Important A History of Women in Higher Education 2023 - educationtopstories
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Important A History of Women in Higher Education 2023

A History of Women in Higher Education

Today, women possess the majority of bachelor’s degrees; this triumph over a sexist educational system was only made possible after centuries of struggle.
Women were effectively excluded from higher education until the 19th century.
Coed institutions and women’s colleges have gradually increased in the United States.

Sister schools were established as a compromise when the majority of Ivy League colleges declined to accept women.

Despite advancements for women in higher education, prejudices and salary inequality remain issues.

Harvard College started instructing students in 1636, just a few years after British colonists founded their first permanent settlements on the coast of North America. Before women successfully fought for admission to American institutions in the 19th century, Harvard exclusively accepted white men from wealthy households for more than 300 years.

A History of Women in Higher Education
A History of Women in Higher Education

Prior to then, women were seldom accepted to colleges. With the exception of a very limited number of institutions that solely accept males, practically all colleges and universities today accept women. The transition to coeducational higher education wasn’t easy. Male classmates, teachers, and others have resisted women for generations by framing their resistance as a defence of tradition.
However, by the 1980s, women were the majority of undergraduate students, a status they still retain today. Therefore, how did women enter higher education? With a lot of patience and perseverance. A History of Women in Higher Education

Women In higher education

After talking about the range of women’s work in the US and how women’s roles have changed over the years, focusing on women’s employment and roles in higher education institutions brings up some intriguing issues.

Women’s desire to enrol in higher education institutions in the 1830s and 1840s sparked a heated discussion that raged for a century (Gordon, 1997). Conservatives argued that it would eliminate women’s traditional roles as mothers, spouses, and homemakers.

On the other side, liberals asserted that a woman with a college education would be a better homemaker, wife, and mother. At a period when the majority of Americans only attended coed elementary or secondary schools, a college degree was viewed as something that called for gender separation. A History of Women in Higher Education

Oberlin and Antioch, two private universities, permitted coeducation throughout the antebellum period, which ended with the start of the Civil War in 1861. Women and men of all ethnicities were first admitted to Oberlin College in Ohio in 1837 (Minnich, n.d.). Some classrooms included male and female students, while several had just male students.

Male/female connections were tightly observed, and extracurricular activities were divided. In order to provide women more freedom to access classrooms and activities, female students and staff at both universities fought the segregation (Gordon, 1997).

Men had to study Greek and Latin and be ready for the ministry, while women did the cooking, washing, and cleaning according to the well defined duties. A History of Women in Higher Education

Early Colleges Bar Women From Earning Degrees

The majority of the early colleges in Europe prepared their pupils for jobs in the church. The highest-status degree at the time was theology, which was known as the “queen of degrees,” followed by degrees in law and medicine. Higher education was reserved for males in mediaeval Europe, where universities at Oxford, Cambridge, Paris, and Bologna prospered because women were unable to pursue careers as priests, solicitors, or doctors. A History of Women in Higher Education

Women encountered a lot of criticism when they first started making their way into higher education. At the University of Padua, Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia enrolled in theology classes in 1672. She wowed her professors and even won a public discussion against three other brilliant men.

But the Catholic Church stepped in when Piscopia applied for her degree. According to the college, women shouldn’t pursue degrees in theology, therefore Piscopia was unable to complete her education. A History of Women in Higher Education

A History of Women in Higher Education
A History of Women in Higher Education

However, Piscopia’s supporters resisted and finally assisted her in obtaining a Ph.D. in philosophy. Although Piscopia was the first woman to get a Ph.D., her gender limited her degree selections, and it took three centuries for the University of Padua to grant another doctorate to a woman. A History of Women in Higher Education

Other women took college courses, like Piscopia, but most had difficulties finishing. Even while women would be permitted to attend lectures at some colleges, degrees were only available to men.

The foundation of single-sex education was the notion that women didn’t require a college education to pursue socially acceptable careers like homemaker, mother, and domestic helper. Gender stereotypes so effectively kept women out of higher education for generations. A History of Women in Higher Education

The Rise of Coed Institutions and Women’s Colleges

In the 19th century, the long-standing exclusion of women from higher education gradually changed. Victorian ideas about the duties of women were directly challenged by this transformation, and many universities resisted efforts to adopt a coed model. A History of Women in Higher Education

Women in the nineteenth century had two options for pursuing higher education: they could register in women’s schools like Wesleyan College or coed universities like Oberlin College.

All prospective students, including women and persons of colour, were allowed entry to Oberlin in 1837. Then, in 1862, Mary Jane Patterson received a diploma from the college, being the first Black woman to do so. Access to higher education gave formerly excluded pupils new chances. One third of Black professionals in the United States had an Oberlin degree by 1900.

