Challenged by Coeducation: Women's Colleges Since the 1960s

reviewed by B. Lara Lee - May 08, 2007

coverTitle: Challenged by Coeducation: Women's Colleges Since the 1960s
Author(s): Leslie Miller-Bernal and Susan L. Poulson (Eds.)
Publisher: Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville
ISBN: 0826515436, Pages: 418, Year: 2007
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The debate over single-sex versus coeducation is a topic that ebbs and flows in level of intensity and controversy depending on the current social polity. Most will remember the vehemence and hostilities along with court cases that ensued when women attempted to enter and attend the all-male fortresses of the Citadel and the Virginia Military Institute. The Supreme Court eventually ruled that both schools had unconstitutional admissions policies and practices. These events in many ways mirror the early resistance towards women’s higher education in this country and particularly the sharing of classrooms with male university students. The residue of this resistance as well as the historically separate spheres of activity for women and men remains at the core of the gender equity debate in education. The deeper struggle for women’s colleges to survive has much to do with sex-gender equity and the traversing of social frameworks deeply rooted in patriarchal instantiations and hegemony rather than simply polarity over separate learning environments (Lee, 1997; 2006).

Though a democratic republic, consideration of women’s eligibility for higher learning did not materialize in the United States for well over a century (Woody, 1966, 1974). Separate institutions of higher learning for women began to appear in the United States during the mid to late 1800s taking the form of seminaries, preparatory schools or annexes to existing male schools. Often the early curriculums of women’s schools emphasized the honing of females into suitable wives and mothers. Eventually some of these academies established themselves as bona fide colleges. Those of primary note are the Seven Sisters—long recognized as a constellation of ivy-league elite academic institutions for women.1 Reputations as stellar academic institutions emerged as each college patterned curriculums on the male model of excellence required in elite male academic institutions.

The demise of women’s colleges has escalated with approximately 60 in existence today as compared to 233 in 1960. Women’s single-sex schools have long been on the endangered species list in this country due to legal vulnerabilities, student consumerism, low enrollments and fiscal matters. Some have succumbed to coeducation, while others have negotiated a mixed college with collaborative admissions and coresidences. Still others have grown significantly dependent upon revenues derived from non-traditional age enrollments (creating a separate set of controversies). Others simply closed their doors. Men’s colleges too, have experienced their own set of challenges. Challenged by Coeducation provides an historical backdrop and longitudinal assessment of the status of variously selected women’s colleges in the United States and the United Kingdom. As stated in the authors’ preface:

The book’s five sections partly reflect the fundamental outcomes for women’s colleges since the 1960s: a brief history of women’s colleges; a review of institutions that have adopted coeducation or have closed; studies of several women’s colleges that are still single sex; a look at some coordinate women’s colleges; and a conclusion that reflects upon the struggles women’s colleges face either in maintaining their single-sex status or in striving for gender equity while adopting coeducation. (p. ix)

It is important to consider the radical changes needed in mission, leadership, organization, culture, language, facilities and so forth to effect a triumphant reinvention of organizational identity from single-sex to coeducation. Challenges at Vassar, Wheaton, Mundelein College, Texas Woman’s University and Wells College were made more complex by the shifts in sociocultural and political climates during the 1960s and ‘70s. The women’s social movement along with the rise of feminism proved to be powerful counterpoints to these schools’ adoption of coeducation. Of these colleges, it appears that Vassar underwent lesser hostilities and intense protestations to coeducation.

The trajectory for Vassar’s election of coeducation may have actually begun in 1948 with the Mellon study, which did much to aid the institution in reevaluating its future. The college undertook considerable ongoing investigation of the possibility of coeducation. Some of the findings claimed that perspectives in learning were skewed by a heavily dominated female presence and point of view. Similarly, Wheaton College transitioned from a 150-year old women’s college to coeducation. Noteworthy is the fact that Wheaton was an outgrowth “of a larger movement for women’s education initiated by reformers such as Mary Lyon, Emma Willard, Catherine Beecher, and Zilpah Grant” (p. 48). Ultimately, a philosophy was drafted to draw upon its history as a women’s college while attempting to equitably educate women and men together in the promotion of justice in the world.

Challenges can become even more complex when a women’s college is distinctly predicated on religious values such as Mundelein College, whose mission was a Catholic education for females. In 1962, then president Gannon questioned and examined the legitimacy of the existence of Mundelein. A shift in mission statement occurred when “the new focus at Mundelein was to educate Catholic women to be leaders in creating and directing social change” (p. 82). Changes that occurred throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s “reflected the ecumenical energies of the Second Vatican Council and the recognition of the principles of religious freedom, as well as of the changing status of women in U.S. society” (p. 83). Simultaneously in the 1960s the college and its students began to recognize the need to “celebrate diversity” (p. 84). Questions of freedom and the practice of birth control became volatile issues that Mundelein, along with the Catholic Church at large, had to answer. A negotiated policy arose wherein the focus would remain on the education of Catholic women, while allowing males to attend.

