A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

A Closer Look At Women's Colleges, July 1999

Chapter 4

Diversity and Women's Colleges

Beverly Guy-Sheftall
Spelman College


Most studies of women's colleges have been historical in focus, which include the histories of particular institutions, especially the "Seven Sisters", historically Black colleges for women, and Catholic colleges.[1] These studies include Thomas Woody's classic, multi-volume A History of Women's Education in the United States (1929); Mabel Newcomer's A Century of Higher Education for American Women (1959); Elaine Kendall's Peculiar Institutions (1975); and Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz's Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women's Colleges from Their Nineteenth Century Beginnings to the 1930s (1984). A second category of inquiry, which involves more recent history, focuses on the unique environments of women's colleges and the particular impact of these critically important special mission institutions on the development of women students, especially in comparison with co-ed colleges and universities. Issues under consideration, especially in journal articles and special reports,[2] have included whether there are greater leadership opportunities for female students at women's colleges; whether graduates of women's colleges are more likely to enter traditionally male-dominated fields, especially given their undergraduate training; and whether the larger number of female role models at women's colleges (administrators, faculty, and staff) has a more positive impact on the development of women students.

A third area of study has included both generic and thematic essays on women's colleges in the proliferation of books on higher education for women such as Mariam Chamberlain's Women in Academe: Progress and Prospects (1988); C.A. Farnham's The Education of the Southern Belle: Higher Education and Student Socialization in the Antebellum South (1994); Educating the Majority: Women Challenge Tradition in Higher Education (1989); and Barbara Solomon's In the Company of Educated Women: A History of Women and Higher Education in America (1985).

Diversity issues at women's colleges is an area that has not been undertaken by educational researchers, especially if diversity is broadly defined and moves beyond an examination of access, that is the numbers of new student populations at women's colleges over the past two decades. Women's Colleges in the United States (1997) is an extremely important examination in this regard, and demonstrates that since 1976 women's colleges have been notable in their ability to attract women in three underrepresented categories' part-timers, older undergraduate students, and racial/ethnic minorities. It is important to underscore at this juncture what these new commitments to diversity with respect to increasing the numbers of non-traditional female students has yielded at women's colleges which have themselves experienced a 35 percent increased from 1976 to 1993.[3] The most striking increases have been in adults (25-64 year olds account for the largest increase), part-timers (87 percent increase since 1976, making them 37 percent of total enrollment), males (nearly 10,000 in 1993), and racial/ethnic minorities.

While it is fair to say that women's colleges (except for Spelman and Bennett) remain largely white, a sharper focus (using 1993 data from Harwarth, et. al.) on the increasing enrollment of minority women at women's colleges reveals a greater commitment to attracting women of color over the past decade and a half. We should begin with an examination of the actual enrollment figures by race from 1993: 84,048 (white); 13,268 (black); 4,441 (Hispanic), 4,032 (Asian), 385 (American Indian), and 2,873 (nonresident alien).[4] The total enrollment of minority women, excluding the latter category, is 22,126, with the largest increase being Black women (nearly a 74 percent increase).

Diversity at Women's Colleges

Black women students are the largest number of minority students at all women's colleges, but it is important to point out that Asian students are the largest minority (ranging from 95 to 634) at several women's colleges (Barnard [587], Bryn Mawr, Smith, Wellesley [634], Mills, Scripps and Wells). Similarly Hispanic students are in the largest minority (over 100) at two women's colleges (College of Saint Elizabeth and Mount Saint Mary's College) and are in somewhat respectable numbers, relative to other women of color, at the College of New Rochelle (684), Texas Woman's University, Mills, Alverno, Leslie, Marymount, Marymount Manhattan, Wellesley and Smith. American Indian women continue to be seriously underrepresented, though at Trinity (VT), they outnumber (8) other minorities, since there were only 3 Hispanic and Asian students and 2 Black students in 1993; they are also fairly well represented, relatively speaking, at Stephens College (10).