Male and female students weren’t always treated equally at coed institutions, either. When Oberlin originally allowed women to enrol, female students were excused from class on Mondays to wash the laundry for the male students. A History of Women in Higher Education

Women’s colleges provided an alternative route to graduation. Wesleyan established the world’s first women’s college in 1836. Other women’s institutions, including as Barnard, Vassar, Bryn Mawr, Smith, and Wellesley, began to operate throughout the next decades. Between 1836 and 1875, 50 women’s colleges in the US opened their doors.

Yet even women’s colleges viewed women’s higher education as “dangerous experiments,” according to historian Helen Horowitz. males slept in dorms and crossed the quad to attend courses in “academical villages”-style campuses that were designed specifically for males. A History of Women in Higher Education

Women’s institutions, on the other hand, limited the independence of their students by modelling their campuses after seminaries rather than villages. Female students were housed along with their studies, a design decision made to keep them from losing their chastity.

Trailblazers Defend Women’s Right to Education

A History of Women in Higher Education
A History of Women in Higher Education

The first female physicians, solicitors and professors emerged once institutions started to admit women.

Elizabeth Blackwell became the nation’s first female doctor in 1849. Blackwell saw ten rejection letters on her path to becoming a doctor, along with one advice to pass as a man to be admitted. It was a moral crusade in her opinion, therefore she refused the advice, writing. In it to succeed, it must be pursued openly and with support from the public. A History of Women in Higher Education

Soon after, many more female doctors appeared. Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first Black woman to complete medical school in 1864. She then relocated to the south to use her medical expertise to heal liberated slaves.

Women were first hired as administrators and teachers at colleges that accepted them. One of the first Black women to attend college, Sarah Jane Woodson Early used her undergraduate education from Oberlin to become a professor at Wilberforce College, the first university established by Black Americans.

Early made history in 1858 by being not only the first Black woman to teach in a college, but also the first Black person to have a teaching position at a historically Black institution or university. A History of Women in Higher Education

Despite these advancements, women still had to overcome obstacles both before and after their schooling. Seven women who spent years studying at the medical school were denied medical degrees by the University of Edinburgh in the 1870s.

The “Edinburgh Seven,” as they were known, had to deal with instructors who wouldn’t educate them and male students who rioted during an anatomy test. Many of the women who had been refused a degree eventually relocated to other countries to pursue medical careers. A History of Women in Higher Education

Sister Schools Try to Offer Women a Compromise

The 1960s and 1970s saw the first wave of women being admitted to several Ivy League institutions. Nevertheless, a few collaborated with “sister schools” that provided education for women. In order to educate women apart from its male undergraduates, Harvard established the “Harvard Annex” in 1879. A History of Women in Higher Education

The Women’s Education Association of Boston’s founder, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, served as the catalyst for the transformation. The organisation recorded in its records that “We were told not to disturb the present system of education which is the result of the experience and wisdom of the past.”

But Harvard was compelled by female pressure to enlarge the annexe. By the 1890s, Radcliffe College had been established by Harvard as a sister institution where women may study under Harvard academics.

Radcliffe was described as a “compromise between what women wanted and what Harvard would give them, as an alternative to the two prevalent models of coeducation and separate women’s institutions” by Harvard President Drew Faust in 2004. A History of Women in Higher Education
Students at Radcliffe were distinct from Harvard students but not nearly equal. “Radcliffe College would educate women by contracting with specific Harvard professors to provide instruction, would offer its own diplomas, to be countersigned by Harvard’s president, and would be subjected to the oversight of ‘visitors’ from Harvard in academic matters,” Faust said.

Coed schools had stopped being the exception and had become the rule by the 20th century. Men and women were enrolled in 46% of four-year colleges and universities in 1880, 58% by 1900, and 64% barely three decades later. A History of Women in Higher Education

Seven out of ten undergraduates went to coed schools in 1934. Stanford welcomed the University of Chicago when it became a coed institution in 1891. The University of California system was coed from the beginning when it was founded in 1869.

Nevertheless, several institutions resisted the coed model until far into the second decade of the 20th century, claiming it would damage the collegiate experience. A History of Women in Higher Education

The Ivy League Fights Back Against Coeducation

A History of Women in Higher Education
A History of Women in Higher Education

Keep the damned women out, a Dartmouth College alum penned in 1970, for the love of God, the sake of Dartmouth, and the sake of everyone. Even a “Better Dead Than Coed” banner was hanged from a dorm window by Dartmouth undergrads.

