New York City
March 2003

History of Women’s College
by Mark Herz

In 1772, the history of women’s colleges in America began with the founding of Salem Academy in North Carolina. Salem was not chartered as a college until more than a century later. But by 1837, with the establishment of Mount Holyoke, the education of women had finally set off on the long path towards parity with that of men. No women’s school before then had combined high entrance standards, a demanding curriculum, and a lack of instruction in domestic pursuits with the granting of baccalaureate degrees.

Many other women’s colleges were founded in the ensuing decades of the 19th century, among them were:

•Moore College of Art, founded in Philadelphia in 1848—the first and only women’s visual arts college in the nation

•Mills College, founded in California in 1852—the oldest women’s college in the West

•College of Notre Dame of Maryland, founded in 1873—the first Catholic college for women in the United States to grant the baccalaureate degree (in 1899).

•Spelman College, founded in Georgia in 1881—the first African American women’s college.

Like African Americans, women struggled—and continue to struggle—for political, educational, and economic equality. The parallels have not been lost on women. Women’s colleges have played a role in both the Abolition and the Civil Rights movements.

Today, many schools and professions have opened doors to women, just as they have to African Americans and other minorities. And, like the Historically Black Colleges and Universities, women’s colleges have had to reinvent themselves and reassert their relevance in changing times.

According to the Women’s College Council, their alumnae—though only representing 2% of female college graduates—can boast many advantages. The WCC says studies show that women’s college graduates report greater satisfaction than their coed counterparts with their college experience in almost all measures—academically, developmentally, and personally. They constitute 30% of a Business Week list of rising women stars in Corporate America, and make up one third of women board members of Fortune 1000 companies. They are three times more likely to earn a baccalaureate degree in economics and one and one-half times more likely to earn baccalaureates degrees in life sciences, physical sciences and mathematics than at a coeducational institution and, finally, tend to be more involved in philanthropic activities after college.

Women’s college alumnae also account for more than 20% of the women in the 107th congress. Among them are Hillary Rodham Clinton (Wellesley), the first-ever First-Lady to be elected to the Senate or to Congress, and Nancy Pelosi (Trinity College, DC) the first woman elected as Democratic whip in the House of Representatives—the highest post ever held by a woman in Congress.

And the list of women’s “firsts” is jam-packed with the alumnae of women’s colleges. Just to name a few more:

•Jeane Kirkpatrick, first woman to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (Barnard)

•Madeleine Albright, first woman to be named Secretary of State (Wellesley)

•Geraldine Ferraro, first woman vice-presidential candidate (Marymount Manhattan)

•Elaine L. Chao, U.S. Secretary of Labor, 2001, first Asian-American woman appointed to a President’s cabinet (Mount Holyoke).

•Aulana Pharis Peters, first African American woman appointed Commissioner of Securities and Exchange Commission (College of New Rochelle).

•Bernadine Healy, first woman to become Director of the National Institutes of Health in 1991 (Vassar)

•Frances K. Conley, first woman to become a tenured full professor of neurosurgey in the U.S. (Bryn Mawr)

•Elsa Gomez, first Hispanic woman named president of a comprehensive state college. (College of St. Elizabeth)

•Rear Admiral Louise Wilmot, first woman to command a naval base and highest-ranking woman in U.S. Navy. (College of St. Elizabeth).

•Sherry Davis, first woman announcer for a major league baseball team. (College of Notre Dame of Maryland).

•Kelly Smith Tunney, first woman General Manager for the Associated Press (Cottey).

•Rachelle Henderlite, first woman ordained minister of Presbyterian Church, U.S. (Agnes Scott).

•Katharine Hepburn, first and only person to have won four Academy Awards for acting (Bryn Mawr).

•Emily Green Balch, first woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946. (Bryn Mawr).

•Pearl S. Buck, first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. (Randolph-Macon Woman’s College).

•Jane Matilda Bolin, first African American woman judge in the U.S. (Wellesley).

Charlotte Fox, the first American woman to climb three of the world’s tallest peaks. (Hollins).

There are so many more! If you don’t mind us tooting our own horn . . . you wouldn’t be reading this right now if it weren’t for our founder and publisher: Dr. Pola Rosen (Barnard).  


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