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We can look across the higher education spectrum of the world to find exceptional examples of strong, successful women. Whether it is political leaders like New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, or Tanzania’s President Samia Suluhu Hassan; or sports stars like the Netherland’s Vivianne Miedema, or Nigeria’s Asisat Oshoala; or storytellers like Toni Morrison and Doris Lessing; or even Nobel Laureates like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Malala Yousufzai. These women all hail from different parts of the world and have employed their unique backgrounds to change the world in their own way.
Although many of these women have attended top universities around the world - Oxford, the University of Manchester, Harvard, and Howard University - the opportunity to attend co-educational colleges has not always existed for women around the world. After the first secondary, or high schools for women were founded at the start of the 19th century, so too followed the first women’s colleges. As most universities and colleges at the time were exclusively for men, these women’s colleges educated thousands of women across the world.
As time went on, many of these women’s colleges joined up with nearby male counterparts to form single entities (much like Radcliffe College and Harvard University). However, some women;s colleges remained independent, and operate exclusively for women to this day.
Most women’s colleges are based in the USA. These iconic colleges span the length and breadth of the country and still number nearly 40 in total. These are the survivors from over 150 that were founded in the 19th century, many of which have become coeducational or been absorbed by men’s colleges. We’ll take a quick look at five famous women’s colleges here: Barnard, Scripps, Smith, Spelman, and Wellesley.
New York City, NY
Located in the Manhattan borough of New York City, Barnard College is one of Ivy League Columbia University’s four undergraduate colleges. Barnard was founded due to Columbia’s policy of only admitting men - a policy that stood until 1989. Due to its association with Columbia, the college has many interesting characteristics that make it unique, one of which is that it offers the opportunity to play Division I sport through its partnership with Columbia - the only women’s college to do so.
It was also one of the original Seven Sisters, seven prestigious and highly selective liberal arts colleges in the northeast of the USA, five of which still exist as women’s colleges today. Students at Barnard will share classes, libraries, clubs, and dining halls with Columbia, and receive degrees from Columbia (signed by the presidents of both Columbia and Barnard), and can also take classes at Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music. Barnard’s alumnae include Martha Stewart, Ntozake Shange, and Margaret Mead.
Scripps College is one of the “Five C’s” - the five Claremont Colleges in California and is the only one that is exclusively a women’s college. Founded in 1926, Scripps has consistently produced excellent academic results and is widely regarded as the best women’s college in the American West.
Due to its small student body, Scripps students compete on athletic teams with two of the other Claremont Colleges: Harvey Mudd and Claremont College. With beautiful Californian weather, Scripps is a top target for many students looking to attend a women’s college, and the school is a top producer of Fulbright scholars.
Smith College, chartered in 1871, is the largest of the historic Seven Sisters group. It is known for its politically active student body, who are often at the forefront of progressive campaigning across the country. Smith also offers graduate degrees, which is unusual for women’s colleges, and is a member of the Five College Consortium - which means students can take classes at any of the other four colleges involved. Smith was also the first women’s college to join the NCAA, and has produced many famous alumnae, including two First Ladies of the United States, Gloria Steinem, and Sylvia Plath.
Spelman College, a historically black women’s college in Atlanta, Georgia, was founded in 1881 as a seminary, and received its college charter in 1924. Spelman functions as a sister college to nearby Morehouse College, a historically black men’s college in Atlanta, and forms part of the Atlanta University Center Consortium, a consortium of four HBCUs in Atlanta.
As an HBCU, Spelman was notably involved in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, and continues to produce strong, progressive political leaders and activists, like Stacey Abrams, and artists like novelist Alice Walker.
Finally, Wellesley College in Massachusetts was founded in 1870, and is consistently rated as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the USA. As one of the most well-known colleges in the USA, Wellesley has the largest endowment of all women’s colleges, and is also part of the historic Seven Sisters.
It was famously the setting of the 2003 film Mona Lisa Smile, and has produced countless famous alumnae, including Hilary Clinton and Madeleine Albright. With small class sizes and a competitive admissions process, Wellesley stands out as an exceptional college in the Northeast, where a tradition of prestigious academic institutions help it stand out on a national stage, too.
Big Questions Ep. 39: Barnard College
Most women’s colleges in the UK have been absorbed by existing colleges such as the University of Durham and Oxford University. These colleges now exist as constituent colleges of these larger universities, although some have only relatively recently changed their status. For instance, St Hilda’s College remained a women-only college until 2008 and was the last remaining constituent college to be exclusively for women. The college now has roughly equal numbers of men and women enrolled at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Cambridge University still has two women’s colleges - Murray Edwards College and Newnham College. Both allow men to be taught but only have women in residence.
Although the United States is home to most of the world’s women’s colleges, there are many places elsewhere that have a robust women’s college system. India and South Korea, for example, have many women’s colleges, such as Duksung Women’s University in Seoul and Bethune College in Kolkata. Bethune was also the first women’s college in South East Asia and has produced many famous alumnae, such as Bangladesh’s first female Prime Minister, Begum Khaleda Zia, and mathematician Neena Gupta.
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