Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Five Oldest Women's Colleges

"First" and "oldest" are tricky designations. If something starts as one type of establishment and becomes another, does it get to claim that it is the oldest? I think so, in the way that caterpillars become butterflies and kittens become cats.

Chris Bea, gentleman and scholar, asked for a list about colleges and universities. The standard "five oldest" is obvious and boring: Harvard (1636), William and Mary (1693), Yale (1701), Princeton (1746), Columbia (1754). I thought about putting together a list of the oldest co-educational colleges, but that's complicated: many colleges allowed women to audit classes before they awarded women degrees, and allowed women into certain programs but not others, so where do you draw the line?

Here, therefore, are the oldest American institutions of higher learning that still exist primarily to educate women.

1. Salem College, Winston-Salem, NC. Founded in 1772 as the "Little Girls' School," it became a boarding school for girls and young women in 1802, and was renamed Salem Female Academy in 1866. It conferred its first degrees in the 1890s. Today it is a four-year liberal arts college for women, which accepts men into continuing education and graduate degree programs. Forbes magazine ranks it 67th among "America's Best Colleges."

2. Stephens College, Columbia, MO. Established in 1833 as Columbia Female Academy, the school became Stephens Female College in the 1860s. Stephens also permits men into its Graduate and Continuing Studies division. In 1944, Stephens became the first college in the country to offer an aviation program for women. It is recognized as one of the nation's best undergraduate theater programs, and counts Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick among its alumnae.

3. Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, MO. The oldest of the "Seven Sisters" was founded in 1837, and is the oldest women's college that was originally founded as an institute of higher learning for women. Its student body of 2,200 is extremely diverse, with one in three students coming from a background other than "white American." Mount Holyoke's founder, Mary Lyon, was a chemist who believed in science education for women, and her college continues this tradition.

4. Wesleyan College, Macon, GA. I said firsts were tricky: Wesleyan College, founded in 1839, was the first women's college created specifically to grant degrees to its students. It was chartered as the "Georgia Female College" and awarded its first degrees in July 1840. Its name changed to Wesleyan Female College in 1843, then to Wesleyan College in 1917. It is also the birthplace of the first two Greek societies for women, Alpha Delta Pi and Phi Mu. Among its famous alumnae are Madame Chiang Kai-Shek (Soong May-ling) and her two sisters, three of the most influential women in modern Chinese history.

5. Moore College of Art & Design, Philadelphia, PA. Sarah Worthington King Peter, daughter of a U.S. Senator and wife of a British diplomat, founded the Philadelphia School of Design for Women in 1848. Renamed the Moore College of Art & Design in 1989, the school remains the nation's only women's visual arts college, offering Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees in ten disciplines. It has a student body of approximately 500; its distinguished alumnae include the fashion designer Adrienne Vittadini.


Sue Lin said...

My alma mater began with its charter in 1751, when Ben Franklin and colleagues combined the forerunner Charter School in Philly with a vision of the Univ of Pennsylvania.

AnswerGirl said...

My own prep school was founded in 1728 (and my college in 1789), so I always took that stuff for granted — I noticed on my first trip west how important it becomes, the newer things get.

Bea said...

St. John's College, in it's incarnation as The King William's School for Boys is actually older than Yale, Princeton & Columbia.

Thomas at My Porch said...

I was stunned a few years ago to find out that UVA didn't admit women until 1970.

Chip said...

I thought it was a list of the five colleges with the oldest women! ;-)

Anyway, I have a friend who is a Holyoke alumna. I give her grief about having attended a Druid College!

And speaking of our prep school, I had lunch with Joe Metlzer yesterday -- he and his brother were in from San Fransisco visiting their mom, and I was on a business trip to Suffolk, about five minutes from their mom's house! Haven't seen him in 20 years!

Unknown said...

Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College was founded in 1840. Its campus program remains all female.

Kristen Hollenbeck said...

You missed Bradford Academy founded in 1803, became single sex and a junion college in 1837, then be co-educational and a 4 year college in 1971. Closed in May, 2000. It is the third oldest continuously operating alumni association in the united states. Still going strong in 2014.

Anonymous said...

I live in Winston-Salem. I'm so happy. I thought Salem College was the oldest women's college in NC, but, SURPRISE!