From Straight-Laced to Unlaced: Women’s colleges in the twentieth century


In the first half of the twentieth century, middle- and upper-class white, American women were expected to get married and raise families. Job options were limited: women in medicine were nurses, not doctors; women in education were teachers, not principals. Those who attended women’s colleges—often their only option for private higher education—were no exception. Women’s schools emphasized the importance of preparing attendees for lives as wives, mothers, and sometimes members of a restricted professional world. “Never has there been such urgent need for trained women college graduates—to serve our communities, to enter our professions and to give wise direction and inspiration to home life,” wrote Dean Millicent C. McIntosh in Barnard College’s 1951-1952 Blue Book, the volume of rules governing undergraduate women. 

But in the 1960s and 1970s, second-wave feminism produced shifts in both cultural perceptions of women’s roles and higher education. Today’s norms are nearly the reverse of those in place before the 1960s. At many coed universities, women outnumber men—and almost all universities are coed. Today’s women’s colleges, a small subset of the private college world, have created niche identities. Rules and tradition have given way to women’s empowerment and idealism. Educational aims have transformed from learning how to helm a family to learning how to make a difference in the world.


Most private, single-sex colleges became coeducational in the ‘60s and ‘70s on the heels of women’s rights advocacy in American politics and culture. The FDA approved birth control pills in 1960; Congress passed the Equal Pay Act in 1963; the National Organization for Women was founded in 1966; Title IX, which bans sex discrimination in schools, was ratified in 1972. As part of this push, women lobbied for admittance to top colleges, like the Ivy League schools, which until then were all-male. And they succeeded—not just in gaining entry to top men’s schools, but also in shifting private higher education away from single-sex education and toward coeducation across the board.

Women’s colleges perished or began to admit men in conjunction with this trend. According to an article presented by Heather Geraci at the 2005 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, the number of women’s colleges shrank from 230 in 1970 to 63 in 2000.

Before the ‘60s and ‘70s shift, the cultural expectation was that white, middle- and upper-class women would start families and inculcate their children with good values. Women’s colleges sought to produce graduates with these skills, and most students entered with the twin aims of finding husbands at neighboring men’s schools and honing skills that would help them become successful mothers. (Many women’s colleges were located near all-men’s schools, which made it easy for female and male students to date on the weekends. The schools encouraged it: Barnard’s 1936-1937 Blue Book, for example, listed 12 formal Dances—capital D—in its social calendar.)

Ginny Whitehill, now 80, graduated from all-female Mount Holyoke College in 1950. Whitehill has advocated for women’s rights since she finished school and founded organizations including the Dallas Women’s Coalition, the Women’s Equity Action League, and the Dallas Women’s Political Caucus.

“My generation had no goals but to get married,” she said. “I got married five days after I graduated from college, I’m ashamed to say. But if you were romantic and you wanted to make love, you got married.”

This trend wasn’t seen as anti-feminist—on the contrary, it enabled women to succeed within their societal contexts. Most women’s monetary success was their husbands’; their prestige stemmed from their success as homemakers. So receiving an education, which helped women marry wealthy men and mother well, increased women’s social standing as much as was generally allowed within the constraints of the times.

Elly Gross attended Brooklyn College during World War II. Since it was a public school, it was coeducational.

“Women didn’t become doctors. They didn’t become lawyers. It was just not done. They didn’t even have the courses to do it,” she said. “The only way you could become successful was through your husband.”

There were exceptions, though, especially since WWII saw most of the country’s young men serving overseas. Not everyone went to school just to find a man—some women did look for avenues into the professional world, and others just valued education on principle. Arline Marantz graduated from Douglass College—then a private but state-affiliated institution, now part of the public Rutgers University—in 1947. Most of her education coincided with the war and, as a result, was a literal no man’s land.

“Because it was wartime, I don’t think anybody was there looking for a guy because they weren’t there. Everybody that was close to our age was in service,” she said. Marantz’s rationale for attending a women’s college was simple: her father, who was a lawyer and valued education, said she had to go. “It isn’t like we really were there because we wanted to get married and find a husband.”

Though her purpose in going to Douglass wasn’t to find a husband, Marantz’s experience still reflected the traditional cultural expectations for females. “There was a course and I took it in my senior year and it was called The Bride’s Course, and it was a cooking class with a lab,” she said. But it wasn’t demeaning in the way it might seem today:  “To me, it was a wonderful, wonderful course to take because it was the one thing that helped me be comfortable in the kitchen.”

And then there were the rules.

“It was very strict. We had to be in the dorm by 7:00, and on the weekends I think maybe 11. No men allowed above the first floor—and the only thing on the first floor was the living room. My father couldn’t even come into my bedroom,” Marantz said. “We had three meals a day served to us by waitresses. We had to wear a skirt into the—it wasn’t a cafeteria, it was a dining room. I can remember rolling up my jeans and putting the skirt over it because it was less trouble than changing.” Every dorm had a sign-in sheet, and women marked their names when they exited and entered the building. “Everybody signed out and everybody was in on time.”

