STEP by step with the recognition of the place of woman in the community has grown the need for educating her for that place. During the last two generations her right to the opportunities of higher education has been admitted, and institutions have sprung up to provide them. These institutions have now reached a crisis in their history which challenges the attention of anyone interested in the progress of our national culture.

There are seven such colleges alike enough in history, in development, and in present interests to be pondered on and discussed by their friends as a unit, and a composite picture of them may be used to illustrate the general situation in which many others share. They are not far from one another, four in Massachusetts, the other three within a radius of a hundred miles of New York, all in the northeastern corner of the country. Their nearness in age corresponds with their geographical nearness. Though Mount Holyoke’s history as a seminary begins just short of a hundred years ago, as colleges they are none of them far from fifty: Vassar, Smith, and Wellesley have passed the half-century line; Radcliffe, Bryn Mawr, and Barnard will cross it shortly. And as they all of them represented the same period of American educational history in their founding, they arose from not dissimilar conditions and dealt with the same difficulties.

For the early years at least they made bricks with little straw. They had first to create their clientele, for communities on the whole looked on at the initial processes of this new education with little sympathy and no imagination, and discreet parents hesitated to trust their daughters to so untried a venture. The girls’ schools and seminaries of the day had devised their own courses of study to prepare their pupils for careers as wives or maiden aunts with perhaps a year’s fling at teaching; and it was a slow process either to persuade the older schools to change their ways or to encourage new schools which should lay the foundation for a further defined and difficult course and leave the fewest possible chinks of preparation unfilled. The problem of the choice of teachers in the new colleges was perplexing, and as a matter of fact variously met, for in some cases it was thought unwise, and it was often difficult, to secure men as teachers, and yet the number of women who could themselves direct the work of college students was limited. With time a kind of equilibrium was reached in all the colleges, and faculties of both men and women with substantial scholastic training were built up.1 The early colleges had small endowments and could charge only small fees, with the result that teachers worked long and late for low salaries, and it was a slow and painful business to push up the original endowments so that there were more teachers more adequately paid. From the first no one of the colleges fought shy of the question of residence. All except the two city colleges, Radcliffe and Barnard, where a large fraction of the students lived in their own homes, built dormitories and brought their young women together; and this policy was of great advantage in adding to the formal training of the curriculum the wide education given by a common intellectual life outside the classroom or laboratory hour. In face of every difficulty of space or money the principle of the residence hall persisted.

With the original likenesses far outnumbering their differences, these seven women’s colleges — and with them many others — have traveled on their fifty-year road. There has been no marked divergence on the way, and naturally enough they find themselves still at one in their situation and interests. There has been a fairly general conversion of the community. Many parents have concluded to educate their daughters at the same length and with the same thoroughness as their sons, and excellent schools, public and private, lay the foundations for college work. The original small endowments have been added to, and libraries and laboratories, as well as salaries, have been enlarged. Everywhere professional schools have been opened to properly trained women students. The hearts of communities have softened, bodies of alumnæ have grown up around each college, and each has made for itself friendships full of lively and generous interest. There is without question a glamour of temporal wellbeing around them all.

In reality, to the closer-seeing eye, beneath the glamour lie grave and immediate perplexities. The thoughtful friends of the colleges for women, who believe in their usefulness to the American community, and who see that this usefulness is ominously threatened, are themselves, as will be apparent, almost helpless in the matter. But they can at least set the situation as they see it before that community, concerned, as they believe it is, in the education of its women as well as its men.


