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The Seven Sisters is a loose association of seven liberal arts colleges in the Northeastern United States that are historically women's colleges. They are Barnard College, Bryn Mawr College, Mount Holyoke College, Radcliffe College, Smith College, Vassar College, and Wellesley College. All were founded between 1837 and 1889. Four are in Massachusetts, two are in New York, and one is in Pennsylvania. Radcliffe (which merged with Harvard College) and Vassar (which is now coeducational) are no longer women's colleges. 'Seven Sisters' was the name given to Barnard, Smith, Mount Holyoke, Vassar, Bryn Mawr, Wellesley, and Radcliffe, because of their parallel to the Ivy League men’s colleges" in 1927.
|Institution||Location||Present Day School type||Full-time enrollment||First admitted students||College chartered||Traditional affiliation|
|Mount Holyoke College|
(originally Mount Holyoke Female Seminary)
|South Hadley, Massachusetts||Private women's college||2,300||1837||1888||Dartmouth College, Amherst College|
|Vassar College||Poughkeepsie, New York||Private coeducational||2,400||1865||1861||Yale University|
|Wellesley College||Wellesley, Massachusetts||Private women's college||2,300||1875||1870||Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University|
|Smith College||Northampton, Massachusetts||Private women's college||2,750||1875||1871||Amherst College, Yale University|
(originally The Society for Collegiate Instruction of Women, aka The Harvard Annex)
|Cambridge, Massachusetts||Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study (no longer accepts undergraduate students but has graduate fellows); undergraduate women historically attended Radcliffe but now attend Harvard College.||n/a||1879||1894||Harvard University|
|Bryn Mawr College||Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania||Private women's college||1,229||1885||1885||University of Pennsylvania, Haverford College, Princeton University, Swarthmore College|
|Barnard College||Morningside Heights, Manhattan, New York||Private women's college affiliated with Columbia University||2,356||1889||1889||Columbia University|
Irene Harwarth, Mindi Maline, and Elizabeth DeBra note that "Independent nonprofit women’s colleges, which included the 'Seven Sisters' were founded to provide educational opportunities to women equal to those available to men and were geared toward women who wanted to study the liberal arts". The colleges also offered broader opportunities in academia to women, hiring many female faculty members and administrators.
Early proponents of education for women were Sarah Pierce (Litchfield Female Academy, 1792); Catharine Beecher (Hartford Female Seminary, 1823); Zilpah P. Grant Banister (Ipswich Female Seminary, 1828); and Mary Lyon. Lyon was involved in the development of both Hartford Female Seminary and Ipswich Female Seminary. She was also involved in the creation of Wheaton Female Seminary (now Wheaton College, Massachusetts) in 1834. In 1837, Lyon founded Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (Mount Holyoke College). Mount Holyoke received its collegiate charter in 1888 and became Mount Holyoke Seminary and College. It became Mount Holyoke College in 1893. Vassar, however, was the first of the Seven Sisters to be chartered as a college in 1861.
Wellesley College was chartered in 1870 as the Wellesley Female Seminary, and was renamed Wellesley College in 1873. It opened its doors to students in 1875. Radcliffe College was originally created in 1879 as The Society for Collegiate Instruction of Women, informally called The Harvard Annex for women's instruction by Harvard faculty. It was chartered as Radcliffe College by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1894. Barnard College has been affiliated with Columbia University since its founding in 1888, but it continues to be independently governed. Smith College was chartered in 1871 and opened its doors in 1875. Bryn Mawr opened in 1885.
Mount Holyoke College and Smith College are also members of Pioneer Valley's Five Colleges consortium. Bryn Mawr College is a part of the Tri-College Consortium in suburban Philadelphia, with its sister schools, Haverford College and Swarthmore College.
Harwarth, Maline, and DeBra also state that "the 'Seven Sisters' was the name given to Barnard, Smith, Mount Holyoke, Vassar, Bryn Mawr, Wellesley, and Radcliffe, because of their parallel to the Ivy League men’s colleges" in 1927. The effort to form a group of seven elite women's colleges was largely driven by the determination of the deans of Barnard and Radcliffe colleges to reduce the number of Jewish students at their schools in favor of attracting students from elite, Protestant families. The schools are sometimes referred to as "the Daisy Chain" or "The Heavenly Seven."
The name Seven Sisters is a reference to the Greek myth of The Pleiades, the seven daughters of the Titan Atlas and the sea-nymph Pleione. The daughters (Maia, Electra, Taygete, Alcyone, Celaeno, Sterope, and Merope) were collectively referred to as The Seven Sisters. In the field of astronomy, a cluster of stars in the constellation Taurus is also referred to as The Pleiades or the Seven Sisters.