While these data are important with regard to ascertaining student diversity at women's colleges, what is missing are data which would enable us to assess the much more difficult challenge of faculty/administrator diversity, which according to a recent AAC&U report by Daryl White, Achieving Faculty Diversity: Debunking the Myths, is "one of the least successful components of the campus diversity agenda."[5] Studies on coeducational institutions have indicated that majority institutions which have had the most success in the recruitment of minority faculty have provided special funds for the appointment and retention of faculty of color, have established pre-doctoral (as is the case at Smith College) and post-doctoral positions to provide new scholars of color with opportunities for completing the dissertation or conducting research before appointments to tenure-track positions. Perhaps most importantly has been the presence of top-level administrators (presidents and provosts especially) who expressed their commitment to faculty diversity by sustained action to diversify faculty in a number of ways.

Not surprisingly, in 1997 there are only two women's colleges (other than Spelman and Bennett) with black female college presidents (Texas Woman's University and Smith College) and none with Hispanic, Asian, or American Indian women. Neglected research issues with respect to diversity at women's colleges include the following:

Strategies at Women's Colleges

Though women's colleges emerged as a result of practices in mainstream higher educational institutions which prohibited the education of women or inadequately addressed their needs, women's colleges have had similar difficulties addressing issues of difference as has been the case at other majority institutions. In other words, it is incorrect to assume that women's colleges, despite their special missions with respect to addressing gender inequalities, have historically and automatically been committed to a range of diversity issues which are apparent in the racial make-up of the general college population, the diversity of their students, programmatic imperatives and curricular innovations with respect to multiculturalism. It is also the case that women's colleges are not monolithic; have different histories with respect to dealing with diversity issues; and remain heterogeneous in their commitments to bringing about a more diverse learning environment for students. What is also apparent over the past two decades is that more women's colleges are actively engaged in a number of strategies to realize their diversity agendas.

To illustrate, over a decade ago Smith College (founded in 1875) embarked upon a major and unusual initiative for transforming their campus around diversity issues. In response to racism in the larger society and a desire to prepare their students for a multi cultural, multi-racial world, the "Smith Design for Institutional Diversity" was endorsed by the Board of Trustees under the leadership of President Mary Maples Dunn in 1988. It called for the entire Smith community to create a more inclusive and culturally diverse campus and to struggle against racism. Smith developed a clear and well-articulated institutional plan to combat racism by implementing a civil rights policy and adopting an aggressive affirmative action policy that would result in an increase of minorities on campus. An important priority was increasing the numbers of minority students by putting in place an affirmative action policy and appointing an affirmative action officer and Affirmative Action Advisory Committee who would consult with the president. The seriousness of their commitment to diversity was also reflected in their goal, by 2004, of having a faculty that would be at least 20 percent minority; and a 20 percent minority staff in those positions for which they will have conducted national searches. In order to increase diversity presence on campus, they would continue to support the Mendenhall Fellows Program (founded in 1986) for minority doctoral candidates at the dissertation stage (at least two appointments per year, but hopefully three). Funds were also set aside for the following: faculty development in the area of establishing inclusive curriculum; the appointment of a director for the Mwangi Cultural Center who would provide needed institutional support for minority students; the establishment of a pilot faculty sponsorship program to devise strategies for creating a more supportive environment for minority faculty; and a range of other activities.

Smith College is cited as an example not because it has been successful,[7] but because it provides a useful model for other women's colleges who are serious about addressing diversity issues on their campuses rather than just giving lip service to diversity (which is unfortunately the case throughout the academy). Because the Smith plan was thoughtful, conceptually sound, broad based, had clearly stated goals, appropriate strategies for achieving them, and reasonable resource allocation to support stated goals (with timetables and the identification of personnel responsible for implementing goals), it had tremendous potential for success. A related program, the Ada Comstock Scholars, provides funds for the matriculation of adult students on the Smith campus and makes it possible for older women to pursue an education at an elite women's college which would have been virtually impossible otherwise.