In the seven colleges which are being used as roughly typical of all colleges for women, six hundred graduate students 2 and eight thousand undergraduates are studying. The latter, living in college halls as they do, form more or less compactly woven communities. Against this arrangement can be advanced the reproach of an artificially contrived life, but at least two great advantages can be set down in its favor. First, it provides an atmosphere in which hard and continuous mental work is possible. In each instance the college has established its own campus, large or small, set its buildings together under the vines and fig trees it has planted, and thus ensured for the working days of the week a greater freedom from outside demands and from dickering momentary interests than can be possible in most homes. This advantage is not merely negative. In the hours rescued from interruption, hours which never appear on college schedules, it is possible for the student who wishes it to have many and rich contacts with the older scholars on the faculties as well as to plunge into discussion and feel the sharp goad of her contemporaries. Second, it brings the girl perforce into touch with a variety of human beings. The women’s college is in every case the landlord of its shifting tenants. In not one has the sorority system with the sorority-controlled houses sprung up, bringing in its train — whatever its advantages may be — the disadvantages of the small intimate group with its limited responsibility in contrast to the wider interests and the democratic rubbing of elbows of the larger college community. The sex and age of the individuals in the community may be monotonous, but little else about them is. The students who live in these halls and come and go together from the classrooms and libraries and playing fields are drawn from a wide range. Mount Holyoke, Smith, and Wellesley, for example, all in a single New England state, draw respectively sixty, sixty-six, and seventy per cent of their students from states outside New England.3 And wherever there is a graduate school the range is wider still.

Again, the students come into residence together from very varying conditions. Though the great mass are of that scripturally blessed class which has

neither poverty nor riches, in the student body is represented every kind of American home. The girls have been variously prepared. Forty-seven per cent are products of the public schools all over the country, thirty-one and one-half per cent of private schools of an equally wide range, and twenty-one and one-half per cent of a combination of the two A few have prepared themselves. In the last few years more students have presented themselves than could be properly housed, fed, or taught by a conscientious administration, and, from the waiting list of girls ready to enter, it has consequently become possible to make some kind of selection. The method of this selection varies. A majority of the women’s colleges have set the entrance examination as an important factor in the choice, and all of them study the testimony available in the minutiæ of school reports, in the careful estimate of school faculties and principals, in personal interviews where possible, and in some form of mental test. No one of the colleges is entirely satisfied with its way of choosing, and every college tries incessantly to devise more accurate and satisfactory ways of choice.

With the students once admitted, and their own more direct responsibility begun, the women’s colleges have tried to see that the work was well directed. With blood and sweat, presidents or faculty committees have tried to select for their faculties proved or potential scholars, and an effort has been made to make sure at the same time that these men and women are good teachers — that they have both the dream and the interpretation thereof. On the whole the struggle has availed. The teaching staff holds a dignified and important part in the government of the college, in the devising of the curriculum, and in establishing the experiments in learning and teaching by which the college is to grow in wisdom. Curricula are of late years forever in the melting pot. From the time of the great original experiment which was to prove that a woman could actually take a man’s education, the women’s colleges have never been afraid to experiment, though they have often had to look to their scanty resources and turn away from some tempting venture. The graduate schools of Radcliffe and Bryn Mawr, boldly established simultaneously with their undergraduate schools, at once made it possible for women to go beyond the limits of the first degree, and both colleges have made a generous number of fellowships and scholarships available. For ten years Wellesley has had a two-year course in physical education for young women already college graduates, which has set a standard for the teaching and practice of hygiene and physical training in schools for girls and colleges. Vassar’s Department of Euthenics plans a completely new venture in the education of women to a particular end. Barnard’s curriculum represents a bold step away from the old and rigid requirements of the academic college — none bolder, and an honors system is in operation at Smith which is far to the fore among the many plans of similarly experimenting colleges. Several of them have made noteworthy experiments in wider fields during the summer holidays of the college proper. Smith has a Graduate School for Social Work, begun as a part of its war service, but now holding an established position among institutions of its class; Mount Holyoke a school for the study of German, which is on the way to repeat for students and teachers what has already been done elsewhere for their confrères in French and Spanish. Vassar has established a summer Institute of Euthenics with a nursery school as its handmaid. Bryn Mawr has for six years given over its buildings to a summer school for a hundred women workers in industry, an eight weeks’ session, which has proved one of the most interesting experiments in adult education in the country; and Barnard has opened a similar school for workers in New York City, young women who cannot leave their homes but can study in a nonresident school.

