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Challenged by Coeducation

Women's Colleges Since the 1960s

Leslie Miller-Bernal

Publication Year: 2007

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.

Published by: Vanderbilt University Press

Title Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. ix-xii

Women’s colleges are an endangered species. Over the past forty years, threequarters of them have admitted men, merged with another institution, or closed. From about 230 women’s colleges in 1960, there were fewer than 60 in 2005. Most of those that remain struggle to survive, creating educational programs for new populations—part-time, adult, or graduate students—thereby becoming fundamentally different institutions than they were in the 1950s. While researchers have studied the early history of women’s colleges and their importance for women’s access to higher education, little has been written about their recent transformations.
Challenged by Coeducation explores the recent history of women’s colleges in the age of coeducation. It includes institutions...

I. The Place of Women's Colleges in Higher Education

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1. Introduction: Changes in the Status and Functions of Women's Colleges over Time

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pp. 1-20

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...

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II. Case Studies of Women's Colleges That Have Become Coeducational or Have Closed

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pp. 21-23

In contrast to the end of single-sex education at formerly men’s college and universities, which happened in a relatively brief period from about 1969 to 1983, the conversion of women’s colleges to coeducation has occurred over the past four decades and continues into the present. The vast majority of men’s colleges went coeducational in this period. A few institutions, however, did not, most notably Morehouse College in Georgia, Hampton-Sydney College in Virginia, and Wabash College in Indiana...

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2. Vassar College: A Seven Sisters College Chooses Coeducation

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pp. 25-47

Matthew Vassar believed that “almost everything which pertains to human progress and elevates the condition of human society, in the outset is an experiment.”1 The Poughkeepsie brewer chose a then-radical innovation in higher education as his chief legacy, telling his board that “it is my hope to be the instrument, in the hand of Providence, of founding and perpetuating an Institution which shall accomplish for young women what our colleges are accomplishing for young men.”2 So the Vassar community today has no difficulty in imagining that its founder could have approved, though he never anticipated, its experiment since 1970 in developing truly equal coeducation...

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3. Coeducation at Wheaton College: From Conscious Coeducation to Distinctive Coeducation?

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pp. 48-75

For more than 150 years Wheaton College, located in the small city of Norton, Massachusetts, dedicated itself to the higher education of women. Then in September 1988 this private liberal arts college admitted its first men undergraduates. Given its historical commitment to the education of women, Wheaton College pursued coeducation within a framework dedicated to ensuring that its commitment to women would be preserved in the transition to coeducation. Through its philosophy of “conscious coeducation,” or what is also called “differently coeducational,” Wheaton has attempted to create a coeducational institution..

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

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pp. 76-107

Mundelein College in Chicago provides an example of how, despite a record of educational innovation and cultural engagement, a Catholic women’s college was unable to survive the rapid social, demographic, and economic changes that fundamentally altered its environment. Mundelein’s history illustrates key themes raised about the effect of the social changes in the 1960s on Catholic women’s colleges. Between 1960 and 1975 Mundelein College redesigned its curriculum and its academic calendar, built a new residence hall, adapted...

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5. Texas Woman's University: Threats to Institutional Autonomy and Conflict over the Admission of Men

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pp. 108-144

Texas Woman’s University, founded in 1901 as the Girls Industrial College, is the nation’s largest university primarily for women and one of only two public universities of its kind in the United States. Established by an act of the twenty-seventh Texas State Legislature to educate “white” girls of Texas in the liberal and industrial arts, it was the last public university for women in the United States to accept men into all its academic programs. Although men began to enter health-science programs in 1972 and graduate programs in 1973, it was not until 1995 that male...

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6. Wells College: The Transition to Coeducation Begins

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pp. 145-172

Since opening in 1868, Wells College has remained remarkably the same in several respects. It is a very small college with close, familylike ties among members of the academic community;1 the setting in Aurora, New York, continues to be rural, with the college situated in a village of fewer than a thousand people on the eastern shores of Lake Cayuga, twenty miles from the nearest small city, Auburn; the curriculum is traditional liberal arts, with education as the only preprofessional program; and the college is still a women’s college. And yet Wells is different today...

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III. Case Studies of Women's Colleges That Have Remained Single Sex

The four institutions in Part Three are women’s colleges that have survived as single-sex institutions. Like those in the previous section, they represent the variety among women’s colleges. Mills College is secular and independent; Simmons College has vocational roots; Spelman College is historically black; and the College of Notre Dame is Catholic. Together, these chapters document many of the financial and social challenges that women’s colleges face today, when the vast majority of women students prefer a coeducational environment.
Like many women’s colleges, Mills College faced declining enrollment and financial stress during the 1980s...

