Although women now outnumber men in American colleges nationwide, the reversal of the gender gap is a very recent phenomenon. The fight to learn was a valiant struggle waged by many tenacious women—across years and across cultures—in our country. After the American Revolution, the notion of education as a safeguard for democracy created opportunities for girls to gain a basic education—based largely on the premise that, as mothers, they would nurture not only the bodies but also the minds of (male) citizens and leaders. The concept that educating women meant educating mothers endured in America for many years, at all levels of education.
Pioneers of secondary education for young women faced arguments from physicians and other “experts” who claimed either that females were incapable of intellectual development equal to men, or that they would be harmed by striving for it. Women’s supposed intellectual and moral weakness was also used to argue against coeducation, which would surely be an assault on purity and femininity. Emma Willard, in her 1819 Plan for Improving Female Education, noted with derision the focus of women’s “education” on fostering the display of youth and beauty, and asserted that women are “the companions, not the satellites of men”—“primary existences” whose education must prepare them to be full partners in life’s journey.
While Harvard, the first college chartered in America, was founded in 1636, it would be almost two centuries before the founding of the first college to admit women—Oberlin, which was chartered in 1833. And even as “coeducation” grew, women’s courses of study were often different from men’s, and women’s role models were few, as most faculty members were male. Harvard itself opened its “Annex” (Radcliffe) for women in 1879 rather than admit women to the men’s college—and single-sex education remained the elite norm in the U.S. until the early 1970s. As coeducation took hold in the Ivy League, the number of women’s colleges decreased steadily; those that remain still answer the need of young women to find their voices, and today’s women’s colleges enroll a far more diverse cross-section of the country than did the original Seven Sisters.
The equal opportunity to learn, taken for granted by most young women today, owes much to Title IX of the Education Codes of the Higher Education Act Amendments. This legislation, passed in 1972 and enacted in 1977, prohibited gender discrimination by federally funded institutions. It has become the primary tool for women's fuller participation in all aspects of education from scholarships, to facilities, to classes formerly closed to women. Indeed, it transformed the educational landscape of the United States within the span of a generation.