Women’s colleges in the United States often share histories of struggle, as founders labored to address gender inequality and provide students with academic opportunities on par with the male-dominated universities of their times. Many of the colleges included on our list were established before women’s suffrage was achieved in 1920, so it is not surprising that these institutions continue to promote the advancement of women as academic and community leaders.
Prospective students might wish to pursue their education at a women’s college so that they can be surrounded and influenced by female role models. According to a 2012 Hardwick Day report, 81% of women’s college graduates reported that their institution was “extremely or very effective” in preparing them for future jobs. Women’s colleges often serve as supportive social and academic systems, allowing scholars to explore their full potential without the worry of gender bias.
Acceptance and graduation rates are from the 2011-2012 academic year and come from the National Center for Education Statistics’ Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). Tuition prices were found on U.S. News and World Report’s website.
The colleges in the following list are members of the Women’s College Coalition (WCC), an academic association dedicated to gender equity in academia. Member colleges from the U.S. and Canada participate in collaborative research initiatives, admissions events and academic advocacy for women. We’ve selected these 20 WCC member colleges because they exemplify dedication to the advancement of women through their history, rankings and noteworthy academic programs. The schools on our list are presented in no particular order.
In 1870, Pauline Durant founded this private college to provide female students with the opportunity to study hard sciences and liberal arts. Noteworthy alumnae include former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
This college is the home to the Wellesley Centers for Women, an interdisciplinary research and outreach program that has contributed to national policy making initiatives, such as the Violence Against Women Act.
The U.S. News and World Report ranks Wellesley as #4 on its list of National Liberal Arts Colleges.
This institution was founded in Manhattan in 1889 and takes its name to honor Frederick Barnard, an academic administrator who unsuccessfully advocated for the admission of women to Columbia College in the late nineteenth century.
Barnard is part of the Seven Sisters league of women’s colleges. Distinguished alumnae of Barnard include Zora Neale Hurston, Martha Stewart and multiple Pulitzer Prize recipients. Inside Higher Ed hails Barnard for ranking third for the number of students to continue on to receive PhDs.
Three years before Scripps College was founded, Ellen Browning Scripps established the Claremont Colleges in 1923, an alliance of campuses located in Claremont, California. The Scripps campus is highly regarded for its striking landscaping and architecture, which has landed it on Forbes’ list of The World’s Most Beautiful College Campuses.
Scripps is home to a unique, interdisciplinary science program, the Accelerated Integrated Science Sequence (AISS), which is designed to prepare freshmen for scientific research and collaboration.
Bryn Mawr College
This college traces its roots back to a Quaker founder, Joseph Taylor, though the institution itself is not affiliated with any particular religious organization. Throughout its history, the school has held firm to its Quaker roots and put its focus on freedom of conscience and inquiry. Like Barnard, this campus is also a part of the Seven Sisters.
Bryn Mawr has received a Forbes Financial Grade of “A+,” meaning it demonstrates a high level of fiscal stability. Influential alumnae include actress Katharine Hepburn and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Emily Balch.
Entrepreneur John Simmons, who worked as a strong advocate for women’s education and independence, founded this institution in 1899. Simmons offers an undergraduate experience to women and graduate programs to both women and men. There are 50 undergraduate majors to choose from, including an option for students to design their own major. Additionally, students have the opportunity to complete their bachelor’s and master’s degrees simultaneously, and within four years, through Simmons’ integrated programs.
This independent college is situated in 135 acres of woods near Oakland, giving students a chance to take their studies away from the city. Noteworthy Mills alumnae include Bonnie Hill, the first African-American woman to serve as a director to the U.S. Board of Consumer Affairs and Pia Lindstrom, an Emmy-award winning journalist.
The U.S. News and World Report ranks Mills College #6 among the top regional universities in western states.
This historically black college began as an Atlanta-based seminary, founded in 1881 by missionaries Harriet Giles and Sophia Packard. The National Science Foundation recognizes Spelman as one of the top schools graduating black women who pursue doctoral degrees in the sciences. In a single year, Spelman enrolls up to 50 Gates Millennium Scholars.
Spelman is ranked #1 on the U.S. News and World Report’s list of top historically black colleges and universities.
College of Saint Benedict
This Catholic institution works in affiliation with Saint John’s University to provide students with faith-based Benedictine instruction and campus life. Students attend co-ed classes on neighboring campuses, while the rest of the student experience continues in single-gender residence halls and athletic programs. The Peace Corps has recognized CSB for its high rate of volunteerism among graduates.
Saint Mary's College
Four French missionaries, known as the Sisters of the Holy Cross, established Saint Mary’s College in 1844. SMC has formed a partnership with the nearby University of Notre Dame so that students have more social networking and event opportunities. In addition to high volunteer rates, about half of the SMC student population participates in study abroad programs and internships.