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7. Revitalizing the Mission of a Women's College: Mills College in Oakland, California

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pp. 175-207

For more than a century, Mills College has been a nationally recognized independent, liberal arts college for women. Beginning in the 1920s, the college also developed graduate programs for women and men. At present, Mills enrolls about 735 undergraduate women and 475 graduate women and men. It is the only undergraduate women’s college in the San Francisco Bay Area and, along with Mount St. Mary’s in Los Angeles and Scripps in Claremont, one of three women’s colleges in California. The parklike 135-acre campus is located in the foothills of Oakland, California, a diverse urban community...

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8. Simmons College: Meeting the Needs of Women Workers

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pp. 208-233

For more than a century, Simmons College has held a “distinctive niche” in the realm of women’s colleges and in the crowded market of Boston-area higher education.1 Unlike most non-Catholic women’s colleges, which traditionally educated women from privileged households, Simmons served women from the working class. Its vocational emphasis offered a step up the economic ladder, as well as the likelihood of job security, to women who were otherwise vulnerable unskilled laborers and dependent wives. When many colleges and universities discriminated against or discouraged...

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9. Spelman College: A Place All Their Own

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pp. 234-256

While many women’s colleges have struggled to survive over the last forty years, Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, has flourished. Many women’s colleges attracted needed students by opening graduate schools or continuing-education programs that serve adult students, but Spelman maintained its traditional orientation toward the African American undergraduate residential student. It has expanded its enrollment while raising admissions standards. There are several reasons for this upward trend: an urban location that attracts students who want the advantages...

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10. "Trust and Dare": Adaptations and Innovation at the College of Notre Dame

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pp. 257-285

Reviewing the programs of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland in 1960, a visiting team from the Commission on Higher Education of the Middle States Association began its report with a most unsixties introduction. It noted that “the quiet dignity of the College and its community of Sisters, the seriousness of purpose in instruction, and the loyalty of the lay faculty are striking.” The report reiterated the “quiet dignity” phrase in a section on students, declaring: “The quiet dignity of the students reflects the distinctive virtues of gracious living apparent everywhere on...

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IV. Case Studies of Affiliated Women's Colleges

The case studies in Part Four review three colleges affiliated with larger prestigious coeducational universities: Barnard College at Columbia University, and Girton and Newnham colleges at Cambridge University. These studies show that men’s colleges adopting coeducation (or coresidency in Cambridge) places tremendous pressure on the women’s colleges to sustain their academic standing. In one case, Girton College at Cambridge, administrators decided to admit men because its single-sex status combined with a somewhat distant location would not attract the kind of students they sought...

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

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pp. 289-327

In 1888 a determined twenty-four-year-old New Yorker, Annie Nathan Meyer, sent a thought-provoking and now famous letter to the Nation on the subject of higher education for the women of New York City. Meyer raised two important concerns: first, the growing number of women in New York City who, given the limited opportunities for advanced study nearby, faced the dilemma of either leaving home to pursue a collegiate education or foregoing their dream of higher studies; and second, the inadequacies of New York City’s only provision for women’s liberal arts education, Columbia...

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12. Cambridge University's Two Oldest Women's Colleges, Girton and Newnham

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pp. 328-371

For more than five hundred years, Cambridge University educated only men. In the mid–nineteenth century, people concerned with furthering women’s higher education organized two colleges for women. Colleges of the university do not award degrees, however, and it was not until after World War II that the university granted women degrees. Girton was Cambridge’s first residential women’s college, although when it opened in 1869, it was actually located in Hitchin, a town about twenty-six miles outside the city of Cambridge, where it remained until 1872. Newnham was Cambridge’s second...

V. Conclusions

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13. The State of Women's Colleges Today

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pp. 375-388

The major challenge for women’s colleges today is the firmly entrenched norm of coeducation that exists at all levels of our educational system, from primary school to higher education. Most people in the United States today do not think of single-sex education as an option. They barely think of women’s or men’s colleges at all, and when they do, they associate them with the past when men’s and women’s spheres were more separate in all aspects of life. Such beliefs create a self-fulfilling prophecy. If high school girls see women’s colleges as an anachronism and will not even consider attending one, in the marketplace of higher education, this means that women’s colleges...

Appendix 1: Statement of Six Past Presidents of Formerly Women's Colleges, 2000

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pp. 389-393

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

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pp. 394-396


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pp. 397-399


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pp. 401-418

E-ISBN-13: 9780826592200
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826515421

Page Count: 392
Publication Year: 2007