Earlier Posts, Gender, History, The Womanhood Issue
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The Womanhood Issue, #3: “Are Women’s Colleges Necessary in 2014?”

Recently, I talked with a friend about the changing status of women’s colleges in the twenty-first century. We are both affiliated with a small liberal arts college that freshly transitioned to a co-educational institute after nearly 150 years as a women’s college. While the decision to change enrollment standards was rooted in financial considerations, it is fraught with emotion on all sides of the argument. Alum who find a strong bond to each other and the college through tradition wished for little change in this area. Faculty and staff who hoped for job security reluctantly conceded a change. Current students were caught in the middle, not fully realizing the weighted history of the woman’s college as viewed by alum and professors emerita, nor the financial burdens of the institution, and the students fell on one side of the argument or the other. It is not my goal to question the validity of the decision or critique one of these opinions, but rather to take a step back and ask: “Are women’s colleges necessary in the twenty-first century?” This is the basis of the broader argument, both at my college and at other small traditionally women’s colleges in the nation. I link this post to “The Womanhood Issue” series because how we view women’s colleges – both inside and outside the institution – is rooted in our belief about women and gender in contemporary society.

I want to make it clear that it is not my intention to discount the validity of women’s colleges. I consider my own choice to attend a single-sex institution as one of the great decisions of my adult life. It is important, though, to reflect on the current ideas in order for the single-sex institution to contemplate its role in an ever-changing society. Women’s colleges are a product of a particular era, so what is their role in a “postfeminist” landscape? [“Finally, A Feminism 101 Blog” has a great overview on various subjects like this one and for more information go here.]

In this post I identify three primary areas to consider: the origins of the women’s college, the fluidity of twenty-first century ideas of gender, and the understanding of what constitutes manhood and womanhood in contemporary American society.

The Origins of the Women’s College:

The history of women’s higher education begins at the start of the American venture of republicanism. In 1976 historian Linda Kerber argued that post-revolutionary Americans were forced to find a place for women in the political “experiment” in order to ensure the success of the infant nation. It is difficult to comprehend the feelings surrounding an undertaking of this scope. Now it is almost impossible to imagine a world without the cultural and political influence of the United States, but in 1790 the work required “all hands on deck.” As a result of Enlightenment ideals and the formation of a republic, women were brought into the circle of political influence through their expected role of mother. Kerber writes that this “ideology in America [justified] and [popularized] a political role for women, accomplishing what the English and French Enlightenment had not.”[1] It was a virtuous woman’s responsibility to be the moral and spiritual touchstone for her husband, educate her sons in the ways of democratic republicanism, and prepare her daughters to follow her role. An American woman carried a lot on her shoulders – she held the weight of the nation.

Young Women Studying on the Campus, 1918, Photomechanical print shows three young women studying outdoors at a desk. Library of Congress

Young Women Studying on the Campus, 1918, Photomechanical print shows three young women studying outdoors at a desk. Library of Congress

Yet this role expected little education beyond domestic knowledge. Aside from the progressive Oberlin College which in 1833 enrolled men and women, black and white, the story of women and college in the nineteenth century is fraught with struggle. Female seminaries popped up throughout the duration of the century, but were little more than finishing schools for women, educating them in limited academic subjects and preparing them for domestic life or work as schoolteachers. Seminaries were an extension of Republican Motherhood expectations. A surge in women’s colleges proper occurred before the Civil War, but was halted for obvious reasons as the nation engaged in conflict. A similar hiatus transpired with the women’s movement for political suffrage. But by 1870, 107 women’s colleges actively taught subjects similar to that at men’s colleges and engaged women in a vigorous academic life.[2]

The question remains: why separate institutions based on gender? The certain answer is that women were excluded from the “boys club” of academia, but correspondingly women were expected to perform different tasks in the republic. The institute of higher education has the sole purpose of preparing the student for successful and active participation in society, and drawing conclusion from this, female seminaries should have been the preferred education. In reality, more and more women were seeking an education like that of their male counterparts. Oberlin was teaching men and women together for nearly forty years. The women’s suffrage movement was in full swing with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony at the helm, pushing for greater political changes and winning. Why separate schools?

