Women's colleges in higher education are undergraduate, bachelor's degree-granting institutions, often liberal arts colleges, whose student populations are composed exclusively or almost exclusively of women. Some women's colleges admit male students to their graduate schools or in smaller numbers to undergraduate programs, but all serve a primarily female student body.
Distinction from finishing school
A women's college offers an academic curriculum exclusively or primarily, while a girls' or women's finishing school (sometimes called a charm school) focuses on social graces such as deportment, etiquette, and entertaining; academics if offered are secondary.
The term finishing school has sometimes been used or misused to describe certain women's colleges. Some of these colleges may have started as finishing schools but transformed themselves into rigorous liberal arts academic institutions, as for instance the now defunct Finch College. Likewise the secondary school Miss Porter's School was founded as Miss Porter's Finishing School for Young Ladies in 1843; now it emphasizes an academic curriculum.
A women's college that had never described itself as a finishing school can acquire the misnomer. Throughout the 114-year history of the women's college Sweet Briar, students and alumnae have objected to calling it a finishing school. Nonetheless the finishing school characterization persisted, and may have contributed to declining enrollment, financial straits, and the school's near closure in 2015.
As educational opportunities for women increase, the necessity and purpose that called single-sex women's colleges into being diminishes as does their continuing relevance. While fifty years ago there were 240 women's colleges in the U.S., only about 40 now remain. In the words of a teacher at Radcliffe (a women's college that merged with Harvard): "[i]f women’s colleges become unnecessary, if women’s colleges become irrelevant, then that’s a sign of our [women's] success."
Around the world
- Asian University for Women, Chittagong, Bangladesh (estd. 2008)
- Assumption College San Lorenzo, Makati City, Philippines (estd. 1959)
- Bethune College, the first women's college in South Asia (estd. 1879)
- Duksung Women's University in Seoul, South Korea. (estd. 1920)
- Dongduk Women's University in Seoul, South Korea. (estd. 1950)
- Ewha Womans University in Seoul, South Korea. (estd. 1886)
- Indraprastha College for Women, Delhi (estd. 1924)
- Jinnah University for Women, Karachi, Pakistan (estd. 1998)
- Keisen University in Japan (estd. 1988)
- Lady Irwin College, New Delhi (estd. 1932)
- Lahore College for Women University in Pakistan (estd. 1922)
- Miranda House, New Delhi (estd. 1948)
- Miriam College in Quezon City, Philippines (estd. 1926)
- Philippine Women's University, the first women's university in the Philippines and Asia (estd. 1919)
- Seoul Women's University in Seoul, South Korea (estd. 1961)
- Sookmyung Women's University in Seoul, South Korea (estd. 1906)
- Sungshin Women's University in Seoul, South Korea. (estd. 1936)
- St. Paul University Manila, Philippines (estd. 1912)
- St. Scholastica's College Manila, Philippines (estd. 1906)
- Women's College, Aligarh, India (estd. 1906)
Brescia University College is Canada's only university-level women's-only educational institution. Brescia is affiliated with and located on the campus of the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario.
- Kingdom of Bahrain
- United Arab Emirates
- Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Most major universities in Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are composed of two branches: a women-only branch and a similar male-only branch. This includes the following universities:
- King Saud University
- Al-Imam University
- King Abdulaziz University
- King Faisal University
- Prince Sultan University
The following are female-only institutions:
- Alzahra University, Tehran
Mary Astell advocated the idea that women were just as rational as men, and just as deserving of education. First published in 1694, her Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest  presents a plan for an all-female college where women could pursue a life of the mind.
- Previously Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford (became co-educational in 1979)
- Previously St Anne's College, Oxford (became co-educational in 1979)
- Previously St Hugh's College, Oxford (became co-educational in 1986)
- Previously Somerville College, Oxford (became co-educational in 1994)
- Previously St Hilda's College, Oxford (became co-educational in 2008)
- Murray Edwards College, Cambridge (formerly New Hall)
- Newnham College, Cambridge
- Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge
- Previously Girton College, Cambridge
- Previously Royal Holloway, University of London (became co-educational in 1965)
- Previously St Mary's College, Durham (became co-educational in 2005)
Women's colleges in the United States were a product of the increasingly popular private girls' secondary schools of the early- to mid-19th century, called "academies" or "seminaries." According to Irene Harwarth, et al., "women's colleges were founded during the mid- and late-19th century in response to a need for advanced education for women at a time when they were not admitted to most institutions of higher education." While there were a few coeducational colleges (such as Oberlin College founded in 1833, Lawrence University in 1847, Antioch College in 1853, and Bates College in 1855), most colleges and universities of high standing at that time were exclusively for men.
