"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.