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Sisters from Day One

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While the nickname that dubbed Bryn Mawr, Smith, Mount Holyoke, Wellesley, Barnard, Vassar and Radcliffe as the Seven Sisters came around in 1926, the ideals that these seven women’s colleges were founded upon have a much lengthier history. (Horowitz, xvi)   The most basic mission that laid the foundations for the Seven Sisters towards the end of the 19th century was to provide an education in the liberal arts similar if not equal or better than the education that colleges for men provided.  Looking back to the history of women’s rights, at that time women did not yet have the right to vote and education for women was a very rare occurrence.  However, over a century later, entering an era of third wave feminism and we find that only two of the original seven sisters have decided to go coeducational, with Vassar deciding to admit male students ever since 1969 and Radcliffe completely merging with Harvard in 1999.   It is obvious as to why women’s colleges were founded in the first place, but as to why they still exist is the question.  Furthermore, the cultural norms that allowed (or even forced) women’s colleges to be founded, starting with Mount Holyoke in 1885, have certainly changed since, so how have the missions of the remaining women’s colleges in the Seven College Conference changed?


As a member of the Seven Sisters, why I chose a women’s college over the several coeducational colleges and universities that I applied to and got accepted to is not yet obvious. I am a freshman from Maine, and to be quite frank I have never even considered myself a feminist, nor have I even given the issue much thought before being welcomed on campus.  I have previously considered myself to be a rather naïve and non-political person and never really planned to attend a women’s college, yet here I am and proud to be Bryn Mawr.  Although I have only been on campus for almost four months now, I have been able to get a sense of what attending a women’s college such as Bryn Mawr comes to mean.  Upon looking at the Bryn Mawr website, I see a mission that includes ideas such as “intense intellectual commitment”, “self-directed and purposeful vision in her life” and “a desire to make a meaningful impact on the world.”  The Bryn Mawr mission talks about “rigorous education” and “preparation for life and work.”   It also includes notions such as fostering “close working relationships between faculty and students” and discusses such implications as the “social and academic honor code.”   While all of this sounds promising, does separating a community just for women from the real world fit into how society is today, in a world where equality, not only between sexes, is on the forefront?  How about living in a community where competition is governed to be with yourself only and where mutual respect and personal integrity are demanded, in a world where competition has been deemed a basic tenet of evolution and where hate and rage is a basic human emotion?       


For those around me and apart of the Seven Sisters, women’s college make sense in the 21st century.  Katherine Bakke, a Bryn Mawr freshman from Portland, Oregon, feels that attending a women’s college was something that she knew she wanted.  After becoming close with a group of girls during her junior year in high school, Katherine says that, “when I received a pamphlet in the mail from Barnard, I realized that I wanted to go to a women’s college…[and decided on Bryn Mawr because] the ideals of intellectual commitment and the idea that Bryn Mawr women reach out into the community aligned with my own ideals.  I wanted to go to a school that would be hard and challenging.”   As for Emma Dalton, class of 2010 at Smith College, “I wanted to be somewhere where I could learn and grow; the gender of the other students kind of doesn't matter there.  I chose Smith because it was a hugely welcoming environment, and when I was a prospective student everyone was really excited about the possibility of my coming here, more so than at the other places.”  Ultimately, some actually sought out women’s college in particular, while others seemed to stumble upon their respective sister college without necessarily paying full attention to the college not being coeducational, but all in all, women’s colleges make sense to them.   However, to fully understand why women’s colleges still thrive today and are continuously ranked among the best liberal arts colleges in the nation, we must turn to the founding principles and missions.