Texas Women’s University had an idiosyncratic founding in 190l. It was established to provide a liberal arts education for “white girls of Texas” (p. 108). Its establishment was hard won after considerable struggle to provide females an “educational counterpart to the all-male Texas Agricultural and Mechanical (A&M) College” (p. 110). By 1972, entrance was extended to some male students. As recently as 1994, some majors excluded male students. A prominent case involved what was termed reverse discrimination. The courts ruled that the University was required to open all majors and programs to males for constitutional compliancy. Currently, even with the inclusion of males on campus, the emphasis is on women’s education involving women’s studies and leadership programs.

Initially established as a seminary, Wells College sought to provide an education centered on “the refinement of its wealthy women students” (p. 146). Fiscal problems began to plague the institution in the 1970s. As with many other women’s colleges, Wells’ administration recognized that coeducation was the key to its survival. Debates, resignations, protests and litigations worked toward resisting coeducation until the 2005-06 academic year when a change in status was put into effect.

The authors selected Mills, Simmons and Spelman as examples of women’s colleges that survived coeducation. Serious financial hardships caused the broaching of the topic of coeducation in 1963 at Mills. Consideration was given to the possibility of a “coordinate college on campus for men” (p. 180). Increased graduate enrollments by the 1970s to early ‘80s helped stave off coeducation. Due to fierce activism, the decision of coeducation in 1990 was repealed. A key shift in curriculum innovation for the forthcoming decade was the training of women as future leaders through the establishment of the Women’s Leadership Institute. However, the administration recognizes the need to continue to strengthen enrollments and a continuance in academic evolution.

Unlike some women’s colleges that sought to recruit privileged females, Simmons targeted the working class emphasizing vocational training. Early on the school was viewed in the community of private schools as less than collegiate. Even the Association of Collegiate Alumnae (ACA), a forerunner of the American Association of University Women (AAUW), “fought against state recognition of Simmons as a women’s college” (p. 210). By the 1960s the college had fundamentally “redefined the curriculum” emphasizing the need to prepare women for “an independent living” (p. 218). The college has gone through considerable change since its unassuming founding. To date, the school survives and is fortified against coeducation due to its focus as a “predominately graduate institution without losing its focus on the education of undergraduate women” (p. 238). Its internal strength is attributed to its “consciousness about women’s positions and abilities in society” (p. 238).

The Atlanta Baptist Seminary for Girls, best known since 1924 as Spelman College, has enjoyed a unique history beyond that of a college initially dedicated to the education of African American women. Unlike many, if not most other women’s colleges, Spelman has not struggled for survival but has “flourished” (p. 234). In contrast to its two white founders, the college appointed its first black female president in 1987, the well-respected Dr. Johnetta Cole, serving until 1997. Spelman has continued to “sharpen[ed] its focus on the realities of life for black women and designed a curriculum and institutional culture to propel them into positions of leadership and responsibility” (pp. 252-253).

As an institutional survival tactic, there was serious discussion of establishing a federation among the College of Notre Dame of Maryland (CNDM), Mount Saint Agnes, and Loyola University. At its heart, CNDM preferred remaining a women’s college. Innovative educational strategies, a five-year plan, government funding, continual education, a Weekend College, graduate studies, and laypersons in leadership were appropriated to assure that end. The school elected to work cooperatively with its counterpart Catholic schools without a formal merging, allowing it to remain a college dedicated to training women as future leaders “to transform the world” (p. 279).

As previously addressed, Barnard is a member of the Seven College Conference established in 1915. Barnard began its existence as an Annex to Columbia University similar in structure to the arrangement forged between Radcliffe and Harvard (Lee, 1997). Collaboration was formed between Barnard and Columbia while Barnard fought relentlessly to maintain its autonomy and identity. Columbia moved from a single-sex institution for men to coeducation. Barnard remains a college dedicated to the educating of highly capable females and is strengthened by its negotiated collaboration with Columbia.