In 2010, Saint Mary’s adopted a new system for general education requirements. The Sophia Program curriculum is designed to give students a broad knowledge of many areas while finding how each connects to their majors.
Protestant minister Dr. Lewis Pinkerton founded Midway College in 1847. The daytime academic programs are for women only, while the evening professional development courses are co-ed. A unique degree option at Midway College is the equine studies program, where students gain hands-on experience in horse care and herd management. Midway’s additional pillar programs include teacher education, nursing and business.
St. Catherine University
Like Saint Mary’s College, Catholic missionaries from France established this institution in the United States. The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet founded SCU in 1905, providing courses at the high school and undergraduate levels. SCU is distinguished as the first Catholic university to join Phi Beta Kappa, a prestigious honors society founded in 1776. Recognition of scholarly achievement seems to be a priority at SCU, which is home to 24 honors societies.
The U.S. News and World Report has ranked this college #13 among the top regional universities of the Midwest.
Sophia Smith, a deaf woman and academic activist, dedicated her endowment toward the establishment of Smith College, which opened its doors in 1875. Smith has graduated some very compelling alumnae, including Nancy Reagan, Farah Pandith, Julia Child and Sylvia Plath. Smith has taken a proactive role in community development and sustainability by donating over $150,000 to the United Way of Hampshire County and installing clean energy solutions.
The U.S. News and World Report ranks Smith College #19 among the top liberal arts colleges in the nation.
Salem College is one of the oldest women’s colleges in the United States. The Sisters of the Moravian Protestant church founded this institution in 1766, hearkening back to the colonial era. Money magazine has distinguished Salem as one of the most affordable liberal arts colleges for seven years running. This college has a unique mentorship program, Salem Firsts, which provides direction to future students who are the first in their families to attend a four-year college
Sweet Briar College
Indiana Fletcher Williams donated her Virginia plantation and funds toward the establishment of Sweet Briar College, which opened in 1906. This academic institution hosts a leadership and campus involvement contest known as Visible Vixen, which challenges women to participate in extra academic, community and athletic tasks.
The Princeton Review has included Sweet Briar on multiple lists, praising its faculty with a #3 rank for “Most Accessible Professors” and a #4 rank on “Professors Get High Marks.”
Dexter Converse, a cotton mill leader, collaborated with the citizens in Spartanburg, South Carolina to establish Converse College in 1889. His efforts were dedicated to creating a challenging academic environment for his daughter, Marie. Several noteworthy alumnae have graduated from Converse, including Texas Supreme Court Justice Harriet O’Neill, and Julia Peterkin, a Pulitzer Prize winner.
Converse’s graduate programs earned it the #3 ranking on Washington Monthly’s list of Best Master’s Universities in the nation in 2012.
This academic institution traces its roots back to the Columbia Female Academy, established in 1833 by Lucy Wales. Students are expected to pledge to the Ten Ideals, academic and conduct guidelines, which were proposed in 1921.
The Harbinger literary magazine, run by Stephens College, has won the Sigma Tau Delta Outstanding Literary Arts Journal award for four of the past five years.
The Princeton Review ranked Stephens College’s School of Performing Arts #12 on its list of best college theater programs.
Mount Holyoke College
Teacher Mary Lyon founded Mount Holyoke College in 1837 in an effort to create a women’s school that could deliver the same rigorous level of academic content as male-dominated colleges of the time. The poet Emily Dickinson attended this institution while it was known as Mount Holyoke Female Seminary.
The college places a strong emphasis on the sciences, graduating three alumnae who have been the first female presidents of the American Association of Physical Anthropology, the American Chemical Society and the American Paleontological Society. Mount Holyoke is ranked #28 on the list of Best Value Schools compiled by the U.S. News and World Report.
Agnes Scott College
This college began as a Presbyterian seminary and was later renamed after Agnes Irvine Scott, a founding member’s mother who immigrated from Northern Ireland. Distinguished alumnae include Academy Award winner Jennifer Nettles and Supreme Court Justice Jean Toal.
The U.S. News and World Report has ranked the college #21 on its list of Best Value Schools in the nation.
Agnes Scott College has also been ranked #2 for the number of undergraduates who eventually earn doctoral degrees in economics, according to a report compiled by the Department of Economics at Vanderbilt University.
Moore College of Art and Design
Founder Sarah Worthington Peter created the Philadelphia School of Design in 1848 to create a space for women to practice wood engraving and drawing. Her academic institution started out in her home and has grown to enroll nearly 500 students annually, across 11 different BFA degree programs. Each year, Moore College provides students with $3.5 million in arts scholarships.
This school began as a coed seminary but became an institution for women in 1852, though it took nearly 150 years to grow from an institute to a college and, in 1998, to Hollins University. In 1958, this liberal arts school added graduate degrees that were once again coed, but the undergraduate programs remained strictly for women.