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'Sisters' don't want a future in coeducation

Women's colleges see an obligation

Former Smith College president Jill Ker Conway spoke to students at the school last month during a conference on the future of women’s colleges.
Former Smith College president Jill Ker Conway spoke to students at the school last month during a conference on the future of women’s colleges. (Amy Toensing for the Boston Globe)

They were established in the 19th century, when women had fewer opportunities than men to earn a strong liberal arts education.

Now student leaders at the colleges still known as the "Seven Sisters," even though their number has dwindled to five, are joining forces to discuss the future of women's schools. Last weekend, they gathered in Northampton and agreed that they had an obligation to maintain the traditions upon which their institutions were founded.

The meeting followed recent decisions at Regis College, the last Catholic women's college in the Boston area, and Randolph-Macon Women's College in Lynchburg, Va., to admit men starting next fall. Both schools have struggled to increase enrollment and achieve financial stability.

But the student leaders say that despite an increasing trend toward coeducation, they don't expect their respective institutions to follow a similar course. At least not any time soon.

"I think that we can maybe use this history of the Seven Sisters and band together against the threat that women don't want to come to women's colleges," said Molly McCadden, a 21-year-old senior at Smith College.

The remaining Seven Sister colleges are Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Smith, and Wellesley. As opportunities for women increased, Vassar College -- one of the original septet -- opened its doors to men in 1969. Radcliffe College officially dissolved in 1999, 22 years after its undergraduate women were absorbed into Harvard College.

Although many small women's colleges are suffering financial woes, the schools with larger endowments are seeing more applicants. Mount Holyoke, for example, set an admissions record this year with the most applicants since 2002.

In mid-September, the presidents of Hollins and Sweet Briar Colleges, both in Virginia, submitted an opinion piece to two Virginia newspapers that reaffirmed their commitment to single-sex education. Similarly, the student leaders who met on Oct. 28 agreed that their founding tradition would survive.

"I think that we have a thriving community that doesn't want to go coed," said Hallie Timm, a student parliamentarian at Mount Holyoke.

Timm, 19, applied only to women's schools two years ago. After attending an all-girls' high school, Timm said she agreed with research that showed that women performed better in a single-sex environment. Last week, the federal government altered its policy on single-sex education, granting greater latitude to public schools to create single-sex classes and schools, as long as students attend voluntarily.

Timm said the trend among small women's colleges is frightening.

"I treasure the single-sex education," she said. "But if the choice is to close or go coed, honestly I would be more saddened by [my school] closing."

Whatever direction women's colleges take, Eman Bataineh, 21, Barnard student government president, said alumnae should advocate for their institutions.

"There's more hope for the women's college if you can still maintain the ideologies behind having a women's college and behind education that is socially conscious, in terms of thinking about gender and sexuality," she said. "As long as that stays, it'll be a little better than turning coed and forgetting why there was a women's college to begin with."

April Simpson can be reached at

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