The libraries and laboratories of the women’s colleges are equal to those of many colleges for men, and in some cases superior in their resources. The work of the students is not seasonal; the steady routine of the year is not broken in on by feverish periods of intercollegiate athletics. But beyond and above all in importance, both to the individual college and to the whole group of women’s colleges in the country, is the fact that, with all individual exceptions allowed for, there is in general an understanding between the women’s college and the student that she has come to work seriously at a long and arduous task which is important for her as an individual, but also important because she is to be later a member of a community to which she must make a serious contribution. Not only the casual comment of the male members of her family in the president’s office, but the more deliberate judgment of members of the faculty or staff who exchange the coeducational university or the men’s college for a chair in a women’s college, testifies generously to this. The undergraduates now at work in the women’s colleges are a good gamble educationally.

That is known best, perhaps, by those who see them most. The community knows more directly through its experience of their mothers or sisters, of the many thousands of alumnæ who have been trained where the few thousands of undergraduates are studying now, that the new generations are in their turn to be an important group for the country at large. The day of these alumnæ, even in the oldest women’s colleges, has not been a long one, and graduates of the first classes at Vassar, Wellesley, and Smith are still in evidence. But, in spite of its brevity, the record of the graduate has proved her intelligence, persistence, and public spirit. Of the professional women among the number the great majority have gone into teaching. Sixteen per cent of all Vassar and Bryn Mawr graduates are teaching this year;4 twenty-five per cent of Barnard, Radcliffe, Smith, and Wellesley graduates, and from Mount Holyoke fifty per cent. Very many of these teachers, probably the greater number of them, are in public schools, but they make up in large measure the teaching staffs of the private schools in the East, and the headships of the private schools are largely in their holding. The progressive schools especially have attracted them, and in that scouting group they have contributed noteworthy experiments. They have from the beginning also taught in the college as well as the school. Naturally enough the teaching positions carrying the largest responsibilities of scholarship and the highest salaries are in the women’s colleges themselves. Unfortunately for women and unfortunately, we make bold to think, for the institutions, but a small fraction of the places on the faculties of coeducational colleges and universities are filled by women; especially in the upper reaches few women are given appointments. And though the women’s colleges have recognized that their students should be taught by men as well as women, the colleges for men have not yet ventured on this liberal attitude and there are no women on their faculties.

But the women’s colleges have done much more than supply each other reciprocally with teachers or positions; they have not lived by taking in each other’s washing. Scholars whose foundations were laid in the colleges for women have gone far afield in college teaching and administration. To illustrate from the seven colleges whose graduates are here particularly studied. It is not perhaps surprising that in other colleges, in many cases daughters of the older institutions, a president or dean or faculty member should have received her training at Mount Holyoke or Wellesley. Florida State College, Goucher, Hood, Knox, Lake Erie, Lake Forest, Mills, Milwaukee-Downer, the Pennsylvania College for Women, Russell Sage, Sweet Briar, the Western College for Women, Wheaton, all have president or dean trained in one of the seven colleges so often named. In the women’s colleges directly connected with colleges for men, at Brown, at Rutgers, and at Tufts, the three deans have had this same training. The adviser of women in the School of Education at Harvard and in the Graduate School at Yale, at the Universities of Pennsylvania and Virginia, the deans at Swarthmore, Oberlin, Leland Stanford, Pomona, the Universities of California, Colorado, and Vermont, are alumnæ of the seven women’s colleges. Three such alumnæ broke the ice to become the first deans of women at Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Cornell. But they have also gone outside the purely academic administration to which their own education more directly led. They have attacked other educational problems. The Dean of the Woman’s Medical School in Philadelphia, of Simmons College, of the Margaret Morrison School of the Carnegie Institute, of the new Curtis Institute of Music, the Director of the Resident School for Women Workers in Industry, of the Simmons School of Public Health Nursing, have all had the education of the academic college for women as their own foundation. Of the two newest experiments in colleges for women, Scripps in California and Sarah Lawrence in New York, Scripps is calling its new faculty largely from the women trained in women’s colleges and Sarah Lawrence College has named a graduate of Vassar as its first president. The much talked-of Bennington experiment includes a curriculum drawn up by a member of the Wellesley faculty, now the head of a college preparatory school.