The beginning of it all was Mount Holyoke and more specifically, Mary Lyon, the mother of the Seven Sister Colleges. Being one of eight children on a farm in Buckland County, Massachusetts during the dawn of the 19th Century, Mary Lyon was undoubtedly expected to conform to certain norms, mainly, being a housewife and mother.  When her father died at age six and her mother remarried shortly thereafter taking her two younger sisters with her, she was left with her one brother, tending to her father’s farm.  Her brother paid her one dollar a week for taking care of the farm and when she was seventeen she started making an extra seventy-five cents a week by teaching at a local school.  After saving up her money for two years, she left Buckland Country to go to school at Sanderson Academy in New Hampshire.  There, she fell in love with learning.  She memorized the entirety of Latin grammar in just one weekend and began to obsessively become more educated.  She was able to stay at Sanderson Academy for another term thanks to the her friend’s father, Joseph Emerson, who even let her stay with his family.  Over the next few years, Lyon taught at several different schools and attended Byfield School, where Emerson was the head master.   Here, she met the woman who would be her mentor and good friend, Zilpah Grant, who happened to be Emerson’s assistant and three years older than Lyon.  Lyon considered Grant her surrogate mother and they became very close.  She followed her and began teaching at Sanderson Academy and from the years 1823-1834, she worked under Grant at Adams and Ipswich female seminaries.  Over these next years, she was able to powerfully shape women’s higher education with the help of Zilpah.  After her mother committed suicide in 1827, Lyon witnessed her sister’s depression and often visited her in the asylum where she was institutionalized.   It was when she saw the daily routine and discipline in the asylum where her sister stayed in that she began to implement similar ideas and concepts of the asylum regime at the Ipswich Seminary.  Grant and Lyon started planning out each day, starting with a wake-up bell at 5 AM for the women during the summer and 6 AM during the winters.  The two women implemented such schedules to allow external government to turn into self-government.  They wanted to instill upon the young women who attended the seminaries a “virtue of a clear schedule and punctuality as a way of meeting one’s own inner standard” (Horowitz, 14).  The two women had the students live with the townspeople and converted a tavern into a boarding house for thirty students, where they also lived.  However, they found that this new communal life caused a lot of problems that went against the regime which Grant and Lyon installed.  The students became very noisy and they socialized in the hall-ways and came to meals late.  In an effort to solve these new problems, Grant and Lyon implemented an even more intense regime with a system of bells to mark a change in period or task of the day.  Also, the two women set up a self-reporting system that required the young women to confess actions that went against this new system to turn “external authority, inward” (Horowitz, 15).  Grant thought that the system ‘established the real authority of the Principle in the hearts of the pupils…rather than in them or over them” (Horowitz, 15).  The whole purpose of this regiment was to set apart this school from all the rest and the outward distinguishing factor was that it was called a seminary rather than an academy.   “The seminary system broke into a woman’s life, previously governed by natural rhythms, and imposed on it the new order of her father and brother” (Horowitz, 15). 


But most importantly, the seminary allowed for the imitation of mother-daughter relationships.  Having only female professors and authoritative figures, the teacher-student relationship was able to also replicate the mother-daughter relationship.  It is in this idea that Lyon was passionate about.  Not having a substantial relationship with her own mother, she desperately wanted to provide that for other young women and she thought that this particular idea “drew on female bonds to reshape the lives of its students” (Horowitz, 17).  Then, along came a young woman by the name of Eunice Caldwell, who was first a student at the seminary and soon became a teacher there.  She had the idea and passion of starting a new seminary that incorporated several of the same ideals that Lyon and Grant had previously designed the seminary around.  Caldwell and Lyon were able to get a minister named Theophilous Packard to help them promote the establishment of the seminary and a man by the name of Roswell Hawks became the seminary’s agent.  After two years of advocating for the new seminary and raising money, Edward Hitchcock of Amherst College decided to become a main supporter.  He brought in the president of Amherst College, Heman Humphrey and in 1837, with a collection of some $15,000, Mount Holyoke was established in South Hadley, Massachusetts.  In the summer of 1836, one building was built to accommodate 100 women, and it took on the plan of a house, unlike dormitories at men’s colleges.  College men lived under far less supervision than seminary woman and a set of rules was designed to help instill upon the students the notion of self-governance and to demand discipline.  Here was Mount Holyoke, the first female seminary and college, where it introduced a strictly academic lifestyle free of cultural norms such as domestic trainings. 


