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Single Sex Institutions: A Historical View

Laura Schomberg, Sandra Sherman, Jill Skogheim

Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, higher education underwent many changes. This time period was the start of women's colleges and concurrently the first of many steps toward equality in education of men and women. Later, as single sex colleges began to drop in enrollment, the turn of the century saw many more coeducational colleges and increased opportunity for women outside the realm of teaching.

As more men began to seek out a college education, women sought to be educated too. In the 1870's, schools such as Troy Female Seminary- the very first academy for upperclass women, Mount Holyoke, and Catherine Beecher's schools were available for women seeking preparatory education or a desire to become a teacher. These schools set the forefront for "the emergence of colleges for women offering curricula comparable to that of men" (Chamberlain 3).

The first women's college, founded in 1865, was Vassar Female College (Rogers 21). According to Matthew Vassar, it occurred, "that woman, having received from her Creator the same intellectual constitution as man, has the same right as man to intellectual culture and development" (Ellis 5). The first female institution of its kind, Vassar College, opened on September 26, 1865 for women aged 14-24. The women attending Vassar were not allowed to take electives, as it was believed that women needed a high amount of structure in their daily lives, but departments ranged from design to Math and Physics. Overall, Vassar College is an accurate model of women's higher education in the late 1800's and early 1900's which provides one with a historical view of a single sex institution.

Throughout the early 1900's many colleges chose to remain single sex as it was their view that women and men did not belong in the same classroom setting. "It was assumed that women did not have the same capacity as men for an advanced education and moreover that they would distract males and lower standards in coeducational institutions" (Chamberlain 5). Still others felt that women were able to better flourish in a female only setting. Also, concern arose for women's overall health as many physicians were unsure if fragile women would be able to cope with the stresses of college life (Howe 213).

An increasing amount of women's colleges were viewed as "nonviable" in the modern era (Chamberlain 119). Some institutions such as Harvard-Radcliffe and Hobart & William Smith are the result of mergers of single sex colleges. Other men's colleges such as Carleton, Yale, and Oberlin chose to open their doors to women.

The most likely reason that women began to enroll in men's institutions was the decreased number of men who were available to attend college during the Civil War and both World Wars. From a social prospective, many felt that "women would preserve their femininity, use their education in a manner appropriate to their sex, and above all marry" if enrolled in a coed college (Lasser 67).

Many women's colleges have found coeducation beneficial. At the same time, some institutions have felt the need to remain single sex. Which ever situation one chooses, it is essential to look at both perspectives in order determine the merits of any higher education.

Works Cited

Carnegie Foundation. Opportunities for Women in Higher Education. McGraw-Hill Book Co. New York. 1973.

Chamberlain, Mariam. Women in Academe:Progress and Prospects. Russell Sage Foundation. New York. 1988.

Ellis, Constance. The Magnificent Enterprise: A Chronical of Vassar College. Princeton University Press. Princeton, N.J. 1961.

Howe, Florence. Myths of Coeducation. Indiana University Press. Bloomington, IN.1984.

Lasser, Carol. Educating Men and Women Together: Coeducation in a Changing World.University of Illinois Press. Urbana, IL. 1987.

Rogers, Agnes. Vassar Women: An Informal Study. Quinn and Boden Co. Rahway, NJ.1940.

go to women in education homepage
 

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