Women In College
A story of education equity through the lens of time.
Written by Halle Elder
Women’s place in education, especially higher education, has been a hard-fought battle that still continues today. In places all around the world, women are working side by side to secure a place in higher education in order to learn, grow and make their mark on society, but the battle for equality in education is far from over.
Women account for about 58% of undergraduate students in America.
Women from all over the world have fought and won, or are still fighting for education, but this article will focus on the history of women’s battle for equality in the United States.
In the U.S. today, around 58% of all undergraduate students are female, according to The National Center for Education Statistics, meaning that women are actually in the majority of college students. But, it has not always been this way. For centuries, women tried to gain a place in higher education, but were often banned from universities or, if accepted, would not be granted degrees. However, the tides began to change for American women in the 19th century. Despite this change, the options were still incredibly limited, mostly consisting of two options: women-only colleges and a few coed institutions.
Although it was an action that often saw large amounts of backlash, some universities decided to allow women to attend on a degree path during the early to mid 19th century. The first school to do this was Oberlin University in Ohio which first became a coed institution in 1837 when it admitted four female students. Oberlin also became the first institution to admit Black students, which resulted in the first Black woman, Mary Jane Patterson, earning her bachelor's degree in 1862.
However, despite Oberlin’s surface level equality, the battle was still not over in this institution. For many years after admitting women into the institution, all female students would be dismissed from classes every Monday in order to do the male students' laundry. Despite these challenges, women in this country continued year after year to fight for equality in their education. As the century went on, more and more universities made the jump to being coed, along with introducing female professors that paved the way for younger students. By the start of the 20th century, over half of the universities in the country were admitting women into their programs.
However, prestigious universities held out much longer. The Ivy League schools did not admit women until well past the 1950s, over 100 years after Oberlin opened their doors to female students. Male students and professors at these universities claimed that their concern was that women were “an unneeded distraction.” There are even claims that undergraduates from Dartmouth hung banners that read "Better Dead Than Coed" from their dorm windows when discussions about opening the college to women were occurring.
In the early 1800s, the only options for women as far as continued education were “teacher schools” that trained women to be primary school teachers. These eventually turned into “normal schools” for women and later became women’s colleges. The first women-only university was Wesleyan College, which opened its doors in 1836. Within another 60 years, 50 more women-only colleges opened in the U.S.
While these schools had their benefits for female students, they functioned and were treated as a “less than equal” option when compared to other institutions of higher learning. Historian Helen Horowitz explained that these early women-only colleges were viewed as “dangerous experiments.” The common ideology at this time was that an increased education would push women away from traditional feminine roles and ideas. This resulted in schools which were created more like seminaries than traditional colleges at the time. Men’s colleges were modeled as “academic villages,” with dorms and classes in separate houses across a campus. However, these women-only colleges were built to keep women contained. Often, everything was in one building, so that the students could be monitored at all times. Improvements from the past had been made, but there was still so much farther to go for women to receive the same educational experience as men.
As mentioned earlier, women account for about 58% of undergraduate students in America. This has been the case since the 1980s. However, this success in undergraduate education still does not guarantee equality in education as a whole. Females with a bachelor's degree to this day earn significantly less than their equally-educated male counterparts. This wage gap has been a source of concerns for many years and there are ongoing efforts to decrease this margin. Women are also often persuaded into certain fields of study and warned against going into STEM, because of the difficulty associated with these careers. However, people are fighting against this by forming organizations at universities across the country to support women in STEM and encourage young students to consider these fields. Another concern is that while females make up a large majority of undergraduates, significantly fewer pursue graduate degrees or work actively in academia. Only around 37% of full-time faculty are female and women account for 27% of tenured faculty. Those numbers drop into the single digits for women of color. Women still have a ways to go to receive educational equality, but from the growth that resulted from hard fought battles over the last century, it is fair to say that women will not give up the fight to receive the access to education that they deserve.
Note from the author: The information in this article accounts for women and female-presenting students in the U.S. While I acknowledge transgender and non-binary students as well, there is unfortunately a lack of research and data on individuals outside of the male/female binary, especially when looking into education in the past. For these reasons, these individuals were not mentioned, but it is safe to say that their battle for education is ongoing, too.