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Columns

On Sisterhood: Women’s Colleges Past and Present

Seven Sisters and the Old Boys’ Club

Radcliffe College officially merged with Harvard University in 1999.
Radcliffe College officially merged with Harvard University in 1999. By Julian J. Giordano
By McKenna E. McKrell, Crimson Opinion Writer
McKenna E. McKrell ’26, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a Classics Concentrator in Adams House. Her column, “Seven Sisters and the Old Boys’ Club,” runs tri-weekly on Wednesdays.

I have never quite been able to articulate what my experience at an all-girls high school meant to me, but I do know that I loved it.

I relished the promise of sisterhood, our all-out spirit week, and especially how every day my pleated uniform skirt, rolled to be three inches shorter, could be styled with cozy, worn-out slippers and unwashed hair.

When I got to Harvard, I expected it to feel foreign and uncomfortable to see men in the dining hall, my classes, and my dormitory, but it never once did.

***

After months of speaking to women about their experiences carving out a place for themselves at Harvard, I look back at my high school and marvel anew at its utopia where women held every leadership position, won every award, and were welcome in every space on campus.

A place made entirely for us — there is a certain comfort this fact provides.

Over the course of this column, I have attempted to understand how the union of one sister and an old boys’ club came to be — exploring the ways that women and Radcliffe are permanent and inseparable threads in the fabric of Harvard’s history.

But I believe I would be remiss to leave it there. I would be neglectful to ignore the women’s colleges that continue to tout a mission quite like Radcliffe’s, in an entirely new era.

While Radcliffe chose the path of merging to ensure women access to resources at Harvard and in higher education writ large, most of the other Seven Sisters — Smith, Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, and Wellesley — chose another: to preserve their independence and continue to operate as women’s colleges.

In writing this column, in tracing Radcliffe’s path, I have wondered how the women’s colleges that remain understand their mission and role in higher education in a changing cultural landscape — one where women have continued to gain access to higher education at much higher rates than men.

Tim Recuber, an assistant professor at Smith College, told me what he sees as the evolving mission of women’s colleges. Initially these spaces were meant to counteract exclusion from educational spaces that were all male. Today, he said, these colleges continue to foster an environment conducive to learning for women and women-identifying people, but more than that, create a comfort level in the classroom and on campus that works for their students.

Many of the individuals I spoke to emphasized how women’s colleges do not work for every student, but remain an important avenue for those who might thrive in or benefit from a single-gender environment.

While Radcliffe merged with Harvard, most of the other Seven Sisters — Smith, Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, and Wellesley — continue to operate as women's colleges.
While Radcliffe merged with Harvard, most of the other Seven Sisters — Smith, Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, and Wellesley — continue to operate as women's colleges. By Kathryn S. Kuhar

“Only a small percentage of high school graduates will even consider applying to a women’s college,” Carrie N. Baker, a faculty member at Smith College, told me.

“For students that want that kind of environment, it’s a really important opportunity to still have,” Baker said. “An environment where women’s rights aren’t questioned, where we are supported to do whatever we want. Students are supported to pursue whatever interest or issue they want. They’re not second guessed, they’re not questioned. They’re not subordinated.”

Beyond their unique gender dynamic, many of the people I interviewed discussed how women’s colleges are also enticing because of the resources and opportunities they offer their students.

Lola L. Stacy, a freshman at Smith College who also attended an all-girls high school, noted that during the application process she was not daunted by the idea of a single-gender environment because of her high school experience. However, this was not the main factor in her decision to attend a women’s college.

“I liked the idea that it was a lot smaller than most universities,” she said. “A place that I would get to know my teachers and get to know the people on the campus as well.”

Still, for many, the single-gender environment factored more forcefully.

After transfering from a co-ed institution to Barnard College as a sophomore, Marjorie L. Folkman, an associate professor at and alumna of Barnard College, told me she felt much more grounded.

“I found I could work within this environment and really find my voice,” she added.

The proximity of Barnard College to its co-ed counterpart, Columbia University, makes it most similar to the historical relationship of Harvard and Radcliffe. The two schools are separated by a single street, and while students can take classes at either school, students at Barnard College live on their own campus and the administration operates independently.

“The difference at Barnard is there’s a sense of connectivity that kind of just continues — it’s a vibrating thing, it sort of continues forth,” Folkman said when prompted to describe the differences between the schools’ communities.

Beyond the intangible pull of Barnard College’s community, Folkman emphasized how the environment encourages students to take up space and make themselves heard.

“The atmosphere is supportive of women speaking their voice — not that it doesn’t happen at co-ed colleges by any means — but the understanding, the expectation, and also the belief in women taking space, women taking physical space, taking political space, and being in this company of women,” Folkman said.

Baker made a similar point about Smith College.

“Women don’t get spoken over. They don’t get excluded from court class discussions. They ask all the questions, they fill all the leadership roles,” she said.

Most people I spoke to agreed that though women have made strides in higher education, in recent decades, they saw no foreseeable end to the need for and value in a women’s college due to lasting cultural and societal inequalities.

Despite this apparent consensus, I continued to wonder how these colleges navigate an increasingly complex understanding of gender identity, and whether their mission might expand beyond the purview it once did.

“Smith admits women and graduates people,” Baker told me.

Most of the Seven Sisters have created admissions policies which are open to any woman-identifying student, and support them through graduation even if they undergo a gender transition while in school. This type of inclusive policy felt right to the people I spoke with.

“I appreciate the way that the college has thoughtfully found its way into an admissions policy that holds on to those traditions while also being inclusive,” Erin P. Cohn, a Smith alumna and director of Smith’s Wurtele Center for Leadership, told me.

***

Folkman told me that she was glad Barnard had not been absorbed by Columbia in the way Radcliffe once was, but after months of conversing with and writing about the women who represent Radcliffe’s past and present, I cannot help but celebrate two worthy paths towards uplifting women in higher education.

Women battled more than 300 years of tradition to establish themselves at Harvard, and the institution of Radcliffe — and her administration, faculty, and students — helped them do it.

Who Harvard is intended to serve often feels dictated by its long history as an Old Boys’ club for the white, the wealthy, and the male — but from my dormitory window, I see a university that is as much mine as any man’s, and I am hopeful for its future.

McKenna E. McKrell ’26, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a Classics Concentrator in Adams House. Her column, “Seven Sisters and the Old Boys’ Club,” runs tri-weekly on Wednesdays.

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