Critics of the girls’ seminaries were roughly divided into two groups. The reform group, including Emma Willard, felt seminaries required reform through “strengthening teaching of the core academic subjects.” Others felt seminaries were insufficient, suggesting “a more durable institution--a women’s college--be founded, among them, Catharine E. Beecher. In her True Remedy for the Wrongs of Women (1851), Beecher points out how “seminaries could not offer sufficient, permanent endowments, buildings, and libraries; a corporation whose duty it is to perpetuate the institution on a given plan.”
Another notable figure was Mary Lyon (1797-1849), founder of Mount Holyoke College, whose contemporaries included Sarah Pierce (Litchfield Female Academy, 1792); Catharine Beecher (Hartford Female Seminary, 1823); Zilpah P. Grant Banister (Ipswich Female Seminary, 1828); George Washington Doane (St. Mary's Hall, 1837 now called Doane Academy). Prior to founding Mount Holyoke, Lyon contributed to the development of both Hartford Female Seminary and Ipswich Female Seminary. She was also involved in the creation of Wheaton Female Seminary (now Wheaton College, Massachusetts) in 1834.
Women's College Coalition
The Women's College Coalition is an association of women’s colleges and universities (with some observers/participants from the single-sex secondary/high schools) that are either two- and four-year, both public and private, religiously-affiliated and secular. It was founded in 1972, at a time in which the "Civil Rights Movement", the "Women's Rights Movement", and Title IX, as well as demographic and technological changes in the 1960s brought about rapid and complex social and economic change in the United States. These societal changes put increasing pressure of perceived "unpopularity" and "old fashioned" perceptions and opinions placing the concept of "single-sex education" for both women and men on the most drastic downward spiral in its history. Additionally, the landscape of education dramatically changed as many previously all-male high schools (both private/independent and public) along with the colleges, many of which were either forced by official actions or declining attendance figures to become coeducational, thereby offering women many more educational options. At the same time with the similar changes forced on women's institutions, both private and public secondary schools along with the colleges/universities, forced a number of the larger number of girls schools to also coeducate. By the late 1970s, women’s enrollment in college exceeded the men’s and, today, women make up the majority of undergraduates (57% nationally) on college/university campuses. Women earn better college grades than men do, and are more likely than men to complete college.
During the past several years, the Women’s College Coalition engaged in research about the benefits of a women’s high school and/or college education in the 21st Century. Drawing upon the findings of research conducted by the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and Hardwick-Day on levels of satisfaction among students and alumnae at women’s colleges and coeducational institutions, as well as the Association of American Colleges and Universities, NAICU and others, the Coalition makes the case for women’s education and women’s high schools and colleges to prospective students, families, policy and opinion makers, the media, employers and the general public.
Women's colleges and universities in North America
- Agnes Scott College
- Alverno College
- Barnard College
- Bay Path University
- Bennett College for Women
- Brenau University
- Brescia University College
- Bryn Mawr College
- Carlow University
- Cedar Crest College
- Chatham University
- The College of New Rochelle
- College of Saint Benedict
- College of Saint Elizabeth
- Columbia College
- Converse College
- Cottey College
- Douglass Residential College of Rutgers University, (the State University of New Jersey)
- Hollins University
- Judson College
- Lexington College
- Mary Baldwin University
- Meredith College
- Midway University
- Mills College
- Moore College of Art and Design
- Mount Holyoke College
- Mount Mary College
- Mount St. Mary's College
- Notre Dame of Maryland University, (formerly College of Notre Dame of Maryland)
- Russell Sage College of The Sage Colleges
- St. Catherine University
- Saint Mary's College (Indiana)
- Salem College
- Scripps College
- Simmons College
- Smith College
- Spelman College
- Stephens College
- Sweet Briar College
- Trinity Washington University
- University of Saint Joseph
- Ursuline College
- Wellesley College
- Wesleyan College
- Wilson College
- The Women's College of the University of Denver
- Gaudy Night
- Men's colleges
- Men's colleges in the United States
- Mixed-sex education
- Single-sex education
- Arenson, Karen W. (January 26, 1997). "Rodney O. Felder Dies at 69; Finch College's Last President". New York Times. Retrieved March 1, 2014.
Finch was founded in 1900 as a two-year finishing school for women. Dr. Felder and others at the school maintained, however, that it had become as academically demanding as Barnard, Bryn Mawr and other colleges.
- "Flashback Photo: Miss Porter's School Finishes Socialites, Scholars and a First Lady - New England Historical Society". New England Historical Society. February 15, 2015. Retrieved March 31, 2015.
- Resentment of term finishing school
- "Editorial". Forgotten Books. The Sweet Briar Magazine. 1915. Retrieved March 15, 2015.
Do we not rather resent it when we hear the college where we have all worked just as hard as possible called 'only a finishing school ?' Of course, finishing schools are all right in themselves, but are we not something more ?
- Susan Svrluga (March 6, 2015). "Alumna: Sweet Briar College is no finishing school. It must not close". The Washington Post. Retrieved March 15, 2015.