The 1870-71 Wilson College catalogue states, “Wilson College… is organized under a special charter from the State of Pennsylvania, giving full collegiate powers and privileges, and is designed to extend to young ladies the same high advantages for a thorough education – physical, intellectual, moral, and religious – as are now afforded to young men in the best Colleges of the land.”[3] The inference is that a young woman could not find this kind of education anywhere else. Women’s colleges were necessary if a woman wanted a college education. Women who wished to participate in public life entered through the “back door.” Susan B. Anthony voted illegally in 1872 and the founders of Wilson College provided an institution for women to gain access to academia. Denial of access created a response and the result was the college for women.

As more women entered higher education, and slowly institutions converted to the coeducational system, women attended single-sex colleges in fewer numbers. After women gained political enfranchisement in 1920, American women felt the backlash of a conservative movement that emphasized the woman’s role in the home and discouraged professional work. The gains in higher education for women seemed to stall for those who worked in single-sex institutions, which varied depending on the class level of the institution. For instance, the Seven Sisters Colleges did not see a drop in enrollment; this was probably due to the attendance of students from upper-class households desiring the status associated with attending one of the schools. Middle class colleges, however, noticed a drop in applications as a result of more women wanting to attend coeducational institutions. During the academic year 1909-10, 140,000 women were enrolled at a college or university, with a distribution between women’s colleges at 24.2% and coeducational schools accepting 75.8% of the total. In 1919-20, 282,000 female students were enrolled with 18.7% of women attending single-sex colleges, while 81.3% were enrolled in coeducational institutions. This number did not change dramatically until the 1949-50 academic year when women’s colleges saw a large drop to 12%, though the number of women attending higher education that year rose to 806,000. Between 1920 and 1950 the increase in women attending college or university rose by 200,000 every decade, including the 1930s Depression Era.[4] This meant that at the end of the 1930s, 494,900 women out of 601,000 attended a coeducational institution. For some, the fight for equality required work with male counterparts and the ability to tear down the “boys club.”

Gender in the Twenty-First Century

In a recent opinion article in the New York Times freelance writer Kiera Feldman writes, “Today, women’s colleges are at a crossroads their founders could never have foreseen, struggling to reconcile their mission with a growing societal shift on how gender itself is defined. A handful of applicants from transgender women have rattled school administrators over the past year, giving rise to anxious meetings and campus demonstrations.”[5] Feldman’s article focuses primarily on the legal ramifications of admission based on gender and this is a good place to begin the discussion. While women’s colleges struggle to survive, allowing transgender women to enroll would increase numbers slightly. As of April 9, 2014, Title IX protects transgender people from discrimination at educational institutions. National news concerning gender in America – and those who do not fall easily into the standard – often rest on the legal arguments and public policy, but of concern here is the student in the classroom. There are men who already sit in women’s college classrooms, but admitted as “women.” There are women who wish to attend, but because their birth certificate states a different gender, they are barred from enrolling.

Gender is fluid. If anyone argues otherwise, simply point to the variations in fashion and standards work outside the home. Things that once designated femininity and masculinity now cross boundaries easily. Think: the separation of dresses for women and pants for men. Not too long ago, it was scandalous for a woman to wear anything other than a feminine dress. When in 1852 Elizabeth Cady Stanton donned the “Bloomer costume” – a knee-length dress with pants that provided greater freedom of movement for the wearer – and it caused a great outcry. Women who wore this were thought to have loose morals.

"The Bloomer Costume" by Currier and Ives, 1851, Library of Congress

“The Bloomer Costume” by Currier and Ives, 1851, Library of Congress

Gender is not fixed and traits that “define” gender are specific to 1870, 1932, 1967, and 2014. Historian George Chauncey elaborates upon this kind of changeability in his book, Gay New York: Gender Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (Basic Books, 1994) and demonstrates how in this earlier era of American history, a third gender was accepted by much of the working class.

We are absolutely in an era in which questions of gender norms are being challenged – women in the workplace, men taking on domestic roles – and transgender Americans must be brought into the fold of mainstream society. What is the college for women’s role in this change?

