A Modern Mission for Traditional Women's Colleges

The first of the Seven Sisters colleges, Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts turns 170 today. Women's schools were the only option for girls who wanted a higher education, but now that women have largely achieved academic parity with men, are the separate colleges still necessary? Alison talks to a historian who attended one women's college herself and teaches at another one now. Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, professor of American studies at Smith College and author of a history of women's colleges, Alma Mater.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

Continue on the theme, all you ladies out there who went to college, think about this: 170 years ago today, the first of the Seven Sisters schools, Mount Holyoke, was founded originally as a seminary. It was considered the oldest continuing school of education for women. Now it was founded a whole century before women could even vote. But now, of course, women can vote for women who went to all women's colleges, like Hillary Clinton, who made news recently when she spoke at her alma mater Wesleyan - excuse me, Wesley - Wellesley, let me get that right. She made this remark, the one that started that whole kerfuffle that Mike mentioned earlier.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): In so many ways, this all women's college prepared me to compete in the all boys' club of presidential politics.

STEWART: Now, Wellesley's motto which is to provide an education for women who will make a difference. Mount Holyoke's, to foster purposeful engagement in the world. The question is can't women learn that sitting next to guys at this point?

Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz is a professor of American Studies at Smith College and author of a history of women's colleges, "Alma Mater." Good morning, Helen.

Professor HELEN LEFKOWITZ HOROWITZ (American Studies, Smith College; Author, "Alma Mater"): Good morning to you.

STEWART: So you heard this whole back and forth about Hillary Clinton at Wellesley, discussing the way that her school prepared her to compete in this all boys' club of presidential politics. What did you think when you heard that sound bite?

Prof. HOROWITZ: I didn't think it was wrong. I don't think it's the only story, but it's one of the right things to say. Sure.

STEWART: Nancy Pelosi, she went to an all women's school - Madeleine Albright, Diane Sawyer, Meryl Streep, Linda Wertheimer of NPR fame. Apparently, this is a statistic: Four out of 10 women who served as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies in 2006, graduate of women's colleges. Why do women's colleges produce such power players?

Prof. HOROWITZ: Well, I'm not sure that statistic's going to hold up…

STEWART: In the future?

Prof. HOROWITZ: …in a long era of coeducation.

STEWART: Sure.

Prof. HOROWITZ: Well, some of this reflects an earlier period, of course. When Madeleine Albright went to college, she couldn't go to Yale, right?

STEWART: Right.

Prof. HOROWITZ: So - but I do think women's colleges do - at least the college I'm associated with does a really wonderful job about educating women.

STEWART: And when you say a wonderful job, can you describe what that means?

Prof. HOROWITZ: Well, what I think is distinctive at Smith, and also since my daughter is a recent graduate of Wellesley, is that these two colleges have students who are eager learners. And that's an unusual facet of life today. That may seem strange to you, but many students are there to make the grade and to advance to the next level, like law school. But you get a wonderful environment at Smith, at Wellesley, and I'm sure at other places as well, where you have really engaged learners.

STEWART: It's interesting the comment you made that Madeleine Albright had to go to Wellesley, that she couldn't go to Yale, but now a lot of young women have choices. I have a 17-year-old niece who is looking at colleges, and she's sort of almost mad at herself that she likes Wellesley so much because she likes boys a lot, too. Can you make the case in 2007 for a young woman to consider going to an all women's college, if you had to sit down and talk to a high school senior say, here are some good reasons why you should consider this option?

Prof. HOROWITZ: Sure. It's a great place, where people are really going to focus on you. It's a college, not a university, and I'm a strong advocate of colleges. If you really are interested in ideas and books and what you can learn from the Web and all those things and want an environment where you can really discuss them, here's one.

STEWART: Helen, you haven't said anything about gender yet.

Prof. HOROWITZ: No. But I will say that - I mean, I think the first argument is that it's a good liberal arts college. The second argument is if you think you can learn better in this kind of environment, then go for it.

MIKE PESCA, host:

Helen, let me ask you a question.

Prof. HOROWITZ: Sure.

PESCA: Sometimes when they talk about passing a law, like the speed limit, right? When they said let's go back to - let's go back to 65, there were some states that had it, and it was a nice little template for the rest of the country to gauge. Now with the women's colleges, you do have a few, like Vassar, that recently began letting in men…

STEWART: Sixty nine.

PESCA: Can we…

STEWART: It was little - it was that long, believe it or not. It's a long while.

PESCA: But it's still, I think there are still many more women who go to Vassar than men. Can we look at Vassar, and is there any evidence that there's at all been a decline in the quality of the overall education or the education that a woman going to Vassar would get today, versus her, you know, mother in 1968?

Prof. HOROWITZ: I think that's not the good comparison. I think the comparison might be Dartmouth.

PESCA: Okay.

Prof. HOROWITZ: And here, the women Dartmouth alumni will probably scream it at the radio.

STEWART: Okay. My sister was the third class of women at Dartmouth, so…

Prof. HOROWITZ: Okay.

STEWART: …she might be screaming.

Prof. HOROWITZ: But I just think there's a real distinction between women's colleges that went coed like Vassar, like Wheaton, and the men's colleges that went coed and had a really hard time battling a male culture. And that - I think that's an important distinction.

