Mills College, photo credit: Elisa Maser via flickr

Stronger than Barbie: women’s colleges and the education of girls

Andrea van NiekerkBy Andrea van Niekerk|03/27/2013|6 Minutes

This week I attended a Share, Learn and Connect meeting arranged by WACAC, the Western Association for College Admission Counseling of which I am a member. The event took place on the lovely campus of Mills College in Oakland, and for many counselors this may have been their first visit to a women’s college. It was not only the beautiful campus that struck many, but also the reminder that women’s colleges like these are still very much alive and thriving. Started in 1852, Mills College has in fact grown up alongside the state of California itself – it claims to be the oldest women’s college west of the Rockies.

Women’s colleges were established in the US in the nineteenth century to prepare young women for the roles society thought them fit: as wives, mothers, teachers, and sometimes as social reformers in movements to abolish slavery or promote temperance. Whatever the intent, these colleges helped to expose young women to fields of science, mathematics and law from which they had been excluded (and a commitment to social reform remains very much alive at many). They are scattered across the country, from Scripps in California to Sweet Briar and Mary Baldwin in Virginia.

As more educational opportunities opened up for women, however, enrollment at women’s colleges suffered. Yale, Princeton and Harvard became co-educational in the late 1960’s. Women’s colleges faced economic and political pressure to do the same, and indeed many did. California’s Pitzer College became co-educational in 1970. Radcliffe College began a slow merger with Harvard while Vassar, another prominent member of the Seven Sisters colleges, opted to admit men rather than move and merge with Yale.

But many other women’s colleges chose the stay the course and adapt. Barnard in New York retained its unique relationship with Columbia University even after the latter began to admit women in 1983. Mills College now has an integrated graduate school. Bryn Mawr has a cooperative relationship with nearby co-educational Haverford; Smith is in the Five College Consortium with surrounding colleges such as Amherst; and Scripps similarly belongs to the Claremont Consortium.

Women’s colleges argue that their mission remains as urgent as ever. After all, even where women are increasingly in the majority, they still lag behind in wages and leadership roles – in her 2005 Commencement address to the College of Saint CatherineSusan Lennon pointed out that women in business held most managerial jobs but only 16% of corporate officer roles, 10% of executive roles such as CEO, and only about 5% of top earning jobs. Advocates for women’s colleges argue that such disparities underscore the need for educational experiences that seek to empower young women and foster their leadership skills.

Several studies have shown how women’s colleges appear to be delivering the goods:

  • study of data drawn from the National Survey of Student Engagement results found that students at women’s colleges “are advantaged in terms of the nature and frequency with which they engage in educationally purposeful activities and in the progress they make in a variety of desirable outcomes of college.”
  • A longitudinal survey of alumnae perspectives and outcomes, commissioned by the Women’s College Coalition, found that the graduates of women’s colleges are as likely as graduates of other liberal arts colleges to study abroad, find internships and have mentoring relationships with faculty. But the survey showed that alumnae of women’s colleges believe more than alumnae of other liberal arts colleges do, that their college experiences allowed them to develop self-confidence and initiative, be involved in publications or student government (while at co-educational campuses women continue to be underrepresented in campus leadership), be prepared for their first job, and learn to be a leader, solve problems, relate to people of different backgrounds, work as part of a team, write effectively, and be politically or socially aware. They are also more likely to hold graduate degrees.
  • Last year at the NACAC conference presenters of a panel on “How to get your girls to consider women’s colleges,” quoted at length from the work of Linda Sax, author of The Gender Gap in College. Sax shows the different impact that a poor choice of college can have on academic outcomes for boys and girls. In a situation where students feel that the professor does not take them seriously, women students are, for example, far more likely to downgrade their sense of well-being, degree aspirations and math ability.

Women’s colleges are not the most appropriate choice for everyone, but the best argument for attending may simply be the experience of women themselves. As a recent graduate of Mt. Holyoke put it in her posting on this blog, “After months at a women’s college, the first time someone treats you like a ‘chick’ and not as an adult with equal intellectual value, it smarts. Sexism is all the more apparent when you’ve fallen out of the habit.” Or as the t-shirt worn by a young woman on a Mills College poster proclaims, “Smarter than Barbie, Stronger than Ken.”