Talk-show host Oprah Winfrey and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright may seem poles apart. But along with author Alice Walker and Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, they share at least one thing: This year, all were commencement speakers at all-women colleges.
Their presence on these campuses - Mount Holyoke, Wellesley, and Smith Colleges in Massachusetts, and Agnes Scott College in Georgia, respectively - underscores the renewed interest in all-female colleges.
Applications to 85 to 90 percent of all-women's colleges have risen steadily over the last five years, according to the Women's College Coalition (WCC) in Washington, D.C. The high profile of women like Wellesley grad Hillary Rodham Clinton has helped. But women's colleges have also received high ratings. In U.S. News & World Report's 1997 ratings of national liberal-arts colleges, six women's institutions rank in the top 25.
The current flush of success represents a turnaround from the days when the race toward coeducation claimed 216 women's colleges which either closed, went coed, or merged with a male institution since 1960.
While many women still prefer these once-male institutions, more are discovering that all-female colleges are not white-gloved worlds. Studies show that students in these schools are generally more involved in academic and extra-curricular activities, enjoy greater opportunities for leadership, and display more confidence than their peers at coeducational institutions.
Part of their success is due to size. The 82 surviving female institutions - which include two universities and three two-year colleges - are small. But the other reason is a single-minded focus.
"Women are the priority, and that is not the case anywhere else," says Jadwiga Sebrechts, director of the WCC, "The only mission of the women's college is to advance women."
For students, this is a strong selling point. Though they often give low ratings to campus social life, women thrive on the relative absence of men. "Women often acted stupid to impress men," says Amber Henry, who will be a senior at Agnes Scott this fall. "I knew that would not be an issue here, where everybody can be real."
Yet reality is precisely what critics say is lacking on single-sex campuses. Claire Gaudiani, who graduated from Connecticut College in Storrs before it turned coed and today is its president, argues that "the sooner men and women have practice in working and leading together, the more productive work will be."
The question is whether coeducation accomplishes this. Dodge Johnson, a college entrance adviser, does not advocate single-sex schools for everyone. But he warns that "most colleges that have gone coed have not done it well. "Many men's colleges admit women" but their culture remains male-dominated, he says.
Margaret Eisenhart, who co-authored "Educated in Romance" (1990) with Dorothy Holland, concurs. In looking at two coeducational campuses, "What we found was a 'culture of romance,' says Ms. Eisenhart. The authors state that while men derived status and confidence from their accomplishments in the lab or on the sports field, women tended to do so from the men they dated. The authors also discovered that two-thirds of the women scaled down their career expectations and changed future plans to conform to those of boyfriends. The third who bucked the trend were highly involved in academics and activities on and off campus.
All-female schools can remove such pressure. "Here it's okay to stay in your room on a Friday night to read a book," says Mauri Reddy, who graduated from Bryn Mawr this spring. Not to mention the relief of not worrying about your physical appearance "because there are 15 cute guys in the class."
Just what this means in terms of later success is unclear. Sebrechts and other advocates argue that, since most colleges have reciprocal arrangements with coeducational institutions, young women are not deprived of the chance to interact with members of the opposite sex.
More important, they maintain that graduates of all-women's colleges have a higher level of future achievement. But at least two studies comparing alumnae of women's colleges with those of coed institutions found no statistical differences in terms of later graduate studies, and one found no significant differences in incomes five years out of college.
Another criticism is that some women's colleges are bastions of lesbianism, even though there seems to be no evidence that the homosexual population is greater overall on all-female campuses than on coeducational ones.
Similarly, some critics question academic standards. A 1995 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education cites a marked decline between 1968 and 1994 in applicants to Smith and Mount Holyoke who scored 600 or higher on SATs. The fact that some top schools are accepting larger percentages of applicants may be a further indication that the pool is less qualified. But, says Mr. Johnson, "You still have the cutting edge," he says. "But now you also have a 'C' anchor. And the rigor remains."