Mills College (founded in 1852 in California), like other women's colleges, has initiated programs more recently on their campuses which address very specifically issues relating to a range of diversity concerns. Mills' Women's Leadership Institute (WLI) was established in 1993 under President Janet Holmgren, to promote programs and activities across a wide spectrum of careers, professions and life circumstances locally, nationally and globally.[8] The WLI held a national Summit on Advancing Women's Leadership in Science in 1994; hosted an international conference for women who are college presidents in 1996; hosted a Summit on Women in Legal Education in fall, 1997; and will host in April 1998 its first student leadership conference on "Women's Leadership for Social Justice and Social Change." The first Visiting Scholars program was initiated in the 1997-98 year and will enable Mills to increase the presence of minority and international scholars on campus. Six visiting scholars, including a Native American artist/scholar from Purdue University, and a Bangladeshi lawyer and international human rights law expert from the University of Notre Dame Law School, are in residence this academic year.

In August 1995, President Janet Holmgren reaffirmed the college's commitment to affirmative action in the recruitment of minority students and faculty, despite recent events in California which sought to dismantle affirmative action. She also reminded the community that the advancement of women in education had been greatly aided by government mandates for affirmative action. President Holmgren gave a progress report on Mills' diversity efforts over the previous four years which included the creation of a campus-wide Diversity Committee and development of a Multicultural Advancement Plan and the adoption of a Diversity Action Plan. Affirmative action guidelines for faculty searches and staff hiring were also adopted. In order to increase minority students on campus, several strategies were employed, including revising admission applications and hiring more persons of color in the Admissions Office. Holmgren also provided demographic data on faculty, students, and staff with respect to diversity. For example, as of 1994-95, students of color represented 30 percent of the undergraduate population; staff of color represented 32.6 percent. As is frequently the case, data on faculty of color were less promising though she provided a positive reading of the situation; though faculty of color were only 12.5 percent of full-time faculty in 1994-95, 7 of the 11 hired for tenure track positions during 1992-95 were people of color and two of the four new tenure-track faculty hired in 1995 were persons of color. In 1997, Mills appointed a Multicultural Program Director, who will also assume major responsibility for the College's James Irvine Foundation grant to support a Multicultural Curricular Enhancement Program for faculty development.

Mills College had previously been embroiled for several years in a divisive racial matter which attracted national attention among diversity advocates. In 1991, when President Holmgren assumed the presidency, an African American woman faculty member challenged the College's decision not to consider her for promotion to tenure, claiming race discrimination, retaliation and harassment. After several years of litigation, the College and the faculty member reached a settlement agreement in October 1997. In the press release issued on October 22, 1997, which finally brings closure to this difficult saga, Mills reaffirmed its commitment to building a more multicultural community on campus and in Oakland; statistics were provided on the increases in faculty of color from 3 to 14 out of approximately 75 tenure track positions since 1991. Greater efforts were also made among faculty to create a more multi cultural curriculum.

A number of research questions emerge from the Mills case which include:

Diversity Issues at Historically Black Women's Colleges

Finally, it is interesting to take a brief look at diversity efforts at a historically black college for women, despite the assumption that such efforts would be unnecessary since the entire student body is already a racial minority. Spelman College (founded in 1881) began its curriculum transformation efforts with a Ford-funded mainstreaming women's studies project in 1983[9] followed by another Ford-funded project to infuse multiculturalism in the liberal arts curriculum. As in other diversity projects on majority campuses, Spelman addressed issues of race/ethnicity, religion, disability, class, and gender. A number of assumptions guided the institution's particular project which was atypical since most diversity efforts assume an institution whose students and faculty of color constitute a minority on campus: students at "minority" or women's colleges need an inclusive curriculum, as do students at "majority" or co-ed institutions; racial/ethnic groups are not monolithic so that analyzing issues of difference within groups is imperative; while race and class may be dealt with adequately at HBCUs, there are silences about other diversity issues.[10]


While women's colleges have indeed come a long way in dealing with difference, the work is far from over. Review of the research on women's colleges reveals a need for more information about whether there continues to exist a chilly climate for students and faculty of color. Also, there is a need to explore whether there are distinct diversity issues at women's colleges because of these institutions' special missions, unique histories, nature of their student bodies and faculties, and sociocultural realities. The changing demographics at women's colleges highlight a need to devise inclusive curricula which are especially suited for women's colleges as we approach the 21st century.