While Mount Holyoke laid the ground work seven sister colleges, Vassar soon followed suit with opening its doors to eager women in 1865 near the Hudson River in up-state New York.  The founding of Vassar College was considered a new era for American women because it would provide a full liberal arts college unlike Mount Holyoke which lacked the study of classics.  Mathew Vassar, founder of the college, had a new idea.  He wanted “to build and endow a college for young women which shall be to them what Yale and Harvard are to young men” (Horowitz, 30).  While Vassar looked up to Mount Holyoke for the seminary ideals and designs, the college hired male professors which completely went against one of Lyon’s most fundamental beliefs upon which Mount Holyoke was  founded.  As for Wellesley, which was founded in 1875, the college followed Mount Holyoke’s fundamentals, but took on Vassar’s more creative campus and buildings.  While Wellesley only hired female professors and presidents because it truly believed in the tradition of female leadership, it was said to be for the “calico girls, the hardworking daughters of modest means, each one of whom in his mind was worth ‘two velvet girls’” (Horowitz, 44).  Next was Smith, opening in 1871 and was the first women’s college to be endowed by a woman.  Sophia Smith designed a college that differed tremendously from Mount Holyoke.  First off, she made the distinction of building a college, not a seminary.  She did this by seeking out a male president and faculty.  Also, one major difference that Smith implemented was the idea of cottages rather than housing students in one big house-style dormitory.  Smith felt that the cottage-style living in the Northampton, Massachusetts would provide a way for students to keep in touch with “real, practical life” (Horowitz, 71). The buildings offered the idea of innovation versus conformity.  After Smith was Radcliffe, which came along in 1983 after a man by the name of Arthur Gilman wrote to Harvard president Charles W. Eliot in an effort to “afford women the opportunities for carrying their studies systematically toward further than it is possible for them to do now in this country” (Horowitz, 95).   Gilman, a Cambridge writer and editor, was concerned for the future of his daughter.   Originally, Radcliffe was called “The Society of the Collegiate Instruction for Women” where Cambridge women were able to take courses that were taught by men at Harvard.  Although, originally Radcliffe stood opposed to coeducation and did not want to be recognized as a separate women’s college, nor did anyone associated with the college want it to resemble a women’s college in form.  Only after the founding of Bryn Mawr in 1885 did the founders of Radcliffe even consider allowing it to be a residential place.  Bryn Mawr, as one of the last of the seven sisters, had the advantage of taking on what the previous colleges had applied and took bits and pieces of them all.  For one, it definitely imitated Smith with cottage-style housing, but took on its own unique aspects as well.  In 1877, Joseph Wright Taylor began the project of building a Quaker college for women.  With much discussion with several of his friends and acquaintances, he decided to design a sister school for Haverford College, situated right outside of Philadelphia.  With this thought, the college would have the advantage of a ‘large city’ and ‘kindred influences’ unlike Vassar and would provide a university setting while still maintaining the feel of a women’s college.   And lastly, came Barnard when in 1889 Annie Nathan Meyer requested that Columbia University establish a female annex.  The college went through a similar process to Radcliffe in terms of being a part of a bigger university in the city, however, it is said that the founders of Barnard had no underlying intentions of “changing the consciousness of young women and redirecting their lives” as did previous founders of women’s colleges (Horowitz, 142).  The founding principle was to provide young, privileged women in New York City the chance for a liberal arts education.


With this being said, it becomes obvious that the founding of women’s colleges were necessary during the 19th and 20th centuries while the women’s suffrage movement was still being fought for and while social and cultural inequalities were being brought to the surface.   Women’s colleges were a place where a certain female sentiment was present and where women could become educated despite the cultural norms that insisted upon domestic training for women.  According to a student of the class of 1972, “The only thing that has made my last year a Bryn Mawr bearable has been women’s liberation.  Now I feel like I have something in common with other girls here, and that we have something that we are fighting for together.  We are a community and I feel like I have real friends; I know that my problems are not only mine, and I want to work with other women, instead of competing against them, to solve those problems.  Until women’s liberation, I thought of Bryn Mawr as a cloistered retreat from anything real” (Gornick, 419).   Perhaps this student who claimed that Bryn Mawr became more bearable for her once the women came together and fought for similar ideals and issues with common interests felt a sense of sisterhood.  According to Oyeronke Oyewumi in her essay, Ties that (Un)Bind: Feminism, Sisterhood and Other Foreign Relations, “A term of political solidarity, “sisterhood: speaks women’s activism.”   This idea of women’s liberation gave her and those around her the opportunity to create a sense of feminist sisterhood.  However, by looking to the Seven Sister’s history, we see that one of founding missions of Mount Holyoke, the first of the sister colleges, was to replicate the mother-daughter relationship, yet here we are in the 20th century seeing ideas of sisterhood.  As discussed earlier, Mary Lyon, not having a substantial relationship with her own mother, desperately wanted to provide that for other young women and she thought that this particular idea and “drew on female bonds to reshape the lives of its students”(Horowitz, 17).  Perhaps the relationship that Mary Lyon had with her teacher, friend, and mother figure, Zilpah Grant, encouraged her to seek a way for the students at Mount Holyoke to reap the same type of relationships.  Grant was originally Lyon’s teacher and “[she] admired her teacher from the beginning…[she] became Lyon’s inspiration and guide and ultimately her adored friend.  Their friendship flourished within the early nineteenth century’s acceptance of intimacy between women…[and] became a beloved surrogate mother to Mary Lyon, taking the place of a real one who had left her at thirteen” (Horowitz, 13).  


