A History of Women in Higher Education

Today, women make up the majority of bachelor's degree-holders — a victory that was only made possible after centuries of battling a sexist education system.
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Updated on March 20, 2023
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  • Until the 19th century, women were effectively barred from higher education.
  • Slowly, the U.S. experienced a rise in women's colleges and coed institutions.
  • Most Ivy League schools refused to admit women and erected sister schools as a compromise.
  • Despite women's progress in higher ed, problems remain in pay equality and stereotypes.

In 1636, only a handful of years after British settlers established their first permanent colonies on the coast of North America, Harvard College began educating students. For over 300 years, Harvard admitted only white men from prominent families — that is, until the 19th century, when women turned the tide in their fight for a place at America's universities.

Before then, colleges rarely admitted women. These days, however, nearly all colleges and universities enroll women (except for a small handful of men-only schools). The process of making higher education coeducational wasn't smooth. Generations of women faced pushback from male classmates, administrators, and others who framed their opposition as a defense of tradition.

But by the 1980s, women made up a majority of undergraduates; a position they continue to hold today. So how did women break into higher education? With a lot of time, and with much resilience.

Early Colleges Bar Women From Earning Degrees

The first European universities largely trained students for careers in the church. Theology, then dubbed the "queen of degrees," ranked as the highest-status degree, followed by law and medicine. In medieval Europe, where universities in Oxford, Cambridge, Paris, and Bologna flourished, higher education was meant for men, as women couldn't become priests, lawyers, or physicians.

Portrait of Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia (1646-1684)

When women began breaking their way into higher education, they often faced intense scrutiny. In 1672, Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia enrolled at the University of Padua to study theology. She impressed her instructors, even excelling in a public debate against three male intellectuals. But when Piscopia applied for her degree, the Catholic Church intervened. Women should not earn theology degrees, the institution declared, barring Piscopia from graduating.

Piscopia's allies pushed back, though, eventually helping her receive a Ph.D. in philosophy. Though Piscopia was the first woman to earn a Ph.D., her gender restricted her degree options, and the University of Padua did not award another doctorate to a woman for three centuries.

Like Piscopia, other women attended college classes, but most faced hurdles when it came time to graduate. Colleges might let women sit in on lectures — though even that wasn't guaranteed — but degrees were restricted to men.

Single-sex education was rooted in the idea that women didn't need a degree to pursue socially acceptable roles like homemaker, mother, and domestic servant. As such, gender norms effectively excluded women from higher education for centuries.

The Rise of Coed Institutions and Women's Colleges

The long exclusion of women from higher education gradually shifted in the 19th century. This change directly challenged Victorian notions of women's roles, and many colleges resisted pressures to switch to a coed model.

Nineteenth-century women had two routes to higher education: They could enroll at either coed institutions like Oberlin College or women's colleges like Wesleyan College.

In 1837, Oberlin opened its doors to all students, including women and people of color. Then in 1862, the institution awarded a degree to Mary Jane Patterson, making her the first Black woman to earn a bachelor's. Access to higher education created new opportunities for previously excluded students. By 1900, 1 in 3 Black professionals in the U.S. held a degree from Oberlin.

Students observe a dissection at the Woman's Hospital of Philadelphia in 1911.

But coed schools didn't always treat male and female students equally. The year Oberlin first began admitting women, female students were dismissed from classes on Monday to do male students' laundry.

Women's colleges offered another path to a degree. In 1836, Wesleyan became the first women's college in the world. Over the next several decades, other women's colleges opened up, including Barnard, Vassar, Bryn Mawr, Smith, and Wellesley. In total, 50 women's colleges opened their doors in the U.S. between 1836 and 1875.

Nevertheless, even women's colleges treated higher education for women as "dangerous experiments," according to historian Helen Horowitz. Colleges for men modeled their campuses on the "academical villages" plan, in which men slept in dorms and crossed the quad to attend classes in various buildings.

In contrast, women's colleges restricted their students' freedom by modeling their campuses not on villages but on seminaries. Female students lived and studied in one building, an architectural choice intended to protect them from losing their virtue.

Trailblazers Defend Women's Right to Education

The first female doctors, lawyers, and professors followed in the wake of colleges granting degrees to women.

In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first female physician in the U.S. On her journey to the medical profession, Blackwell received 10 rejection letters and one suggestion to disguise herself as a man to gain admission. She declined the recommendation, writing, "It was to my mind a moral crusade. It must be pursued in the light of day, and with public sanction, in order to accomplish its end."

Dozens more women physicians soon followed. In 1864, Rebecca Lee Crumpler became the first Black woman to graduate from medical school. She then moved south to treat freed slaves with her medical knowledge.

Colleges that admitted women also began hiring women as professors and administrators. Sarah Jane Woodson Early, one of the first Black women to attend college, used her Oberlin undergraduate training to become a professor at Wilberforce College, the first college founded by Black Americans. In 1858, Early wasn't only the first Black woman college professor — she was also the first Black person to teach at a historically Black college or university.

Despite these breakthroughs, women continued to face barriers during and after their education. In the 1870s, the University of Edinburgh refused to grant medical degrees to seven women who spent years studying at the medical school.

