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Women's Colleges and Universities in a Global Context

reviewed by Saundra Nettles & Alana D. Murray - June 11, 2015

coverTitle: Women's Colleges and Universities in a Global Context
Author(s): Kristen A. Renn
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
ISBN: 1421414775, Pages: 192, Year: 2014
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Women’s Colleges and Universities in a Global Context is a groundbreaking study of the contemporary roles of these institutions of higher education. Author Kristen A. Renn presents a carefully-crafted account of the contributions these venues make in the lives of women who study and work in them. The book is organized into an introduction, eight chapters, and the appendix.

In Chapter One, Renn places her inquiry within historical and international perspectives on women’s education. She frames the study within the worldwide need to improve society through the education of girls and women. Co-educational institutions far outnumber all-female colleges and universities and also provide education for the majority of women. Renn writes, “This reality raises one question: “Why would someone with other options choose a women’s institution?—and leads to a larger one—What are women’s colleges for in the twenty-first century?” (p. 2).

Chapter Two, supplemented by the appendix, describes the research method, a multi-site case study designed to address the second, overarching question. At thirteen colleges and universities selected for geographic, cultural, and other dimensions of diversity, Renn conducts interviews, observes activities, and examines archival materials. Portraits of institutions (in Australia, Canada, China, India, Italy, Japan, Kenya, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom) are included in the chapter. Chapters Three through Seven discuss the five roles that emerge from observations and analyses of data from the thirteen institutions.

Chapter Three presents the findings concerning the role of women’s colleges and universities in providing access to higher education. Legal access, in its strictest sense, is virtually universal, but in local areas there remain pockets of resistance from extremist religious and political organizations. Other forms of access remain useful: a) academic, for women applicants who (for varied reasons) cannot be admitted to the most selective co-educational colleges and universities; b) financial, for those of modest means; and c) cultural, for women who are constrained by or prefer culturally acceptable venues.

Chapter Four addresses the role of campus climate in fostering women’s progress in STEM and other academic fields, personal development, and support and expectations for students, faculty, and campus leaders. Renn observes that in women’s postsecondary environments, women experience a warm atmosphere that contributes to work and study as serious learners, scholars, and administrators.

In Chapter Five, Renn reports her findings on student leadership development, the third role that emerged from the inquiry. Renn notes that leadership development in organizations (such as student government and sports teams) is an essential function of women’s colleges and universities. Renn finds that women received opportunities to refine skills such as public speaking as well as access to powerful networks of alumnae.

The role of gender empowerment is the topic of Chapter Six. Renn introduces the findings with a consideration of the multiple meanings of empowerment. She chooses Stromquist’s (2002) definition of four dimensions (cognitive, political, personal, and economic) that capture the observations she makes at the sites. In Renn’s observations, these institutions contribute to women’s gender empowerment through different aspects of intellectual life (e.g., women’s studies courses, community education, and special events such as international symposia). Gender empowerment is also fostered through cultural activities, activism, and symbolic support represented in the reasons (STEM education, education for adult women) for the establishment of a given institution.

The fifth and final role of the women’s postsecondary institutions, presented in Chapter Seven, highlights the symbolism, inherent contradictions and paradoxes which undergird the women’s college and university experience. For example, Renn notes that the institutions represented increased career opportunities for their graduates while simultaneously demonstrating how these settings also reified gender stereotypes. She also questions the low pay of faculty members in some of the schools studied and the perpetuation of the elite as examples of the contradictions inherent in the mission of single sex institutions.

The last chapter summarizes the findings by highlighting how women’s institutions are effective, and the extent to which co-educational institutions can replicate particular strengthsuch as a warm and supportive campus climate. She asks a question that is germane for further study: “What is the future of single sex postsecondary education worldwide?” (p. 137). In addressing the question, she uses intersectional analyses to understand how being embedded in varied spheres influences curriculum, climate, and the lives of those who study in, teach, and lead women’s colleges and universities. Renn’s consideration of the intersection of culture and gender in India provides a particularly strong illustration. An intersectional analysis of race would have been helpful; however, Renn provides an exemplary framework for future scholars to examine women in the global higher education context.

Vignettes and comments from the research participants, as well as the author’s first person descriptions of campus experiences and environments enhance the overall trustworthiness of the data and accessibility of the text for general audiences. As issues emerge regarding education in women’s postsecondary institutions (Padawar, 2104), this germinal volume will be especially timely and useful for women’s studies, global studies, student services, and educational leadership and policy.


Padawer, R. (2014, October 19). Sisterhood is complicated: What is a women’s college when gender is fluid? The New York Times Magazine, pp. 34–39, 48–50.

Renn, K. A. (2014). Women’s colleges and universities in a global context. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Stromquist, N. P. (2002). Education as a means for empowering women. In J. L. Parpart, S. M. Rai, & K. Staudt (Eds.), Rethinking empowerment: Gender and development in a global/local world (pp. 22–28). London: Routledge.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 11, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17990, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 10:51:14 AM

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About the Author
  • Saundra Nettles
    University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
    E-mail Author
    SAUNDRA NETTLES is a clinical professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Nettles’s research and theoretical interests include neighborhood, community and other environmental influences on child and youth outcomes; educational equity for girls and women; and psychology of Black women. Dr. Nettles has published in numerous journals, including Psychology of Women Quarterly, Child Development, Review of Educational Research, and Social Psychology of Education. Her recent article, "Aging Women of Color: Engagement and Place," will appear in Women & Therapy in 2016.
  • Alana Murray
    Parkland Magnet Middle School
    E-mail Author
    ALANA D. MURRAY is an assistant principal at Parkland Magnet Middle School in Montgomery County, MD. Dr. Murray’s major teaching and research interests are in of social studies education. She is a co-editor of the 2004 resource guide entitled, Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching. Her recent chapter, “Countering the master narrative in history education: Nannie H. Burroughs and New Narratives in History Education,” appeared in the 2012 volume, Histories of Social Studies and Race, 1865-2000, edited by C.A. Woyshner and C. H. Bohan.
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