However, Bryn Mawr is constantly talking about how diverse of a student body we are, boasting about how we have students come from some 40 foreign countries, representing 49 states while students of color comprise over one third of our some 1,300 students.  If there is one thing that has changed since the birth of the women’s colleges, it is these facts right here.   Nascent women’s colleges were only fitted for white daughters of wealthy men, however, now we see that that is not the case.   In effect, here at Bryn Mawr as well as at the other women’s colleges, we have grown to include women of all kinds.  However,  we are not all working towards the same problems.  We all come from different places in the world and different identities.  According to bell hooks’ in her essay Sisterhood: Political Solidarity between Women, the term sisterhood has run into a problem.  To her, “sisterhood became yet another shield against reality, another support system.” (296)  In talking to several Bryn Mawr students, alumnae and current students, the term sisterhood doesn’t seem to apply to their experiences at Bryn Mawr.  Kit Bakke, Bryn Mawr class of 1968, says that, “[sisterhood] is not a term that I ever use.” Furthermore, the founding ideas of creating a mother-daughter relationship to ideas of sisterhood have changed to incorporate the implications of diversity to start to conquer issues of race and class.  For instance, here at Bryn Mawr, we have a new group called the Social Justice Pilot Program that helps bring such issues to the table.  Although we don’t necessarily have issues of female inequalities at women’s college, we still see issues with other branches of diversity.


With the new diversity seen at women’s colleges in the 21st century, there has been a rise in the population of transgender students over the past years.  Do the Seven Sister colleges have room for men in their missions?  Amelia Nugent, Mount Holyoke class of 2011, seems to think that, “we all have gone through similar experiences and while these people identify as male at this point in their lives, they have had the experience of being a woman and that is okay.  There is still that sense of sisterhood because we come for the sisterhood.” For me, it is something that I think about a lot and while I wonder why students stay after sex changes and top surgeries, I understand that these places are their homes and women’s colleges seem to me, after visiting several bigger universities (coeducational, of course), to be more of an accepting campus.  For instance, it is commonplace to see homosexual couples just as often as it is to see heterosexual couples here at Bryn Mawr.  In fact, one of my classmates once brought up the question of, “when did you know you were straight?”  We even discuss matters such as ‘heterophobia’! Who would have thought?  I feel like one of the missions of women’s colleges is to simply accept diversity and why not start and extend that with transgender? 


After being a student at a women’s college for four months now, it is easy for me to come to the conclusion that women’s colleges do make sense for 21st century women.  Women’s colleges are places where the priority is strictly academics and this founding ideal has stood true.  As much as there is much debate about whether or not students who have or are attending women’s colleges could miss out on important social interactions of being a part of a coeducational environment, these are places where women have the opportunity to focus on themselves and their academics.  These are places where women have control of their own lives and seek greater possibilities. 













 BIBLIOGRAPHY  \l 1033 Gornick, Vivian. Woman in Sexist Society. New York: Basic Books, 1971.

hooks, bell. "Sisterhood: Political Solidarity Between Women." Friedman, Penny A. Weiss and Marilyn. Feminism and Community. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995. 292-315.

Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz. Alma Mater. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Incorporated, 1984.

Oyewumi, Oyeronke. "Ties that (Un)Bind: Feminism, Sisterhood and Other Foreign Relations." Jenda: A Journal of Cultural and African Women Studies (2001): 13.