Two women’s colleges, Girton and Newnham, emerged from the five hundred-year-old male tradition of Cambridge University. Girton was established in 1869 while Newnham was founded in 1871. Women “were granted titular degrees…but they still did not receive an official degree…nor could they proceed to a master’s degree” (p. 332). It was not until 1947 that Cambridge University finally included women in its academic system and bequeathed degrees. In 1972 women were admitted into Cambridge. By 1976 men were admitted to Girton. In 1977, plans were in progress to implement coresidences. Since having become a mixed college, “Girton’s standing in the Tompkins League of tripos results has gone from one of the top colleges to one of the lowest” (p. 343). As with other women’s colleges, “many people at Girton believe that the main problem the college faces for the future is inadequate finances” (p. 347). The school continues to “recognize women’s special needs” (p. 349) as well as expand its commitment to diversity.

Newnham has undergone lesser change than that experienced by Girton since the 1970s. However, adverse consequences arose when Girton and Newnham became mixed colleges due to “men’s colleges becoming mixed and taking the academic ‘cream’ of women students…” (p. 353). Further concerns facing Newnham are low academic results and low enrollments, particularly among qualified students. This college too, has faced its share of financial obstacles. Differing from other schools within the Cambridge University system, Newnham has both all female faculty and fellows, which some believe is neither favorable nor would this arrangement withstand legal rebuttal. Discussions and debates continue over the benefits of a future coresidential structure at Newnham. A benefit to some is that women attending these academic institutions also have access to coeducation, provided by Cambridge University.

An obvious conclusion made by the authors is that coeducation remains the most significant challenge to the existence and survival of women’s colleges. Noteworthy is the fact that according to the authors, most existing women’s colleges have dramatically changed in mission, identity and other factors to attract students, increase enrollments, and survive. On the one hand, it is conveyed that single-sex colleges are for the most part anachronisms and passé. However, the reputations of elite women’s colleges (and other women’s colleges) demonstrate that females appear to excel in a separate learning environment. Other factors impinge on the survival of women’s colleges such as student consumerism, locality, fiscal soundness, academic/historical reputation or emphasis on traditionally marginalized ethnic populations, and admittance of women to previously all-male academic institutions among other variables. The final judgment is that these surviving women’s colleges may not be able to justify their separatist existence indefinitely.

As for schools that adopted coeducation, the authors state that women need to be “celebrated” along with the issue of gender equity placed at the forefront of administrative policy. Interesting and palpable is the authors claim that “it is ironic to label the admission of men to women’s colleges as becoming ‘coeducation,’ since ‘coed’ was originally a derogatory term applied to women at formerly men's institutions” (p. 375). Significant is the fact that, in essence, women’s colleges operate from the same dominant educational model and paradigm as coeducation “unless dominant ideologies and social politics are challenged through progressive pedagogy and praxis” along with transformation of curriculum and curricula (Lee, 2006, p. 88). According to Rich (as cited in Gmelch, 1998):

if there is any misleading concept, it is that of ‘coeducation’: that because women and men are sitting in the same classrooms, hearing the same lectures, reading the same books, performing the same laboratory experiments, they are receiving an equal education. They are not, first because the content of education validates men even as it invalidates women. (p. 29)

As an historical account, overall, the book works well. Understandably, the authors sought to provide readers a factual historical account of events surrounding the struggles of selected women’s college in a coeducational society. There is, however, no deconstruction of women’s oppression tethered to the roots and controls of hegemony, patriarchy, and even religion within Western society, all of which contributed to women’s exclusion from higher education along with dictating appropriate sex-gender role expectations for females and males. Missing is any examination of the role of patriarchy as the single most toxic cause of sex-gender divisiveness and hostilities (Cole-Guy-Sheftall, 2003; hooks, 2004; Johnson, 2005). The authors recognize that “the major challenge for women’s colleges today is the firmly entrenched norm of coeducation that exists at all levels of our educational system from primary school to higher education” (p. 375). Absent is the intersection of coeducational dominance and male privilege in all sectors of society, which bears firmly on the survival of women’s colleges and specifically on matters of equity in education. The underlying message is that women’s colleges appear unlikely to survive the challenges of coeducation. Poignantly, there is considerable research proffering approaches toward gender holistic classrooms and communal learning that go unaddressed. The book communicates an important account of social trends and historical dispositions of selected women’s colleges rather than engaging in a critical analysis of the status quo impacting the practices and policies of the dominant higher educational system.


1 Lee (1997). The Seven Sisters were initially established as women’s colleges between 1865 and 1890 and are best known as the elite group of colleges comprised of Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar and Wellesley. Radcliffe and Vassar have since adopted coeducation.


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Lee, B. L. (2006). A classroom of her own: Hegemonic discursive disempowerment of the female progressive educator within higher education. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. University of North Carolina Greensboro, NC.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 08, 2007 ID Number: 14477, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 11:25:41 AM

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