changed over time. Throughout this presentation, you will learn more about different Women's Colleges and the different events and waves they have gone through until today.

Colonial Era (1636 - 1789)

Though colonial colleges were frontier institutions that expanded access to higher education, by contemporary standards the colonial period remained elite and exclusionary. Only white Christian males were allowed to matriculate. Women and African-Americans were denied participation by statute and custom, but colleges did serve Native Americans in a missionary capacity.

  • Enrollment in higher education in 1700 included 150 students. This number rose to 1,000 by the end of the Colonial Era. Higher education was mostly reserved for white males.
  • 16th Century -- Girls did not go to school. However girls from well off families were usually educated at home. Tutors taught upper class girls. Their mothers taught middle class girls reading, writing, arithmetic and skills like sewing.
  • 17th Century - In towns boarding schools for girls are founded. Girls are taught writing, music and needlework.

Seven Sisters

Seven Sisters were seven liberal arts colleges in the Northeastern United States that are historical women's colleges between 1837 - 1889.

Emergent Nation Overview

  • The 1800’s brought the most significant changes for women in education. Early in the century there was rapid growth in secondary education. The development of collegiate education for women followed and my mid century, women were being admitted to coeducational state colleges.
  • The first college to admit women was Oberlin College which was chartered in 1833. Oberlin was founded by a group of abolitionists and from its beginning admitted both African Americans and women.
  • Both Vassar College and Wellesley College were patterned after Mount Holyoke. Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia was the first college chartered for women, receiving its charter in 1836. Mount Holyoke College was the first of the Seven Sisters to be chartered as a college in 1837.
  • Only unmarried women could be teachers. Many early women's colleges began as female seminaries and were responsible for producing an important corps of educators. ... In 1837, Lyon founded Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (Mount Holyoke College), it was chartered as a college in 1888.

Emergent Nation (1790 - 1869)

  • 1831 Dorothea Beale the educational reformer is born
  • 1841 In the USA 3 women were the first women to gain their bachelor degrees from Oberlin College.
  • 1858 Dorothea Beale becomes the head teacher or principal of Cheltenham Ladies College
  • 1865 A group of women including Dorothea Beale form the Kensington Society, a discussion society for women
  • 1866 In the USA Lucy Hobbs Taylor becomes the first American woman to graduate from a dental college
  • 1869 Girton College for women is founded at Cambridge University

University Transformation Era (1870-1944)

  • 1870: After her passing, Sophia Smith left $393,000 to open Smith College
  • 1871: Harriette Cook became the first female in the US to be appointed as full professor, and paid equally to her male counterparts
  • 1873: Ellen Swallow Richards became the first woman to earn a BS from MIT
  • Smith College and Wellesley College were opened
  • Helen Magill became the first American woman to earn a Ph.D.
  • 1881: Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary opened - later to become Spelman College
  • 1885:Bryn Mawr opened
  • 1889: Barnard College opened
  • 1898: Emma Gillet and Ellen Mussey opened Washington College of Law
Summary: Several women’s colleges began to open in the early part of the University Transformation Era, but it was not until the turn of the century that more colleges began to admit both men and women. Many of the institutions with Colonial origins chose to create separate extensions specifically for women, instead of just admitting women to the parent institution.
  • 1904: Hellen Keller is the first blind-deaf person to graduate college & Mary McLeod Bethune opened Daytona School for Negro Girls - later to become Bethume-Cookman University
  • 1910: Women made of 39% of college undergraduates and 20% of college faculty
  • 1921: Bryn Mawr opened a summer school for women workers
  • 1925: Zora Neale Hurston became the first black woman admitted to Barnard College

Mass Higher Education Era (1945-1975)

Summary: Legislative acts which served to combat and hopefully decrease racial prejudice benefited women as well as minorities and increased overall access to higher education. After the passing of Title IX particularly, women’s access to and participation in higher education, both as students and faculty, increased notably.
  • 1945: Harvard Medical School admits its first class of female students
  • 1948: Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirmed education as a human right
  • 1954: Brown v. Board of Education: ruled against separation of students based on race in education facilities
  • 1965: Affirmative Action passed: barred discriminatory employment practices relating to women and minorities and set goals for representation and inclusion of underrepresented groups
  • 1965: Higher Education Act passed: bolstered financial resources to increase access to higher education
  • 1966: The National Organization for Women was founded, seeking equality in employment and education
  • 1972: Title IX passed: barred gender-based discrimination in education
  • 1975: Women accounted for 13% of people with degrees in medicine (9% 3 years earlier) and 15% of those with law degrees (7% 3 years earlier)
  • 1975: Women made up about half of college undergraduates and 33% of faculty

Consolidation Era (1974-1993)

  • A trend from the mid-1970s to mid 1990s included a higher ratio of women in the workforce. (Cohen & Kisker, 2010)
  • The Consolidation Era represented a time when women expected equal treatment and employment opportunities. (Cohen & Kisker, 2010)
  • In 1979, the Association of Black Women in Higher Education (ABWHE) was started. (ABWHE, 2015)
  • In 1984, the United States Supreme Court ruled that law firms could not discriminate on the basis of gender when selecting partners for law firms. (National Women’s History Project)
  • In 1987, Johnetta Betsch Cole Elected as 1st Black female President of Spelman University. Spelman College, 2017)
  • The attendance of females entering college increased to 45.8 in 1988. (Bishop, 1990)

Contemporary Era 1994-2009

  • 1994 Congress passed the “Gender Equity in Education Act”. (National Women’s History Project)
  • 1994 Congress passed the “Violence Against Women Act” (VAWA). (Legal Momentum, 2015)
  • 1995, Spelman designated by the National Science Foundation and The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as a Model Institution for Excellence in undergraduate science and math education. (Spelman College, 2017)
  • 2000 Spelman College ranked No. 2 by the Association of Medical Colleges in placing African-American students in medical school. (Spelman College, 2017)
  • 2005 Condoleezza Rice becomes 1st African American female Secretary of State. (National Women’s History Project)
  • 2007 Nancy Pelosi becomes 1st female speaker of the House. (National Women’s History Project)


  • Bishop, J. (1990, 1 Nov.) The Explosion of Female College Attendance. http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1389&context=cahrswp
  • Spelman College. (2017) History in Brief. http://www.spelman.edu/about-us/history-in-brief
  • Cohen & Kisker
  • Legal Momentum. (2015) History of Violence Against Women. https://www.legalmomentum.org/history-vawa
  • United States Department of Labor. FMLA (Family and Medical Leave). https://www.dol.gov/general/topic/benefits-leave/fmla
  • Association of Black Women in Higher Education. (2015) Association of Black Women in Higher Education The History. http://abwhe.org/our-history/
  • National Women’s History Project. National Women’s History Project: Writing Women Back Into History. http://www.nwhp.org/resources/womens-rights-movement/detailed-timeline/
  • Harwarth, Irene. A Closer Look at Women’s Colleges. U.S. Department of Education. 1999. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/pubs/WomensColleges/intro.html
  • (Timelines)
  • Thelin, J., Edwards, J. & Moyen, E.. Higher Education in the United States - HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT, SYSTEM - Colleges, Institutions, Universities, and American - StateUniversity.com . Retrieved from http://education.stateuniversity.com/pages/2044/Higher-Education-in-United-States.html#ixzz4fDYvD0SW
  • Cohen, A. M., & Kisker, C. B. (2010). The shaping of American higher education: emergence and growth of the contemporary system. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • NWHM Presents: The History of Women and Education. (n.d.). Retrieved April 24, 2017, from https://www.nwhm.org/online-exhibits/education/Timeline.htm

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