These rules stemmed from the understanding that college women weren’t yet adults. When they were away from their parents at school, they were the administration’s responsibility.

“There were a lot of rules,” Marantz said. “It was a different time.”


Then came the ‘60s and ‘70s, which marked the beginning of second-wave feminism—including the movement away from single-sex education and toward coeducation. After the shift, a small core of surviving women’s colleges remained.

The educational missions of these schools, and the goals and experiences of their students, are starkly different from those of the pre-‘60s era. Before the change, the cultural expectations demanded that women serve as homemakers, and any woman who wanted a top-notch private education had to attend a women’s college. Today, women participate in educational and professional realms previously restricted to men. Attending a women’s college is a choice, and not a mainstream one.

The websites and brochures of modern women’s colleges focus on the schools’ nurturing, mentoring, non-traditional environments, which inspire confidence and idealism in their students. Attending a women’s college is purportedly not just about absorbing knowledge—it’s about becoming a fulfilled person who’s driven to change the world.

From Smith College’s website: “Exceed your expectations of yourself. Reinvent yourself. Imagine yourself at Smith.”

From Barnard’s: “Living and learning in this unique environment, Barnard students become agile, resilient, responsible, and creative, prepared to lead and serve their society.”

And from Mount Holyoke’s: “Mount Holyoke College women are passionate about learning—and about who they want to be. They tend to be more self-aware, more adventurous, more confident, more idealistic, more globally aware, and more accomplished than your average college undergrad. They seem to expect more of themselves, of college, and of life in general.”

Top coeducational schools’ missions are more centered on the academic. Though many coed liberal arts colleges promote students’ commitment to service, they don’t focus on self-confidence and nurture in the way that women’s colleges do. The pep-talk spin isn’t there.

Columbia University’s website describes it as “one of the world’s most important centers of research and at the same time a distinctive and distinguished learning environment for undergraduates and graduate students in many scholarly and professional fields.” Amherst College “is committed to learning through close colloquy and to expanding the realm of knowledge through scholarly research and artistic creation at the highest level.” Williams is “committed to our central endeavor of academic excellence in a community of learning that comprises students, faculty, and staff, and draws on the engagement of alumni and parents. We recruit students from among the most able in the country and abroad and select them for the academic and personal attributes they can contribute to the educational enterprise, inside and outside the classroom.”

It’s not just promotional literature that sets women’s colleges apart. Their administrators and students, too, extol their schools’ supportive, confidence-inspiring environments. As Eliza Borne, a fourth-year at Wellesley College, wrote in a Boston Globe editorial, “Confession: I know a lot of smart, spunky women who go to coed schools, all on the path to success. Do I think these women would be better off at a college without men? Not necessarily. What I will say is that a women’s college has instilled poise and a hunger for achievement in me, and in my friends here, and that these qualities are direct results of our single-sex education.”

Giulietta Aquino serves as the dean of undergraduate admissions at Mills College, which has an all-women’s undergraduate population but coed grad schools. Aquino graduated from Mills in 1993 and then worked at Mount Holyoke and Wellesley before returning to her alma mater.

“I think students who come to Mills really want to make a difference,” Aquino said. “There is this urge in them to be involved, to effect change. They are smart and very engaged and passionate about what they are learning. I think the students that come to Mills utilize their voice and for students who don’t yet know how to be that outspoken woman yet, they definitely, by the time they graduate, have found a way to effectively communicate their issues and concerns.”

Today’s women’s colleges also tend to be liberal in their politics. In lieu of the rules of pre-‘60s women’s schools, today’s tend toward leniency. Many current women’s college students and recent graduates cite the atmosphere of diversity and tolerance as one of women’s schools’ biggest advantages.

“It’s very accepting, so people are free to explore and do what they want for those four years,” said Katherine Axt, who graduated from Mount Holyoke in 2001 and serves as the president of the college’s Alumni Club of New York City. “You can be whoever you want to be, and it’s okay. No judging.”

Other women’s college students and graduates echoed Axt’s sentiments. Jennifer Danielsson, a sophomore at Bryn Mawr College, praised the “very small accepting community.” Lauren Razzore, Mount Holyoke Class of 1998, described the culture as “liberal, accepting, challenging, hard working, dedicated and competitive.” Emma Yourd, a first-year at Smith College, wrote that “the typical Smith student is very liberal, vegetarian, and likes to talk about her feelings”; another first-year, Molly Theodora Oringer, described Smith as an “incredibly supportive community” and “a great place to be open about your sexual orientation.”

The strictness of the pre-‘60s era has been replaced by a warm-and-fuzzy post-‘60s sisterhood. Initially, the focus on acceptance may have served as a means of attracting as many applicants as possible. The more widespread coed higher education became, the harder it was for women’s schools to market themselves. The message of tolerance was, as Wellesley College’s Dean of Admission Jennifer Desjarlais put it, a way of “casting broader nets.”

By now, though, the acceptance theme has become less a means of survival and more a part of women’s colleges’ niche identities. It’s what going to a modern women’s college is all about: discovering yourself, accepting who you are, and using your newfound voice to effect change.

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