THE NAMING of a woman president of Harvard is a giant step for womankind and for Harvard itself, long a bastion of white-male privilege. That the new president will cross the street from Radcliffe Yard to Harvard Yard seems especially freighted with symbolic import. Because women are no longer excluded from the academy, and because, like Drew Gilpin Faust, they are in greater numbers assuming positions of leadership within it, some might think that women's colleges are now redundant or outmoded and that they should, therefore, follow Radcliffe's example by either assimilating into a formerly all-male institution or going coed themselves. While many have done so, about 60 women's colleges remain in this country, and only one of the "Seven Sisters," Vassar, went coed and did that in 1969, nearly 40 years ago. Why do Mount Holyoke, Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Smith, and Wellesley -- and dozens of other women's colleges -- stubbornly carry on as single-sex institutions?
Key to understanding this is remembering how recently, and sometimes how begrudgingly, women have been invited into male institutions. It has been only for a generation or two, not long enough to wipe out vestiges of sexism. Charles Eliot, a longtime president of Harvard, said in his 1869 inaugural address that he had doubts about the "natural mental capacities" of the female sex, a remark eerily echoed by a recent Harvard president.
A woman's college, in contrast, is the equivalent of Virginia Woolf's "room of one's own," a college of women's own, free of many of the inhibiting presumptions of the male-dominated world. With its own powerful traditions, norms, and values, and a sense of wholeness sui generis, a women's college helps to develop in students a sense of confidence, competence, and agency. Graduates are more able to see gender-repression when they encounter it and to distinguish between personal and systemic barriers to success.
Women's colleges are not about separating women from the world but about encouraging them to be active agents within it. Although the colleges educate a tiny percentage of women students, their graduates are overrepresented in positions of influence. Prominent women's college alumnae have filled both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill in recent years and include Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Elaine Chao, Madeline Albright, Donna Shalala, and Christine Todd Whitman. Four of the 10 women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies in 2006 graduated from women's colleges. Faust herself is yet another women's college graduate who will head a major institution.
Despite considerable success, the work that women's colleges pioneered -- and now share with coeducational institutions -- is far from complete. Dishearteningly, so few women are at the top: they fill only 2 percent of CEO positions and 14.7 percent of board seats on Fortune 500 companies; 21 percent of college and university presidencies; 14 percent of senators and 16 percent of members of the House. In fact, the United States ranks 69th in the world in terms of women's representation in national legislatures or parliaments out of 187 countries. Four decades after the Equal Pay Act, women earn on average 77 cents of every dollar of their male counterparts.
Women are dramatically underrepresented in sciences and engineering, although women's colleges are more than doing their part: Mount Holyoke, for example, is first among all liberal-arts colleges in producing women who went on to receive US doctorates in the life sciences and in the physical sciences from 1966 to 2004. This put it in the top 2 percent of all colleges and universities, some many times its size. So too does affordability inhibit access to higher education -- and again women's colleges are leading the way in a way that might surprise: In 2004, among the nation's 30 highest-ranked liberal arts colleges, the five historic Sisters have the five highest percentages of low-income students enrolled in undergraduate programs, which include older women and students from developing countries.
Educational opportunity for girls and women in some parts of the world is nothing short of bleak. In keeping with their historic roles, Mount Holyoke and Smith formed in 2004 a new alliance called Women's Education Worldwide, drawing together over 40 women's institutions from five continents, including newly emerging ones in Kenya, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Bahrain, and Bangladesh. Their goal is to work together to advocate for the education and advancement of women of the world.
Women's colleges continue to be extraordinary instruments for generating what Robert Putnam has called "social capital" and promoting positive change in a world that devalues them. Now more than ever the world needs them.
Joanne V. Creighton is president of Mount Holyoke College.