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I'm Radcliffe. Fly Me! The Seven Sisters and the Failure of Women's Education


reviewed by Sonya Shapiro - 1978

coverTitle: I'm Radcliffe. Fly Me! The Seven Sisters and the Failure of Women's Education
Author(s): Liva Baker
Publisher: MacMillan Publishing, Indianapolis
ISBN: 0025063103, Pages: , Year: 1976
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If Liva Baker's title I'm Radcliffe Fly Mel sounds flippant, it only dramatizes in popular terms her charge that America's most prestigious women's colleges, the "seven sisters," have allowed themselves to be treated as the second sex. In a forceful accusation she calls on them to assume the leadership role for which they were supposedly created. Her indictment of them for their lack of meaningful direct impact, after almost a century of existence, on women's status in our society is skillfully accomplished. This in-depth study, using extensive historical evidence, results in a well-researched, documented, and convincing presentation.


The sister colleges emanated from intellectual radicalism and the two most significant human rights movements of the nineteenth century—abolition and women's suffrage. In view of this, their performance is understandably disappointing. Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley were forerunners in the revolution to provide superior education for women. Although they produced many intellectual superwomen, Liva Baker believes that these colleges as a whole unfortunately have had little overall effect on society at large. They have ignored their responsibility as women's institutions to fulfill their birthright by failing to continue to pressure for greater social, political, and economic emancipation for women. Her fear is that these colleges may be doomed to obscurity and that their proud achievements may be remembered only by sentimental alumnae. Despite these shortcomings, Liva Baker offers a most compelling justification for supporting, strengthening, and continuing the seven sister colleges as single-sex institutions.


The seven sisters can provide the special settings where women can compete amongst themselves to best develop leadership qualities. However, although they can take credit for training women leaders such as Margaret Mead and Helen Keller, and leaders of women such as Gloria Steinam and Betty Freidan, Ms. Baker points out that they have for the most part developed into training grounds to educate and groom followers, helpmates, and wives for the male leaders and professional men graduating from the prestigious men's colleges. Her point that these colleges cannot be excused from their mandate to emancipate as well as to educate women is well taken.


Of course, it could be further argued that wives and mothers are not precluded, per se, from being liberated women and contributing to society. Unfortunately Liva Baker does not deal with the point of view that women will be indeed emancipated when they feel free enough to solve the pervasive femininity/achievement conflict (a dilemma articulated by Matina S. Horner of Radcliffe and discussed in a recently published book1). Women will in fact be liberated when they can understand, accept, and balance their unique needs and make their own choices so as to develop their fullest potential in each phase in their lives.


Liva Baker further accuses the sister colleges of op ting for secure, respectable, and status-quo curricula based on middle-class mores. They have lagged behind other more aggressive institutions by failing to develop education specifically designed to meet the particular and pressing needs of contemporary women. While their curricula were based on safe imitations of courses found in the men's colleges, other institutions developed and provided women's studies courses and programs. Although one may debate the pros and cons of these courses, it is appropriately pointed out that the bulk of foundation grants for research in the field of women's studies is presently going to institutions such as MIT and the University of California. The failure of America's most prestigious women's schools, as precursors of women's education in the United States, to initiate dialogues and create specific curricula and educational programs tailored to meet the present-day political, emotional, and social needs of women is almost unforgivable. Just as women must stop defining themselves in terms of their relationships with others, such as wives of their husbands, mothers of their children, or daughters of their parents, so must the seven sisters stop defining themselves in terms of their relationships with the men's colleges.


Their conspicuous absence from civil rights and women's rights movements is criticized. Ms. Baker is also troubled by these colleges' failure to participate significantly in the world of higher education by neither providing visible representation at educational conferences nor being a force to gain entry for women into administrative positions. Although the seven sisters cannot be held solely responsible for the inability of women to break through the iron curtain surrounding high-level administrative positions in higher education, there is no doubt that Liva Baker's plea that they become more intensively involved in the struggle for academic equality is meaningful.


The failure of the seven sister colleges to respond to the hottest item in higher education today, returning adult women, is viewed with great distress by Ms. Baker. She eloquently chastises them for lagging behind in providing educational opportunities for the increasing number of women who "stopped out" when they were younger and who are now returning for further education and reentry into careers. The fact that Sarah Lawrence and Radcliffe have finally created programs for these "high risk" women is encouraging, but, on the whole, it is clear that the seven sisters are still guilty of maintaining the "youth ghettos" so appropriately identified by Ernest Boyer, United States Commissioner of Education.2 Unless the colleges break the barriers for returning women in their degree programs and provide the special policies essential to accommodate such students, their commitment to serve the educational needs of women cannot be completely fulfilled.


The seven sisters must demonstrate that they have something distinctive to offer potential students if they are not to be doomed to function defensively. They are perennially reexamining their single-sex status and their relationships with affiliate colleges. Since Princeton and Yale have gone coed and since other institutions are offering more meaningful women's experiences, the sisters, according to Liva Baker, are no longer the first choice of the very top women students. As illustrated, Vassar's loss of identity proves that coeducation is not the answer. The financial crunch and shrinking college-age populations forecasting empty seats on the horizon cannot be ignored.


It is only when the seven sisters emerge again as the vanguard for the liberation of women that they will serve the purpose for which they were created. They joined together as a collegiate sisterhood long before the idea of the present-day sisterhood of women emerged. The original collegiate sisterhood concept strongly resembled the women activists of the 1960s and 1970s. Somewhere along the line the seven sisters lost touch with this activism. When this common bond for the emancipation of women is revitalized, the sister colleges' original and still vital purposes and goals will be achieved.


Although she sternly censures them for their failures, Liva Baker affirms her belief in the survival of the seven sister colleges and in effect provides a most powerful treatise for their preservation and support as women's colleges of the highest standards. It is only when our weaknesses and failings are examined and evaluated that our objectives can successfully be realized. Liva Baker should be applauded for making an important contribution to higher education by clarifying the role the seven sister colleges must play in the continuing struggle for the education and liberation of women.




1 Margaret Henning and Anne Jardin, The Managerial Woman (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1977).

2 W. Dykman Vermilye, ed., Lifelong Learners—A New Clientele for Higher Education (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1975).



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 79 Number 3, 1978, p. 551-553
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1180, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 7:25:40 PM

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