On all alumnæ lists of professional occupations the doctor follows the teacher, and the women in the great Eastern medical schools arc largely recruited from these alumnæ. At the Cornell Medical School in 1926 twentyone out of the thirty-eight women students were graduates of colleges for women, at Johns Hopkins twenty-three out of thirty-three, at the Physicians and Surgeons in New York forty-six out of fifty-four. At the School of Nursing at Yale University, which lays stress on the importance of a college degree, out of twenty-one students with degrees twenty came from women’s colleges. In medicine, scientific research, journalism, social work, the arts, such names as Dr. Florence Sabin, Miss Annie J. Cannon, Mrs. Ogden Reid of the Herald Tribune, Miss Julia Lathrop, and Miss Theresa Helburn, Director of the Theatre Guild, represent a large number of college graduates of less fame but great usefulness.


The services of the alumnæ to their communities, whether formal or informal, whether through raising a profession or a family, are constant . There is no longer a cleavage between the married who have gone into the home and the unmarried who have gone into the professions, for the lines of separation no longer coincide. Among the women doing active and useful professional work are many who marry and have children, and an increasing number are still carrying on partor wholetime jobs outside their own homes. One may say in passing that the proportion of married graduates of the colleges for women steadily if slowly increases. It has passed fifty per cent in almost all of the women’s colleges and its trend is still upward.5 Whether she is married or not, whether she is closely tied to a profession or not, the interest of the college graduate in the community is a keen and a generous one. Many names in such an organization as the League of Women Voters, from its president down, are to be found in the college alumnæ catalogues, and it is so with such boards as the National Board of the Y. W. C. A., the Foreign Policy Association, and so forth. The retiring chairman of the American Council of Education is a graduate and the present dean of Barnard; the chairman of the College Entrance Examination Board is a graduate of the Women’s College of Brown and the president of Mount Holyoke College. The present president and a majority of the former presidents of the Association of Collegiate Alumnæ and its successor, the American Association of University Women, have been graduates of the women’s colleges. Through the country the alumnæ of women’s colleges are serving on school boards and boards of health. They are somewhat cautiously making their way into politics and serving in legislatures and on state and national committees. They are good and responsible citizens. The only conspicuous group of committees from which not only the alumnæ of the women’s colleges but women in general are absent is the boards of the great national foundations.

To those who have been closely concerned with the education of women it is natural that these colleges, which for fifty years have sent out such intelligent and socially minded graduates, should yield in importance to no other institutions or group of institutions. If women, the mothers and teachers of the next generation, are to have as good an education as their brothers, as solid, as intelligent, and as farseeing, then that education must be established so that it cannot slip backward. Further than that, it must be given every chance to advance without rigidity or restriction. The women’s colleges must parallel the education offered, not by the mediocre colleges for men, but by the colleges which train men most efficiently, for, unless women are to be less seriously trained than men, the first rank must be the same for each.

It is precisely at this point that we meet the crux of the question confronting the women’s colleges to-day. Are we in America prepared to admit the right of women to the same quality of educational opportunity as men? If we are, it follows that the institutions for women should receive financial support in proportion to the tasks laid upon them. Such support has not so far been given.