Finally, there is also a need to aggressively recruit faculty of color and devise strategies for transforming the chilly climate which impacts a number of students who are different from the traditional white, full-time and under 25 student. An important component of the research agenda on women's colleges at the turn of the century must include not just changes in student enrollment and the situation of racial/ethnic minorities on campus but also analyses of a wide range of diversity issues.


American Pluralism and the College Curriculum: Higher Education in a Diverse Democracy. 1997. Washington, DC: AAC&U Publications.

Banks, J. A. & McGee Banks, C.A. 1995. Handbook of Research on Multicultural Education. Boston: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Boas, L S. 1935. Women's Education Begins: The Rise of Women's Colleges. Norton, Mass.: Wheaton College Press.

Bowler, Sister M. M. 1933. "A History of Catholic Colleges for Women in the United States." Unpublished Doctoral dissertation. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America.

Butler, J. E. and Walter, J. C., (eds.) 1991. Transforming the Curriculum: Ethnic Studies and Women's Studies. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Chamberlain, M. K., (ed.) 1988. Women in Academe: Progress and Prospects. New York: Russell Sage Foundation. Diversity Digest, Fall 1997.

Farnham, C.A. 1994. The Education of the Southern Belle: Higher Education and Student Socialization in the Antebellum South. New York: New York University Press.

The Impact of Feminist Research in the Academy. 1987. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Friedman, E. G., et al., (eds.) 1996. Creating an Inclusive Curriculum. New York: Teachers College Press.

Getting Started: Planning and Organizing Curriculum Transformation Work. Baltimore, MD: Towson State University National Center for Curriculum Transformation Resources on Women.

Guy-Sheftall, B. and Stewart, J. M. 1981. Spelman: A Centennial Celebration, 1881-1981, Charlotte, NC: Delmar.

Harwarth, I., Maline, M. and DeBra, E. 1997. Women's Colleges in the United States: History, Issues, and Challenges. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Horowitz, H. L. 1984. Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women's Colleges from Their Nineteenth Century Beginnings to the 1930's. New York: Knopf.

Kendall, E. 1975. Peculiar Institutions. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons.

Newcomer, M. 1959. A Century of Higher Education for American Women. New York: Harper and Brothers.

Noble, J. L. 1956. The Negro Woman's College Education. New York: Columbia Teacher's College Press.

Pearson C., Touchton, J.D. and Shavlik, D. ( eds.) 1989. Educating the Majority: Women Challenge Tradition in Higher Education. New York/London: American Council on Education/ Collier Macmillan.

Read, F. 1961. The Story of Spelman College. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Rossi, A. and Calderwood, A. (eds.) 1973. Academic Women on the Move. New York:

Russell Sage Foundation.

Schmitz, B. 1992. Core Curriculum and Cultural Pluralism: A Guide for Campus Planners. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges.

Integrating Women's Studies into the Curriculum: A Guide and Bibliography. 1985. Old Westbury, NY: The Feminist Press.

Solomon, B. M. 1985. In the Company of Educated Women: A History of Women and Higher Education in America. New Haven: Yale University Press.

White, D. Achieving Faculty Diversity: Debunking the Myths.

Women's College Coalition. 1981. A Study of the Learning Environment at Women?s Colleges. Washington, DC: WCC.

Woody, T. 1929. A History of Women's Education in the United States. 2 vols. New York: The Science Press.


1 See Women's Colleges in the United States: History, Issues, and Challenges, edited by Irene Harwarth, Mindi Maline, and Elizabeth DeBra, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education (1997), for a historical retrospective on women's colleges and the most up-to-date statistical portrait (1976-1993) of these 83 women's colleges, which have been classified by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching as Baccalaureate I, Baccalaureate II, Masters I, and Masters II. They include private, four year institutions (the majority); three public institutions (Mississippi University for Women, and Texas Woman's University; Douglass College of Rutgers University is not included in their data analysis); two historically Black colleges for women (Spelman and Bennett); and 25 Catholic colleges. Six additional women's colleges (according to the Women's College Coalition) were also not included in their data analysis: Newcomb College, Westhampton College, Hartford College for Women, and William Smith College. Marian Court College and Radcliffe College (now a part of Harvard University) were also excluded. In general, women's colleges are relatively small (most have enrollments of less than 2500); mostly located in the Northeast, especially Massachusetts and Pennsylvania; and primarily undergraduate, though 17 of them grant master's degrees as well. As of 1993 there were 118,880 students enrolled at women's colleges (less than one percent of the more than 14 million students in all colleges and universities), of which 68,234 were full-time, 40,813 were part-time; and men were 3,846 full-time and 5,987 part-time.

