Women’s colleges increasingly seem to be an endangered species. As more historically men’s colleges became co-educational, the prevalence of women’s colleges sharply decreased, and today there are only approximately 26 women’s colleges remaining in the U.S., down from 230 in the 1960s. Some historically women’s colleges chose to become co-educational in order to survive, while others folded entirely. Aside from competition from co-educational colleges, new awareness of gender and identity issues has sparked impassioned debates among students, faculty, and alumni and has left many women’s colleges in a state of identity crisis, trying to balance their founding values with the need to provide a safe and inclusive environment for their students. Women’s colleges in the twenty-first century have been forced to grapple with questions of what, exactly, it means to be a women’s college in a modern world and what their unique value proposition is.
Some women’s colleges have opted to expand their admissions policies to explicitly include transgender and non-binary students. In 2014, Mills College in California became the first women’s college to adopt a policy explicitly welcoming transgender students. Other women’s colleges, including Agnes Scott College, Smith College, and Mount Holyoke College, have followed suit in recent years. Agnes Scott’s Statement on Gender Expression and Gender Identity states that “We recognize and value individuals across the spectrum of gender and are proud of the trans women, trans men, and non-binary individuals who have been admitted and/or graduated from Agnes Scott. We embrace our identity as a women’s college and as a community committed to inclusive excellence in our mission.” Proponents of these policies argue that women’s colleges were intended to provide education for students who might not have been welcome in traditional university environments, and thus, welcoming transgender and non-binary students is in full keeping with their mission. To many alumni, especially those who identify as queer, women’s colleges provide a safe haven, and welcoming transgender and nonbinary students is not only in keeping with the mission of women’s colleges, but essential. For Zoe Clandorf, Mary Baldwin College ’15 (she/they/he), “Mary Baldwin College was an all-women’s college, but… they were also a refugee camp too, for all the homeless abused queers, to get a brief spot of respite from the patriarchy…I think it’s vital for trans women to have the opportunity to join these spaces, and similarly, people like my past self would have benefited greatly from being exposed to trans women and their many, many stories.”
Other women’s colleges, however, have decided to maintain a focus on women, whether they were assigned male or female at birth, arguing that this is crucial to their mission of empowering women in a society that still discriminates against them. Per Wellesley’s FAQ section of their website: “Wellesley will consider for admission any applicant who lives as a woman and consistently identifies as a woman… Those assigned female at birth who identify as men are not eligible for consideration for admission.” Similarly, those who were assigned female at birth and who identify as non-binary are welcome to apply but, “that said, Wellesley is a college dedicated to the education of women…This singular focus on women is a critical part of the Wellesley experience. Wellesley accepts applications from those who were assigned female at birth and who feel they belong in our community of women.” These colleges acknowledge the importance of creating a safe and inclusive environment for students but believe that this can be done while still prioritizing the needs and experiences of women.
Despite these debates, women’s colleges continue to play a vital role in promoting women’s education and empowerment. Women’s colleges continue to produce many successful graduates who are making an impact in their communities and in the world at large. Although only 2% of American female college graduates attended women’s colleges, graduates of women’s colleges comprise more than 20% of women in Congress, and represent 30% of a Businessweek list of rising women in corporate America, as cited in Elisabeth Pfeiffer’s piece for HuffPost, Don’t Like the Gender Gap? Women’s Colleges Might Just Be the Answer. According to a study from the Women’s College Coalition, students who have attended women’s colleges are more likely than their coeducational counterparts to graduate, to have high expectations of themselves, to attend graduate school, and to be successful in their adult lives. Christina Litherland, Cottey College ’17 (she/her), underscored those sentiments when talking about her experiences at a women’s college: “Because I was at a school for women, it made me really cognizant of the challenges that women face in the world like pay disparity or dealing with management… And so that’s really where the impact, I think, is the most profound for me, because there are things that I feel very confident doing that I don’t think I would have felt otherwise, because my education wouldn’t have been taught to me through that lens, of ‘we’re preparing you to confront these situations’… I came out of my women’s college ready to take on the world.”
Moreover, according to the same study from the Women’s College Coalition cited above, women’s college graduates are more likely to value principles of diversity, inclusion, and justice. Women’s colleges receive higher effectiveness ratings for helping students learn to relate to people of different backgrounds, higher effectiveness ratings for helping students learn to be politically or socially aware, and graduates of women’s colleges are more likely to believe it is extremely important to promote racial equality or other social justice issues. These sentiments were invoked by both Litherland and Clandorf. “I think good quality education, feminism, and diversity (racial, religious, gender, sexual orientation, cultural backgrounds, food, etc.) is desperately needed in these areas, and women’s colleges have stood as spearheads and pioneers in these areas for literal centuries,” Clandorf said. In this way, women’s colleges offer a unique educational experience and can serve as models for other institutions to promote diversity and inclusion.
As they continue to wrestle with the question of how to be both inclusive and supportive of all students while still maintaining their mission of empowering women, women’s colleges will need to clearly define their value proposition in a changing world. As Litherland expressed, “The most important thing that I really wouldn’t want lost is that a woman in the future going to a woman’s college could walk out with the same level of skill set and confidence that I had when walked out in 2017.” The need for and value of women’s colleges remain.