It would not, of course, be just to compare the endowments of colleges whose work is mainly undergraduate with those of universities which give graduate and professional training and undertake research on a large scale. But a comparison of the women’s with the men’s undergraduate college shows a large disproportion in invested funds. The largest of the women’s colleges, for example, has endowments yielding annually less than one hundred and twenty dollars per student, compared with five hundred dollars enjoyed by its nearest neighbor among the men’s colleges. The difference is made up by charging higher fees and by greater economy of operation. The fees have already been raised to the point where the number of students from the less well-to-do families is showing a serious decline. A substantial part of the income from increased fees has to be used for scholarships to retain our clientele even among the daughters of teachers, ministers, doctors, and other professional men on moderate salaries. It is from these classes that in our experience come the largest proportion of good minds. We need them to maintain the intellectual quality of the colleges, and it would be a great loss to the country if these girls could not be given the educational opportunities of which they make so excellent a use. We need them and their still poorer sisters to maintain the democracy which has always been a valuable element in our academic life. In spite of all our efforts the proportion of students from public high schools is steadily declining; and a relaxing of these efforts would speedily bring us to a situation in which ninety per cent of our students would come from expensive private schools. Such a result would be a calamity for all concerned.

The difference in per capita yield does not tell the whole story. In most of the men’s colleges the housing problem is largely solved by fraternities and clubs, and there are no corresponding institutions in the group of women’s colleges under discussion. Dormitories have to be built out of contributed funds, and their management increases the cost of administration. The present cost of building is such that the return from rents makes them a poor investment. The money given for fraternity houses by alumni does not appear in the assets of the men’s colleges, but it is in effect an additional endowment.

‘Greater economy of operation’ may not sound like pure loss, but it is necessary to see what it involves. Among the minor implications are restrictions on library and laboratory equipment, less opportunity for legitimate athletics, poorer apparatus, and less leisure for research on the part of the faculty. But the major implication is a smaller salary budget, involving a lower scale of salaries or fewer teachers or both. For the last ten years salaries in the men’s colleges have been steadily rising, and, the supply of able teachers being strictly limited, this means more and more severe competition. The women’s colleges have also increased salaries, partly by means of funds raised by alumnæ and a few generous outside friends and foundations, partly by means, as has been said, of higher fees. But the alumnæ are exhausted by their efforts, and the limit of higher fees has been reached for present economic conditions. We must, therefore, expect more and more to have our best men drawn away from us by our wealthier brothers.

What we are most concerned about is the quality of the intellectual life of our institutions. To maintain the present level, and still more to raise it, there must be money enough to retain our good scholars, to give them reasonable working schedules, to afford them time and resources for research and writing. Positions in the women’s colleges must be made positively as well as comparatively attractive, and this to first-rate women as well as to men.

It is easy enough to see how the situation has come about. Most of the money in the country is in the hands of men, and those disposed to give or bequeath large sums to education naturally think first of their own colleges. Even when their fortunes are at the disposal of their widows, the alma mater of a husband or son is much more likely to benefit than a college for women. To thousands of families in which both husband and wife are college-bred, simultaneous appeals have come during these last seven years for contributions to a campaign. In how many cases has the wife’s college fared as well as the husband’s?

The question which we wish to raise is one of fair play. We have sketched the history and achievements of the colleges for women. They invite scrutiny and they can stand comparison. They are eager to go on, to develop, to experiment. The material which is being sent them in great numbers consists of the daughters of men who hold them as their dearest possessions. For their physical welfare and for their pleasures they lavish their means. For the training of their minds and the development of their personalities the provision they make, in comparison with that made for their brothers, is meagre and grudging. Do Americans believe in educating women or do they not? If they do, the question is one of justice rather than of chivalry.

  1. Radcliffe drew and draws all its teaching staff from the Harvard faculty.
  2. Women graduate students in Columbia University register in the Graduate School, not in Barnard.
  3. About forty-five per cent of the undergraduate students at Harvard and about sixty per cent at Yale come from states outside New England.
  4. Forty per cent of the holders of the Master of Arts or Doctor of Philosophy degree.
  5. It is probably about the same among the sisters and cousins of college graduates who have themselves not spent the years between eighteen and twenty-two in college — that is, it is fairly representative of all the daughters of the families on college lists.