These kids weren’t the only ones who wanted to keep women out of Ivy League schools. Most of the opposition to coeducation was characterised by outright sexism. “What is all this nonsense about admitting women to Princeton?” questioned one Princeton University graduate. An authentic whorehouse would be far more effective and much, much less expensive.

Yale University graduates were concerned about the “distracting” impact of women at the same time. Ladies are charming, but let’s face it, if you have to interact with them often, they start to become a drag. A History of Women in Higher Education

In the end, Princeton and Yale were the first to admit women in 1969, followed by Brown University in 1971 and Dartmouth in 1972. Columbia University, the only remaining Ivy, did not accept women until 1983. In contrast, women have been allowed to attend Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania since 1870 and 1914, respectively.

What motivated the Ivy League to become coed? It wasn’t a product of the women’s movement, but rather university managers’ determination to remain competitive, according to historian Nancy Weiss Malkiel.


Male applicants accepted to single-sex Ivy League colleges are increasingly turning down admission offers to attend coed universities. A History of Women in Higher Education

As Yale’s president Kingman Brewster Jr. noted in 1967, “What women can do for Yale is more important to us than what Yale can do for women.”

The comment portrayed women as advantages for male students rather than intellectuals who may gain from an Ivy League degree.

Barnard, a sister institution of Columbia, declined to join the eventual merger with Radcliffe and Harvard. From a competitive aspect, this choice ultimately benefited Columbia: The university’s decision to accept women in 1983 resulted in a 56% increase in undergraduate applications. A History of Women in Higher Education

The Future of Women in Higher Education


The 1982 graduating class had more women than males, marking the first occasion in American history that female students received a higher proportion of bachelor’s degrees than their male counterparts.

Women received 57% of the bachelor’s degrees conferred in the nation by the 2016–17 academic year. And for the first time ever in 2019, women constituted the majority of workers in the United States with college degrees.

Since women were not previously allowed in higher education, much has changed. However, the achievement of women in higher education does not necessarily translate to other spheres of life.

Men with bachelor’s degrees continue to earn around $26,000 more per year than their female counterparts, which is nearly the same rise that those with only a high school certificate experience when upgrading to a bachelor’s degree. A History of Women in Higher Education

Women’s success in higher education has gone a long way since they were shut out, but it hasn’t always translated to other spheres of life.

Why do males earn more than women? Men are, in part, more inclined to select lucrative majors. Occupation choices account for around half of the wage difference; occupations with higher male employment often pay more than those with higher female employment.

These decisions are also influenced by gender, with persisting preconceptions preventing women from careers in STEM sectors, for example. A History of Women in Higher Education

A History of Women in Higher Education
A History of Women in Higher Education

Only 27% of tenured academics and 31% of full-time faculty in the United States are women. Even fewer jobs were held by women of colour, with Black women and Hispanic women making up only 3% of full-time professors, respectively.

Women have pushed for higher education access for generations. Despite the fact that women now make up the majority of college graduates, the battle is far from done. The fight for equality has new fronts in the reduction of the salary gap between men and women, the eradication of gendered notions of majors, and the support of women in academics. A History of Women in Higher Education


Prior to being overly critical of women not having an equal share in higher education leadership, it is vital to look at the big picture, even though women have not had the opportunity to represent a significant number of academics or administrators in higher education.

The fact that men and women play different and distinctive roles is an incredibly clear-cut, unavoidable reality. Everybody has their own special abilities, but males have generally been socialised to be the more powerful and dominating, whilst women have generally been socialised to be the more caring and submissive.

In their discussion of this topic in 2002, scholars Hills and Rowan posed some crucial inquiries. In their pursuit for “equal” rights, they posed the question, “Is it preferable for women to assert their sameness to, or their difference from, men?” To assert similarity is to characterise women according to the norm for males.

This might be acceptable in certain circumstances but unjust in others. Women require different supports, opportunities, and standards than males do, according to the idea that they are different. Additionally, it would suggest that women would probably react differently and for other reasons (Hills and Rowan, 2002). A History of Women in Higher Education

Our past has a tendency of being divided into different periods of time due to wars, military engagements, and terrorist acts. Due to the profound consequences these battles have on both our nation and the rest of the globe, we pay attention to how the economy has changed before, during, and after historical events.

Many of the changes in higher education that have been studied as a result of conflict. We must take into account the fact that women played a crucial part in the development of higher education institutions during the eras when the majority of the male population was engaged in armed conflict while noting the sometimes underappreciated contribution of women in higher education.

Women were relegated to the background once the men returned home; this was an inescapable aspect of society. A History of Women in Higher Education

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