2 A Consortium of Women's Colleges, located in Washington, DC, and presently directed by Dr. Marianne Alexander, is an organization that prepares women for public leadership. Its public leadership education network (PLEN), founded in 1978, offers seminars, conferences and internships in Washington, D.C., on the public policy process to women students from women's colleges. At present 21 women's colleges are members of PLEN; they also offer on their campuses courses on leadership and sponsor women's leadership institutes for women in their respective regions.

3 I have made use of the data presented in various tables and the Appendix in Women's Colleges in the United States for my observations with respect to diverse student populations at women's colleges. See pp. 48-55 for data on changing enrollment patterns.

4 Since it is not possible to determine the racial/ethnic identity of international students, I have excluded them from my discussion of this aspect of the diversity question at women's colleges, though I am well aware that the presence of non-U.S. students can contribute immensely to a college's multicultural climate.

5 An excellent on-going source of information about diversity issues in higher education is Diversity Digest, a newsletter of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). Its Fall 1997 issue is devoted to faculty issues; this quote appears on p. 7. See also their Web site, DiversityWeb http://www.diversityweb.org/. A helpful video resource about faculty of color is "Shattering the Silences: Minority Professors Break into the Ivory Tower," Pellett Productions, Inc., 32 W. 20th St., New York, NY 10011.

6 A number of publications are helpful with respect to transforming the curriculum, though few focus on women's colleges. See Betty Schmitz, Ellen G. Friedman, et. al. Creating an Inclusive Curriculum, New York: Teachers College Press (1996); AAC&U, American Pluralism and the College Curriculum: Higher Education in a Diverse Democracy, Washington, DC: AAC&U Publications; Getting Started: Planning and Organizing Curriculum Transformation Work, Baltimore, MD: Towson State University National Center for Curriculum Transformation Resources on Women.

7 Research needs to be conducted at Smith to assess the success of their diversity initiatives and what the present status of the institution's stated goals are. I am also aware that the Smith model is not easily replicated at other women's colleges with substantially less resources given the affluence of Smith with respect to endowment and success at fund-raising among their alumnae.

8 Agnes Scott College (founded in 1889, located in the South, and affiliated with the Presbyterian Church) has instituted the Atlanta Semester, a Program in Women, Leadership and Social Change, which is under the directorship of an African American woman who has the distinction of having been awarded one of the first two doctorates in women's studies from Emory University. It also has an international dimension which will culminate in an optional Global Connections study and travel component. During their course work, Atlanta Semester students will study Middle Eastern women who have emigrated to the Atlanta area; the class will study the ways in which their lives have been shaped by the religious, political and social constructs of the Middle East. Students will also have an opportunity to travel to Jordan and Israel to study these women in their cultural homelands. Agnes Scott also has an extensive Return to College Program, like many other women's colleges, which enables adults to matriculate at the College. 14 percent of its 600 students are African American; 2 percent are Hispanic, and 4 percent are Asian American. Like many other small liberal arts colleges in the South, for most of its history it has had no women of color on the faculty. Presently there are women of color on the faculty.

9 In 1981, Spelman established a Women's Research & Resource Center, the first of its kind on a historically Black college, which involved, among other goals, establishing a women's studies minor. Spelman now has the distinction of being the only historically Black college with an undergraduate women's studies major which was approved by the Board in the Fall of 1997.

10 I also assume that since women's colleges are not monolithic, there are varying comfort levels about dealing with particular diversity issues.


[Chapter 3 - Research Issues on Women's Colleges] [Table of Contents] [Appendix - AAUW Educational Foundation / U.S. Department of Education Roundtable]