A college of her own: women's schools thrive

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-fashioned rites of passage like "running a hoop" that once indicated who would marry first, but has now been reinvented to indicate who will be successful.

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 mainstream too.

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.

In that context, Radcliffe's finale as an undergraduate institution really says little about the state of the women's-college movement. Since its founding in 1879, Radcliffe has been a maverick in women's higher education. In 1943 it began offering undergraduates coeducational classes at Harvard - even though most women's colleges would never consider such a thing. In 1975, Harvard and Radcliffe admissions offices were combined, and the limit on the number of women undergraduates was abolished. A year later it ceded control to Harvard over most aspects of undergraduate life.

OVER those decades, the bond between Radcliffe and its women shifted gradually to Harvard. With more women attending Harvard, Radcliffe women began dropping Radcliffe from their rsum. "They didn't educate us on the positive aspects of being at a women's school," says Janet Mendelsohn, a Watertown, Mass., filmmaker who graduated in the mid-1960s.

Molly Tucker, a Radcliffe alum who teaches computer science at Colgate College in Hamilton, N.Y., has mixed feelings about her alma mater. On the one hand, "it just makes me really sad."

But she also bridles when remembering not being allowed to use the same library or dining hall as male classmates in the mid-1960s. "We were second-class citizens," she says. "I had to chart my day around where a ladies' room was" since there were so few at Harvard.

She says her daughter, who graduated in 1996, feels more allegiance to Harvard than Radcliffe. That sentiment is echoed by others like Delphine Gabbay from Lyon, France, a 1996 graduate. "It was a place that had some cool resources, classes, and seminars," she says. "But Radcliffe didn't really enter into my undergraduate study experience."

Officials say, however, that Radcliffe will build on its strengths, broadening and expanding a niche of its own.

It will enter the new millennium as the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. Already it is predicted to be the preeminent intellectual center for the study of women and society.

Wednesday's announcement has Radcliffe giving up its president and board of directors - and the Radcliffe seal that appears on diplomas next to Harvard's. But it will get a new dean to oversee operations - putting it on par with the likes of Harvard's business and law schools. Radcliffe also gains $150 million - to add to $150 million from its own endowment.

The move consolidates Radcliffe's focus on interdisciplinary scholarship. Its Bunting Institute funds research promoting women, its Schlesinger Library is an archive of women's history holding everything from suffragists' manuscripts to Ella Fitzgerald's cookbooks.

"With the creation of the Institute, Radcliffe can ... be more of an advocate in strengthening the roles of women," says Linda Wilson, who will soon step down as Radcliffe's president. "Radcliffe has been here to nurture women when they want to be nurtured. For a lot of women that's after graduation."

Sebrechts and Shapiro agree with that assessment. They say that Radcliffe, backed by Harvard's resources, will make an even stronger contribution to educating women in the future.

"It's very important for people to understand that Radcliffe is not a typical women's college," says Shapiro, whose own institution is one of the last to maintain both its autonomy and close ties to its brother institution, Columbia University. "Women's colleges are the places that can be counted on to advance the interests of women," she says. "They are places where you know women are never going to take second place."

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