Black and white image of female students at Barnard College in 1908 with graduation caps on, standing in a large group outside the entrance to a university building.

The Power of Historically Women’s Colleges

The Power of Historically Women’s Colleges

With only about 30 left in the United States, historically women’s colleges are slowly dwindling away. During their founding in the 19th century, their purpose was to give women access to education when most institutions only admitted men, but today, it is their focus on providing women and gender minorities with targeted resources and a supportive community that draws thousands of students in during each college admissions round. After attending Barnard College for two years, I’ve seen the promises of a historically women’s college in action. While their popularity may be fading, it is clear to me that the benefits of attending a historically women’s college remain endless. 

Women’s colleges began as a trailblazing effort by several activists in the 19th and 20th centuries, which resulted in the establishment of hundreds of these institutions, both independently and attached to prestigious universities. Before this movement, higher education was a completely single-sex institution, which continued through the 1900s as Ivy League institutions and other universities refused education to women. Barnard College was founded in 1889 in accordance with Columbia University as a response to their exclusivity, Pembroke College with Brown University, Radcliffe College with Harvard University – the list goes on. Additionally, hundreds of private women’s colleges, including Vassar College, Sarah Lawrence College, and Wellesley College, operated as independent liberal arts colleges specifically for women. A consortium nicknamed “The Seven Sisters,” consisting of Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Wellesley, Vassar, Radcliffe, Mount Holyoke, and Smith, was also formed with the goal of combatting the financial and academic barriers women’s colleges were facing in the 1920s. While they did not resemble the grand campuses and prestigious academics that most male-only colleges had, these institutions were one of the first efforts to open doors and opportunities to women when there existed few other options. At their peak in the 1960s, 281 active women’s colleges existed in the United States. As many colleges slowly began to switch to co-ed admissions, women’s colleges continued to play an integral role in providing women with opportunities to participate and earn an educational degree. 

Described as “cutting-edge models of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic inclusion and success”, historically women’s colleges today provide students of underrepresented identity groups with a high-quality education and the resources necessary to help them succeed. Today, only around 31 women’s colleges are still operating in the United States. Many still stand as prestigious, high-ranking institutions, but colleges such as Radcliffe eventually dissolved into their respective universities, while others either chose to shift into co-ed institutions or were forced to close down entirely due to low enrollment. While their initial objective of providing women with access to higher education no longer stands, the purpose of historically women’s colleges has moved towards providing students of all identities with the community and resources that will make them successful. Shifting the language from “women’s college” to “historically women’s college” and thus eliminating the restricting nature of the system has led to these institutions admitting transgender and non-binary identifying students as well. Today, their success is undeniable. Historically women’s colleges produce a disproportionately large level of success in leadership roles. According to the Washington Post, while historically women’s colleges only enroll about 0.7% of women in the country, about 9% of female CEOs in the S&P 500 and and 10% of female US Congress members graduated from an HWC. As women make up the majority of higher education today, the goal is no longer to give them access to university, but rather to provide them with the equitable resources that will make them successful far beyond college. 

I never thought I would attend a historically women’s college. When I was applying to schools, Barnard was the only HWC on my list, and when I chose to attend, I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting myself into. Ever since I got here, however, I’ve begun to realize the power that historically women’s colleges have in shaping the education of women and gender minorities today. With each passing semester, I feel more prepared to speak up in class. I’m inspired by my peers to push myself out of my comfort zone to participate in the energetic community at Barnard. I’m constantly amazed by both the groundbreaking work my professors are conducting as well as their desire to help us become better students. In my hometown, I smile at the person in Barnes and Noble wearing a Wellesley sweatshirt as she nods at my Barnard lanyard, because the community at historically women’s colleges goes beyond the gates of your own school. The side comments strangers make along the lines of “Wait, so there are NO guys at your school? I could never” no longer bother me as they did when I was a senior in high school. Attending a historically women’s college is an immensely unique experience that few people can relate to, but it is one that I am exceedingly grateful to have.


Sources: %20Seven%20Sisters%2C%20the,in%20order%20to%20combat%20%22the%E2%80%A6