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Women's College History x Women's Equality Movement

Last updated March 8, 2021

Throughout the 19th century higher education was not readily available to women. Although some institutions allowed access to women, their education was often not comparable to colleges for men. This inequality drove women’s schools to begin renaming themselves as “colleges” starting with Georgia Female College in 1836.

Vassar College, a pioneer in women’s higher education, basketball team (1900)

Women’s colleges in the US worked hard to provide a rigorous education for their students. Often, they were the pioneers in offering courses such as laboratory science, social work, and fine arts. These schools often had a much larger number of female staff and faculty opening up more jobs to female professors and women in academia.

By 1870 only one-third of American colleges and universities were open to both men and women, but the admission rate of women was extremely low. During this time, more and more women’s colleges were created, often as a “counterpart” to a nearby all-male institution. Despite the growth of women’s colleges, these opportunities were still built within a racist society. Most colleges and universities were still segregated. A few women’s colleges on the East and West Coast admitted a small number of Black women, but colleges in the South were exclusively for white women. In Atlanta, public high schools were not open to black students. To support the education of black women, Spelman College, a HBCU and women’s college, was opened in 1881; awarding their first two bachelor's degrees in 1901!

Jane Anna Graderson and Claudia White Harreld, Spelman’s first college graduates (1901)

Fast forward to the 1970’s - yes 100 years later! The United States was facing a storm of change from the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, and massive technological improvements. Women were no longer willing to be denied access to the education they deserved. By the end of the 1900’s more and more colleges and universities were transitioning to coed education, an important change that would transform women’s lives for decades to come. The accessibility of higher education helped propel a revolution in gender roles including new career paths, financial opportunities, and personal growth.

A flyer advertising the pilot Women’s Studies course at University of Michigan (1973)

Today, women on college campuses make up more than half of all students. Many colleges that were originally for women are now coed, but there are about 34 schools remaining that still cater to the needs of women and non-binary students in the U.S. Interested in attending a women’s college or learning more about your options? Text “#Hello” to 33-55-77 for personalized help!

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