10 American Colleges that Paved the Way for Women

For much longer than many people realize, women actually comprise the majority of college attendees and graduates — around 57% as of 2010. A cause for celebration amongst a traditionally marginalized demographic, one has to look back at the faces and places that made such progress possible. More than 10 exist in the United States, of course, but here’s a quick sample of some more notable names.

  1. Moravian College: Like many of the colleges and universities listed here, Moravian College began life as a seminary, established in 1742. Originally known as the Bethlehem Female Seminary in Germantown, Pennsylvania (before its move to the eponymous city in 1888), it’s commonly accepted that the institution was the very first school just for American women. Moravian didn’t officially become a college until 1913, however, and a 1954 merger with Nazareth Hall (also known as Moravian College and Theological Seminary) meant the incorporation of a male student body.

  2. Salem College: Founded in 1772 under the name of Little Girls’ School, this private liberal arts school in Winston-Salem, North Carolina holds the distinction of being America’s oldest women’s college continuing to label itself as such. Men, however, are allowed to attend, provided they are over 23 years of age and enrolled in either continuing education or graduate-level courses. The Moravians established it with the radical belief that women and men both deserved equal educational opportunities, and also broke further ground as one of the very first institutions to accept minorities alongside whites.

  3. Oberlin College: When it came to integrating sexes and races, Oberlin College (est. 1833 in Oberlin, Ohio) rightfully prides itself on its place at the forefront of progressivism. It was the very first American institute of higher learning to regularly admit women and African-Americans to degree programs. In 1970, the school incited controversy when it pioneered the very first co-ed dormitories. Save for Baldwin Cottage, which houses women and transgendered students more comfortable outside a co-ed setting, every dorm on campus now boasts this or a similar setup.

  4. Mount Holyoke College: The first of the prestigious Seven Sisters, Mary Lydon chartered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1836, with a collegiate one following in 1888. It sprouted up in South Hadley, Massachusetts as part of a serious (and then-radical) movement to better educate women in the latter half of the 19th Century, slowly building towards equality with their male peers. Both Vassar and Wellesley College looked to Mount Holyoke when drawing up their charters and drawing up their curricula and teaching strategies, later becoming the next two of the Seven Sisters.

  5. Wesleyan College: One of numerous colleges and universities known as Wesleyan, the Macon, Georgia institution chartered in 1836 and opened in 1839 has "First for Women" as its motto for a reason. After Mount Holyoke, this one is the oldest full, chartered women’s college that has stayed as such since its founding. "Second for Women" doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but that doesn’t diminish Wesleyan College’s pioneer status any. However, it did lay claim the term "women’s college" before Mount Holyoke!

  6. Moore College of Art: Women hoping to attend art school and pursue their creative dreams have Moore College of Art and Design to thank for paving the way. This Philadelphia, Pennsylvania institution began life in 1848 as the Philadelphia School of Design for Women with the hopes of training students to thrive during the Industrial Revolution. Today, though, it has expanded its offerings to include nine different flavors of visual art. Founder Sarah Worthington Peter’s goal of providing participants with the skills needed to survive the oftentimes grueling career world remains the same, of course.

  7. Mills College: Originally known as Young Ladies Seminary, the Benicia, California-based Mills College launched in 1852 under the tutelage of Mary Atkins. It moved to Oakland in 1871 after power transferred to Cyril and Susan Tolman Mills and the name switched over to Mills Seminary. By 1906, seminary programs had been phased out, with more emphasis placed on liberal arts. Although the decision to admit male students cropped up, nonviolent protests from students, faculty and staff led to a complete reversal; men can still obtain graduate certificates here, however. Today, it boasts the honor of being the oldest women’s college in the American West.

  8. College of Notre Dame of Maryland: Although CNDM was established in 1873, it was 1899 when it became the first Catholic women’s college to offer a bachelor’s degree. Located in Baltimore, Maryland and bordering Johns Hopkins University, the School Sisters of Notre Dame – led by Mary Theresa of Jesus Gerhardinger — set it up as a means of reaching out to impoverished women through education. They hoped that a doubly-marginalized demographic such as that would benefit the most from their services. The order holds a presence there even today.

  9. Spelman College: Spelman College began life in 1881, with classes held in the basement of Atlanta, Georgia-based Friendship Baptist Church. It holds the honor of being the very first institute of higher learning dedicated to giving African-American women the education necessary to succeed. Sophia B. Packard and Harriet E. Giles launched its programming with only $100 and 11 eager students, and it only grew exponentially from there — especially when John D. Rockefeller involved himself with the organization. Originally a seminary, Spelman College didn’t start offering degrees until 1901, with a name change following in 1924.

  10. H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College at Tulane University: Established in 1886 as a memorial to Josephine Louise Newcomb’s daughter, this school was the very first women’s college to coordinate with an American university. In this instance, Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. This arrangement would go on to inspire Brown University’s Pembroke College and Columbia University’s Barnard College. Newcomb would go on to donate around $3 million in the interest of educating young (and, unfortunately, exclusively white) women at a time when such things were still rather uncommon.

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