The "Edinburgh Seven," as they were called, faced professors who refused to teach them, and male students who rioted when they sat for an anatomy exam. Eventually, several of the women who'd been denied a degree moved abroad to become physicians.

Sister Schools Try to Offer Women a Compromise

Many of the Ivy League schools did not admit women until the 1960s and 1970s. That being said, several paired up with "sister schools" that educated women. In 1879, Harvard created the "Harvard Annex" to educate women separately from its male undergraduates.

The impetus for the change came from Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, founder of the Women's Education Association of Boston. In its records, the organization noted, "We were told not to disturb the present system of education which is the result of the experience and wisdom of the past."

Pressure from women, however, encouraged Harvard to expand the annex. By the 1890s, Harvard had created Radcliffe College, a sister institution where women studied under Harvard professors.

In 2004, Harvard President Drew Faust called Radcliffe a "compromise between what women wanted and what Harvard would give them, as an alternative to the two prevailing models of coeducation and separate women's institutions."

Radcliffe College's class of 1896
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Students at Radcliffe were separate but not quite equal to Harvard undergraduates. "Radcliffe College would educate women by contracting with individual Harvard faculty to provide instruction, would offer its own diplomas, to be countersigned by Harvard's president, and would be subjected in academic matters to the supervision of 'visitors' from Harvard," Faust explained.

By the 20th century, coed schools had become the norm rather than the exception. In 1880, 46% of four-year colleges and universities enrolled men and women, a number that jumped to 58% by 1900 and 64% just three and a half decades later.

In 1934, 7 in 10 undergraduates attended a coed institution. Stanford opened its doors in 1891 as a coed school, joined by the University of Chicago. The University of California system, established in 1869, was also coed from the start.

Even so, some schools held out well into the second half of the 20th century, insisting that the coed model would ruin the college experience.

The Ivy League Fights Back Against Coeducation

"For God's sake, for Dartmouth's sake, and for everyone's sake, keep the damned women out," wrote a Dartmouth College alum in 1970. Dartmouth undergrads even hung a "Better Dead Than Coed" banner from a dorm window.

These students weren't alone in their desire to exclude women from Ivy League institutions. Outright misogyny marked much of the resistance to coeducation. One Princeton University alum complained, "What is all this nonsense about admitting women to Princeton? A good old-fashioned whore-house would be considerably more efficient, and much, much cheaper."

Meanwhile, Yale University alumni worried about the "distracting" effect of women. "Gentlemen — let's face it — charming as women are — they get to be a drag if you are forced to associate with them each and every day," an alum wrote.

Several graduates don women's liberation signs at Harvard's 1972 commencement.
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Eventually, Princeton and Yale began admitting women in 1969, with Brown University following in 1971 and Dartmouth in 1972. The lone Ivy holdout, Columbia University, did not admit women until 1983. Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania, by contrast, had admitted women since 1870 and 1914, respectively.

So why did the Ivy League go coed? According to historian Nancy Weiss Malkiel, it wasn't a result of the women's movement, but rather university administrators' desire to stay competitive. Increasingly, male students admitted to single-sex Ivy League schools declined their admission offers to attend coed institutions.

In 1967, Yale's president Kingman Brewster Jr. said, "Our concern is not so much what Yale can do for women but what can women do for Yale." The remark characterized women as a perk for male students instead of scholars who could benefit from an Ivy League education.

Columbia's sister school, Barnard, declined to a merger, which ultimately happened with Harvard and Radcliffe. This move ended up helping Columbia from a competitive standpoint: Its decision to admit women in 1983 led to a 56% jump in undergraduate applications.

Learn about the disparities women in academics face and how to honor them during Women's History Month.

The Future of Women in Higher Education

The class of 1982 included more women than men — the first time in U.S. history that women earned a greater share of bachelor's degrees than their male classmates. By the 2016-17 academic year, women earned 57% of bachelor's degrees awarded in the country. And in 2019, women made up a majority of the U.S. college-educated workforce for the first time in history.

Higher education has come a long way since women were excluded. Still, women's success in higher education doesn't always transfer outside of school. Men with bachelor's degrees continue to outearn their female colleagues by around $26,000 a year — roughly the same increase workers with a high school diploma gain by earning a bachelor's degree.

Although higher education has come a long way since women were excluded, women’s success in higher ed doesn’t always transfer outside of school.

Why do men outearn women? In part, men are more likely to choose high-paying majors. Around half of the wage gap comes from occupational choices — careers dominated by men typically pay more than those that employ more women. Gender influences these choices, too, with persistent stereotypes discouraging women from STEM fields, for instance.

Within academia, women make up only 31% of full-time faculty in the U.S. and 27% of tenured faculty. Women of color held an even smaller number of positions, with Black women and Hispanic women making up only 3% each of full-time faculty.

For centuries, women fought for access to higher education. Even though women make up a majority of college graduates in the 21st century, the fight isn't over. Closing the gender pay gap, ending gendered ideas about majors, and supporting women in academia represent new frontiers in the battle for equality.