The History of Women in Higher Education

When Were Woman Allowed to Go to College?

A campus building at Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts
A campus building at Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts. LawrenceSawyer / Getty Images

In every year since 1982, more women than men have earned bachelor’s degrees. But women did not always have equal opportunities when it came to higher education. It wasn't until the 19th century that women's attendance at universities became widespread in the United States. Before that, female seminaries served as the only alternative for women who wished to earn a higher degree. But movements for women’s rights helped produce pressure for women to go to college, and women's education is one of the many factors that has helped keep women’s rights movements strong.

But a few women attended university and even graduated, before the formal desegregation of men's and women's higher education. Most were from wealthy or well-educated families. Below are a few notable examples: 

  • Juliana Morell earned a law doctorate in Spain in 1608.
  • Anna Maria van Schurman attended the university at Utrecht, Netherlands, in 1636.
  • Ursula Agricola and Maria Jonae Palmgren were admitted to college in Sweden in 1644.
  • Elena Cornaro Piscopia earned a doctor of philosophy degree at the University of Padua, Italy, in 1678.
  • Laura Bassi earned a doctor of philosophy degree at the University of Bologna, Italy, in 1732, and then became the first woman to teach in an official capacity at any European University.
  • Cristina Roccati received a university degree in Italy.
  • Aurora Liljenroth graduated from college in Sweden in 1788, the first woman to do so.

Bethlehem Female Seminary

In 1742, the Bethlehem Female Seminary was established in Germantown, Pennsylvania, becoming the first institute of higher education for women in the United States. It was founded by the Countess Benigna von Zinzendorf, daughter of Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf, under his sponsorship. She was only seventeen years old at the time.  In 1863, the state officially recognized the institution as a college and the college was then permitted to issue bachelor’s degrees. In 1913, the college renamed itself the Moravian Seminary and College for Women, and later the institution became co-educational.

Salem College

Salem College in North Carolina was founded in 1772 by Moravian sisters. It became the Salem Female Academy. It is still open.

Litchfield Female Academy

Sarah Pierce founded this Connecticut institute of higher education for women in 1792. Reverend Lyman Beecher (father of Catherine Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Isabella Beecher Hooker) was among the lecturers. It was part of the Republican Motherhood ideological trend, focused on educating women so that they could be responsible for raising an educated citizenry.

Bradford Academy

In 1803, Bradford Academy in Bradford, Massachusetts, began admitting women. Fourteen men and 37 women graduated in the first class. In 1837, it changed its focus to only admit women. 

Hartford Female Seminary

Catharine Beecher founded the Hartford Female Seminary in 1823. It did not survive the 19th century. Catherine Beecher was the sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who was a student at Hartford Female Seminary and later a teacher there.  Fanny Fern, a children’s author and newspaper columnist, also graduated from the Hartford Seminary.

Public High Schools

The first public high schools in America to admit women were opened in 1826 in both New York and Boston.

Ipswich Female Seminary

In 1828, Zilpah Grant founded Ipswich Academy, with Mary Lyon as an early principal. The purpose of the school was to prepare young women to be missionaries and teachers. The school took the name Ipswich Female Seminary in 1848, and operated until 1876.

Mary Lyon: Wheaton and Mount Holyoke

Mary Lyon established the Wheaton Female Seminary in Norton, Massachusetts, in 1834, and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, Massachusetts, in 1837. Mount Holyoke received a collegiate charter in 1888. (They survive as Wheaton College and Mount Holyoke College.)

Clinton Female Seminary

This organization which later merged into the Georgia Female College was founded in 1821. It was founded as fully a college.

Lindon Wood School for Girls

Founded in 1827, and continuing as Lindenwood University, this was the first school of higher education for women that was west of the Mississippi.

Columbia Female Academy

Columbia Female Academy opened in 1833. It became a full college later, and exists today as Stephens College.

Georgia Female College

Now called Wesleyan, this institution in the state of Georgia was created in 1836 specifically so that women could earn bachelor’s degrees.

St. Mary’s Hall

In 1837, St. Mary’s Hall was founded in New Jersey as a female seminary. It is today a pre-K through high school, Doane Academy.

Oberlin College

Oberlin College, founded in Ohio in 1833, admitted four women as full students in 1837.  Only a few years later, more than a third (but less than half) of the student body were women.

In 1850, when Lucy Sessions graduated with a literary degree from Oberlin, she became the first African American female college graduate. Mary Jane Patterson in 1862 was the first African American woman to earn a B.A. degree.

Elizabeth Blackwell

In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell graduated from Geneva Medical College, New York. She was the first woman in America admitted to a medical school, and the first in America to be awarded a medical degree.

Seven Sisters Colleges

A parallel to the Ivy League colleges available to male students, the Seven Sisters Colleges were founded in the mid to late 19th century in America.