Real Masculinity and Femininity

Supporters of women’s colleges rightly argue that such institutions provide a space for young women to grow and succeed in academics without the pressures of gender stereotyping and male dominance in the classroom. This is a similar claim to the one women’s colleges made in the 1920s as numbers began to go down as a result of more and more women attending coeducational institutions. As noted above, while enrollment was increasing across the board for American women of all races, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds, numbers at women’s colleges were on the decline. Thus, a touchstone feature the single-sex institutions use to draw enrollment is the emphasis on tradition. The lineage is long and deep at single-sex colleges, and prospective students should attend for this reason (among many). The thought of male students on campus has the potential to insight anxiety over the loss of these traditions that serve as pillars of the institution.

The problem with this idea is that it places all men into one category of maleness: hegemonic masculinity. Sociologist Mike Donaldson writes, “Hegemonic masculinity concerns the dread of and the flight from women. A culturally idealized form, it is both a personal and a collective project, and is the common sense about breadwinning and man-hood. It is exclusive, anxiety-provoking, internally and hierarchically differentiated, brutal, and violent. It is pseudo-natural, tough, contradictory, crisis-prone, rich, and socially sustained. While centrally connected with the institutions of male dominance, not all men practice it, though most benefit from it.”[6] Yet, as many of us who live in the real world and have fulfilling relationships with good, kind men, we know that not every man falls into the category of “tough,” “brutal” and “violent.” There are feminist men and those who fall into the category of variation, as mentioned in the above section. Many male instructors at women’s colleges support the role of women in leadership in public society. By labeling the potential of men on traditionally women’s college campuses as a threat to womanhood, the arguers place men into the category of “hegemonic masculinity,” forgetting that the men on campus already support their women students and professional colleagues. Secondly, men who do not fit into hegemonic masculinity do not have a “place” if barred from more “feminine” interaction while living outside of the brutal and violent standard. Not all men wish to shutout their female colleague in the classroom. Not all men seek dominance. To believe so is to root one’s mind in the arguments of the past and forget the multitude of variation within both femininity and masculinity.

Sarah Ruth Wilson, November 4, 2013, Wilson College

Sarah Ruth Wilson, November 4, 2013, Wilson College


There is no final adjudication to make toward the viability of women’s colleges in 2014. However, necessity requires these institutions (and supporters of them) to reevaluate elements of importance and temperament of the colleges. What are the objectives of the institution? Should they be reassessed and changed to pursue different goals that align with the contemporary women’s movement? Who is permitted to enroll within the set gender boundaries? Should the institution continue using hegemonic masculinity and the dominance of it as its major purpose for existence? Is it a viable argument in the twenty-first century?

These questions provoke further discussion of which there is little room to deliberate here. While potential students make life-changing decisions concerning their academic and career lives, the single-sex institution must consider these questions. Beliefs are changing. How a student understands the world and her place in it transforms.




[1] Linda Kerber, “The Republican Mother: Women and the Enlightenment – An American Perspective,” American Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Summer, 1976):187-205.

[2] Barbara Miller Solomon, In the Company of Educated Women (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985): 23.

[3] “Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Wilson College for the Academic Year 1870-1871,” Wilson College Catalogues, 1870-catalogue 1904-05, The C. Elizabeth Boyd Class of ’33 Archive, Wilson College, Chambersburg, PA.

[4] Paragraph from Sarah Ruth Wilson, “Margaret Criswell Disert, A Story: The Undercurrents of American Feminism before 1960,” Master of American Studies thesis, December 2012, Penn State University; Mabel Newcomer, “Women Enrolled in Institutions of Higher Learning According to Type of Institution, 1869-1957,” in Lynn D. Gordon, Gender and Higher Education in the Progressive Era (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990),:7.

[5] Kiera Feldman, “Who Are Women’s Colleges For?” The New York Times (New York) May 25, 2014.

[6] Mike Donaldson, “What is Hegemonic Masculinity?” Theory and Society Vol. 22, No. 5 (October 1993): 643-657.


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