- "Editorial". Forgotten Books. The Sweet Briar Magazine. 1915. Retrieved March 15, 2015.
- Characterization of Sweet Briar as finishing school
- George Thornton Fleming (1922). History of Pittsburgh and Environs: From Prehistoric Days to the Beginning of the American Revolution ... American historical society, Incorporated. pp. 316–.(noting daughter of Dr. Hay was a junior attending the "Sweet Briar, Va. Finishing School" in 1922.)
- Burlington Howard Ball (12 August 1996). Hugo L. Black : Cold Steel Warrior. Oxford University Press, USA. pp. 20–. ISBN 978-0-19-536018-9. "[Hugo Black was] a traditional southern sexist male who believed...that women should not go out of their way to read the classics. Instead they should go to finishing school and prepare themselves for the rewarding, nurturing role of wife and mother...[H]e wanted [his daughter Jo Jo] to go to Sweet Briar College because, according to him, scholarship should never play too big a role in a woman's life”.
- Peter Galuszka (March 4, 2015). "Why Sweet Briar Is Closing". Styleweekly. Retrieved March 6, 2015.
Sweet Briar has offered strong academics, including engineering for its students, many of whom went on to top global jobs. It also had a reputation, admittedly dated, of being an Old South finishing school for affluent young women who enjoyed riding horses and the social whirl.
- Jane Stancill (March 5, 2015). "Sweet Briar Memories". Inside Higher Education. Retrieved March 7, 2015.
Sweet Briar was, in a sense, a classic finishing school that had adapted to modern times. But even in the 1980s there were traditions that seemed quaint, odd or, frankly, rooted in a sexist society.
- Daniel Luzer (March 5, 2015). "Another Girl Down: Sweet Briar College Closes". Washington Monthly. Retrieved March 10, 2015.
Sweet Briar discovered what most other women’s colleges have figured out: the finishing school model doesn’t work in the 21st century.
- Penelope Green (April 23, 2015). "The Independent Women of Sweet Briar". The New York Times. Retrieved April 23, 2015.
[The 20th Century was] an era marked by conflicting cultures: one that was still defined by hostess houses, white gloves and the 'ring before spring' doctrine that cast women’s colleges as mere finishing schools, and one with a commitment to educating women for roles far from the home.
- Question of continuing relevance of women’s colleges
- Christina Mazza (March 4, 2015). "Sweet Briar College to close: Are women's colleges still relevant? (+video) - CSMonitor.com". Csmonitor.com. Retrieved March 16, 2015.
- various (March 10, 2015). "Are Same-Sex Colleges Still Relevant? - Room for Debate". The New York Times. Retrieved March 16, 2015.
- parlous condition, declining numbers
- Nannette Asimov (March 15, 2015). "Mills College fights back in a tough era for women's schools". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved March 16, 2015.
- Nick Anderson and Susan Svrluga (March 13, 2015). "Sweet Briar College to close because of financial challenges". The Washington Post. Retrieved March 16, 2015.
- Jessica Mendoza (May 16, 2015). "Sweet Briar's last class? Why some all-women colleges are disappearing (+video) - CSMonitor.com". Csmonitor.com. Retrieved May 19, 2015.
- Darlene Superville (June 1, 2001). "US Women's Colleges Hit Hard". Bangor Daily News. Retrieved March 16, 2015.
- About Brescia University College
- Astell, Mary. "Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest: in two parts (1697)". London: Printed for Richard Wilkin. Retrieved 12 September 2013.
- The Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections (RMC). "Women in the Literary Marketplace (1800-1900): Mary Astell". Cornell University. OCLC 54305884. Retrieved 12 September 2013.
- Harwarth, Irene; DeBra, Elizabeth; Maline, Mindi (1997). Women's Colleges in the United States: History, Issues, and Challenges. National Institute on Postsecondary Education, Libraries, and Lifelong Learning, U.S. Dept. of Education. Retrieved 12 September 2013 – via Google Books.
- Beecher, Catharine E (1851). True Remedy for the Wrongs of Women; with a history of an enterprise having that for its objective. Boston: Phillips, Samson & Co.
- Smith, Wolf and Morrison. Paths to Success: Factors Related to the Impact of Women’s Colleges. p. 263.
- Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz (1993) . Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women's Colleges from Their Nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the 1930s. Alfred A. Knopf, NY (1984); University of Massachusetts Press. ISBN 0585083665. OCLC 43475535. Retrieved 2013-09-12 – via Google Books.
- Hands off women's colleges, say Oxbridge students
- What are Girls Colleges made of? - Deepti Priya Mehrotra, boloji.com
- When women don't talk ... - Jaya Indiresan, The Hindu Business Line
- Women's College Leaders From Around the Globe Meet to Discuss "Women's Hopes and Dreams"
- US News&World Report Rankings