PESCA: And to give you an idea of the male culture at Dartmouth, have you ever seen "Animal House"?

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Well, that's what my sister said.

PESCA: It's based there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: She actually had professors who hadn't taught young women, and guys who hadn't been in class with women. When she went to visit Dartmouth, she said she liked it because there were guys sitting on the curb howling at the moon. And she said…

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: …that kind of behavior (unintelligible).

Prof. HOROWITZ: (unintelligible)

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: But, you know what's something very interesting that you write a lot about - let's talk about the history of this a little bit, that a lot of these women's schools initially weren't necessarily bastions of progressive thinking when it came to educating women. For example, explain to me how the design of, say, Smith dealt with these soon-to-be educated and maybe what some people thought were uppity ladies.

Prof. HOROWITZ: Well, Smith decided to break up a big dormitory building -which had been true at Vassar and was about to be true at Wellesley - and put students in houses - they called them cottages - and have a female motherly presence there. We would later call them house mothers. And the idea about this is if students lived in this small setting like of about 30 students and went to church in town and went to a town library and you didn't have these things on campus, they would stay within the kind of gender norms of their time. They would be feminine. And the problem they thought was that places like Vassar or at Mount Holyoke, which was still a seminary, that they would become strong-minded.

STEWART: Oh, that can't happen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. HOROWITZ: Yes, Bluestocking was the kind of words of the day. But there were wonderful statements about this. Of course, you know, none of them, living arrangements really mattered very much.

STEWART: And in terms of there was one of these schools that was - had -modeled after a mental institution?

Prof. HOROWITZ: Well, in a way, all of them were.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Really?

PESCA: They're all mental institutions.

Prof. HOROWITZ: That's the kind of secret history…

STEWART: You have to explain that one to me.

PESCA: They're all kind of mental. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. HOROWITZ: Well, when Mount Holyoke was founded, Mary Lyon had family members who were at the - what was called the Hartford Retreat. I think we call it now the Hartford Institute for Living, or maybe it's gone on to a different name. And she saw that the kind of way that the institution tried to create an external order was to affect the inner order of people's minds. And she wanted to do that for women, which is to take them out of their home settings where things were kind of random and ad hoc and give them a clear structure of order, which she hoped they would then take inside themselves and go out into the world as teachers and missionaries and change the world that way.

STEWART: The last question for you, sort of a macro question, because you do - you are at a women's college right now. Remember this book "Reviving Ophelia" several years ago talking about…

Prof. HOROWITZ: I'm sorry, I don't. But you can tell me about it.

STEWART: "Reviving Ophelia" is a book that talked about why young girls often, how they retreat inward when they, at a certain age, when they get in classrooms because they're either intimidated by young boys and men, or they don't want to appear to act a certain way around boys. Do you think there still is any truth to that in terms of the young women who choose to go to all women's college, that they are able to blossom and grow because they do not have concerns about guys in class and whether or not they might wash their hair because the cute boy they like is going to be sitting across from them?

Prof. HOROWITZ: Yeah. I think that still might have some effect. You'd have to ask my students that, not me. But, yeah, I think it has some merits. It certainly was true in my generation, and it was certainly true for me individually. I thrived at Wellesley in a way that I could not possibly have done at a coed school. But, you know, my basic feeling is it's a matter of judgment and taste. For someone like your niece, she should do what her heart tells her when she's in a place, and not…

STEWART: She said she liked that the Wellesley women seemed fierce.

PESCA: Grr.

STEWART: That they seemed like they were just going to take on the world.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. HOROWITZ: Well, she hasn't met all the women in there.

STEWART: All right.

Prof. HOROWITZ: Some of them are wonderful, wonderful (unintelligible)…

STEWART: Oh, she meant that in a good way.

Prof. HOROWITZ: …but they are - have to be engaged learners in that kind of an environment. And if that's what she wants, it's a good place for her.

STEWART: Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz is a professor of American Studies at Smith College and author of the history of women's colleges, "Alma Mater." Have a great day, Helen.

Prof. HOROWITZ: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

PESCA: Would you say that fewer women at women's colleges do wash their hair? That was implied in your question.

STEWART: Well, this - actually, I'm just going anecdotally.

PESCA: We got to call the people from Breck and Suave. I'd like to get those stats.

STEWART: Anecdotally, I'm just saying, you know, she's been going to a lot of college tours. I have a niece who's also at Vassar who went to a lot of the different colleges, and one of the things they said they liked is the women were just - they were really interested in their studies. It wasn't so much about hair and clothes and that kind of stuff, initially. I mean, on the surface, obviously, it's not - it's a broad statement to make about all women's schools.

PESCA: Hey, hey, listen, you don't have to - broad statement. I mean, you don't have to go there, Alison.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Just keep it on a higher level.

STEWART: I will.

PESCA: This is NPR…

STEWART: I won't call anybody a broad anymore.

PESCA: …damn it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Coming up on THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT: Joe Henry, one of my favorite singer-songwriters. I'm going to introduce Mike Pesca to the wonders of Joe Henry.

PESCA: Well, that's good. I will accept those wonders. I will process those wonders. And if they are indeed wonderful, I will report back.

STEWART: All right. Some conversation and music from Joe Henry.

Rachel Martin will be back with the news.

Stay with us here at THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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