At the annual strawberry Tea in June, Radcliffe College seniors
are invited to don frilly dresses and dip berries in whipped cream.
Other women's colleges, like nearby Wellesley, have old-
rites of passage like "running a hoop" that once indicated who would
marry first, but has now been reinvented to indicate who will be
Such vestiges of the old finishing-school persona of women's
colleges might seem endangered, especially at Radcliffe, one of the
venerable "seven sisters" consortium of women's colleges and alma
mater of Helen Keller and Gertrude Stein.
With this week's announcement that Radcliffe College will cease to
exist as an undergraduate institution and merge with Harvard
University, the question arises: Will women's colleges make
sense at the end of the millennium?
Without Radcliffe, just 78 women's colleges remain today compared
with 298 in 1960. But Radcliffe's evolution - and the decline in
overall numbers - doesn't mean the schools are becoming museum
pieces. In fact, a decade-long surge in applications and enrollment
shows women's colleges undergoing a resurgence - typifying a renewed
interest in "unisex" education.
"Women's colleges are coming on strong," says Judith Shapiro,
president of all-women Barnard College in New York.
Since 1992, the number of applications has grown at 85 percent of
women's colleges, estimates Jadwiga Sebrechts, president of the
Women's College Coalition in Washington, an advocacy group. Total
applications have jumped 30 to 40 percent over the past six years.
That's a big switch from a few years ago. All-women colleges
began in the US in the mid-19th century as women demanded higher
education - but all-male bastions denied them admission.
By the 1960s and 1970s, legislative and social pressures pushed
open the doors of male colleges. Many women's colleges declared
victory and became coeducational. They seemed to lose their raison
d'tre, Ms. Sebrechts says - with 153 of them going co-ed. Dwindling
enrollments in the 1980s hit women's colleges hard, and 30 more
schools either went co-ed or closed.
Then something happened. Not long after Anita Hill faced off
against Clarence Thomas in hearings before an all-male congressional
panel in 1991, applications to women's colleges began rising.
Some say it was fallout from the 1992 "year of the woman." Others
call it the "Hillary effect." Media coverage, books, and popular
discussions on gender bias, date rape, and "empowerment" flooded the
Suddenly women's colleges had a new reason for existence:
preparing its graduates to thrive in a professional world dominated
by old-boys clubs. "They really have become leadership factories for
women," Sebrechts says. "These schools say explicitly and
unabashedly that they're training grounds for women leaders."
This is not just boilerplate. Numerous studies show women's
colleges consistently produce a higher proportion of female math and
science graduates than coeducational schools. That is helping
attract a new generation of students.
Little Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pa., for instance,
debated going co-educational in 1988, but stayed firm. In the past
decade, its endowment has doubled. This spring it received 1,107
applications for 230 freshmen slots, compared with 350 applications
for 100 openings a decade ago. The college draws women from 42
states eager to study neuroscience, genetic engineering, and
forensics - areas still dominated by men.
"We see women's education as a kind of international priority....
We are meeting a major need," says Dorothy Gulbenkian Blaney, Cedar
Crest's president. …