The seven colleges explored the issue of coeducation in a variety of ways. Two, Radcliffe College and Vassar College, are no longer women's colleges.
Radcliffe has merged with Harvard College and is now a research institute and no longer an undergraduate institution. Historically, Radcliffe students received Radcliffe degrees but, beginning in 1963, they started to receive Harvard diplomas signed by the presidents of Radcliffe and Harvard. Joint Radcliffe-Harvard commencement exercises began in 1970. The same year, several Harvard and Radcliffe dormitories began swapping students experimentally and in 1972 full co-residence was instituted. The departments of athletics of both schools merged shortly thereafter. In 1977, Harvard and Radcliffe signed an agreement which put undergraduate women entirely in Harvard College, although Radcliffe continued to own its own campus and award financial aid, externships, and prizes to Radcliffe undergraduates. In 1999 Radcliffe College was dissolved and Harvard University assumed full responsibility over the affairs of female undergraduates. Radcliffe is now the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in at Harvard University. The component parts of the College's campus, the Radcliffe Quadrangle and Radcliffe Yard, retain the designation "Radcliffe" in perpetuity.
Vassar declined an offer to merge with Yale University and instead became coeducational in 1969.
Barnard College was founded in 1888 as a woman's college affiliated with Columbia University. However, it is independently governed, while making available to its students the instruction and the facilities of Columbia University. Columbia College, the university's largest liberal-arts undergraduate school, began admitting women in 1983 after a decade of failed negotiations with Barnard for a merger along the lines of the one between Harvard College and Radcliffe and between Brown and Pembroke. Barnard has an independent faculty (subject to Columbia University tenure approval) and board of trustees. Columbia University issues its diplomas, however, and most of Barnard's classes and activities are open to all members of Columbia University, male or female, and vice versa, in a reciprocal arrangement dating from 1900.
In 1969 Bryn Mawr and Haverford College (then all-male) developed a system of sharing residential colleges. When Haverford became coeducational in 1980, Bryn Mawr discussed the possibility of coeducation as well but decided against it.
As with Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, and Wellesley College decided against adopting coeducation. Mount Holyoke engaged in a lengthy debate under the presidency of David Truman over the issue of coeducation. On 6 November 1971, "after reviewing an exhaustive study on coeducation, the board of trustees decided unanimously that Mount Holyoke should remain a women's college, and a group of faculty was charged with recommending curricular changes that would support the decision." Smith also made a similar decision in 1971. Two years later, Wellesley also announced that it would not adopt coeducation.
A June 3, 2008 article in The New York Times discussed the move by women's colleges in the United States to promote their schools in the Middle East. The article noted that in doing so, the schools promote the work of graduates of women's colleges such as Hillary Rodham Clinton, Emily Dickinson, Diane Sawyer, Katharine Hepburn and Madeleine K. Albright. The Dean of Admissions of Bryn Mawr College noted, "We still prepare a disproportionate number of women scientists [...] We’re really about the empowerment of women and enabling women to get a top-notch education." The article also contrasted the difference between women's colleges in the Middle East and "the American colleges [which] for all their white-glove history and academic prominence, are liberal strongholds where students fiercely debate political action, gender identity and issues like 'heteronormativity,' the marginalizing of standards that are other than heterosexual and cisgendered. Middle Eastern students who already attend these colleges tell of a transition that can be jarring." The article further quoted a Sri Lankan student (who had attended a coeducational school in Dubai) who stated that she was "shocked by the presence of so many lesbians among the students" and the "open displays of affection".
Bryn Mawr College's Pembroke Hall
Mount Holyoke College (Mount Holyoke Female Seminary) in 1837
Vassar College in an engraving from 1862.
Wellesley College Green Hall
Recently, there has been discussion and controversy over how to accommodate transgender inclusion at the remaining women's colleges. This has risen to attention due to a small, yet increasing number of students that have in the course of their times at the colleges transitioned from female to male (trans man), and trans women applicants. Mount Holyoke became the first Seven Sisters college to accept transgender women in 2014.
The 1978 film National Lampoon's Animal House satirizes a common practice (until the mid-1970s), when women attending Seven Sister colleges were connected with or to students at Ivy League schools. The film, which takes place in 1962, shows fraternity brothers from Delta House of the fictional Faber College (based on Dartmouth College) taking a road trip to the fictional Emily Dickinson College (based on Mount Holyoke College) to obtain dates.