Seven Sisters Colleges - Historical Background

A campus building at Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts
LawrenceSawyer / Getty Images
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Seven Sisters Colleges

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

Founded in the mid to late 19th century, these seven women's colleges in the Northeast of the United States have been called the Seven Sisters. Like the Ivy League (originally men's colleges), to which they were considered a parallel, the Seven Sisters have had a reputation of being top-notch and elite.

The colleges were founded to promote education for women that would be at an equal level to the education offered to men.

The name "Seven Sisters" came into use officially with the 1926 Seven College Conference, which was aimed at organizing common fund-raising for the colleges.

The title "Seven Sisters" also alludes to the Pleiades, seven daughters of the Titan Atlas and the nymph Pleione in Greek myth. A cluster of stars in the constellation Taurus is also called the Pleiades or Seven Sisters.

Of the seven colleges, four still function as independent, private women's colleges. Radcliffe College no longer exists as a separate institution admitting students, dissolving in 1999 after a slow integration with Harvard beginning formally in 1963 with joint diplomas. Barnard College still exists as a separate legal entity, but is closely affiliated with Columbia. Yale and Vassar did not merge, though Yale extended an offer to do so, and Vassar became a coeducational college in 1969, remaining independent. Each of the other colleges remains a private women's college, after considering coeducation.

1 Mount Holyoke College
2 Vassar College
3 Wellesley College
4 Smith College
5 Radcliffe College
6 Bryn Mawr College
7 Barnard College
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Mount Holyoke College

Mount Holyoke Seminary 1887
Mount Holyoke Seminary 1887. From a public domain image

Mount Holyoke College Profile

Located in: South Hadley, Massachusetts

First admitted students: 1837

Original name: Mount Holyoke Female Seminary

Also commonly known as: Mt. Holyoke College

Formally chartered as a college: 1888

Traditionally affiliated with: Dartmouth College; originally sister school to Andover Seminary

Founder: Mary Lyon

Some famous graduates: Virginia Apgar, Olympia Brown, Elaine Chao, Emily Dickinson, Ella T. Grasso, Nancy Kissinger, Frances Perkins, Helen Pitts, Lucy Stone. Shirley Chisholm served briefly on the faculty.

About the Seven Sisters Women's Colleges

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Vassar College

Vassar College Daisy Chain
Vassar College Daisy Chain procession at commencement, 1909. Vintage Images / Getty Images

Vassar College Profile

Located in: Poughkeepsie, New York

First admitted students: 1865

Formally chartered as a college: 1861

Traditionally affiliated with: Yale University

Some famous graduates: Anne Armstrong, Ruth Benedict, Elizabeth Bishop, Mary Calderone, Mary McCarthy, Crystal Eastman, Eleanor Fitchen, Grace Hopper, Lisa Kudrow, Inez Milholland, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Harriot Stanton Blatch, Ellen Swallow Richards, Ellen Churchill Semple, Meryl Streep, Urvashi Vaid. Janet Cooke, Jane Fonda, Katharine Graham, Anne Hathaway and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis attended but did not graduate.

Now a coeducational college: Vassar College

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Wellesley College

Wellesley College 1881
Wellesley College 1881. From a public domain image

Wellesley College Profile

Located in: Wellesley, Massachusetts

First admitted students: 1875

Formally chartered as a college: 1870

Traditionally affiliated with: Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University

Founded by: Henry Fowle Durant and Pauline Fowle Durant. Founding president was Ada Howard, followed by Alice Freeman Palmer.

Some famous graduates: Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, Madeleine Albright, Katharine Lee Bates, Sophonisba Breckinridge, Annie Jump Cannon, Madame Chaing Kai-shek (Soong May-ling), Hillary Clinton, Molly Dewson, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Norah Ephron, Susan Estrich, Muriel Gardiner, Winifred Goldring, Judith Krantz, Ellen Levine, Ali MacGraw, Martha McClintock, Cokie Roberts, Marian K. Sanders, Diane Sawyer, Lynn Sherr, Susan Sheehan, Linda Wertheimer, Charlotte Anita Whitney

Still a women's college: Wellesley College

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Smith College

Smith College Profile

Located in: Northampton, Massachusett

First admitted students: 1879

Formally chartered as a college: 1894

Traditionally affiliated with: Amherst College

Founded by: bequest left by Sophia Smith

Presidents have included: Elizabeth Cutter Morrow, Jill Ker Conway, Ruth Simmons, Carol T. Christ

Some famous graduates: Tammy Baldwin, Barbara Bush, Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, Julia Child, Ada Comstock, Emily Couric, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, Margaret Farrar, Bonnie Franklin, Betty Friedan, Meg Greenfield, Sarah P. Harkness, Jean Harris, Molly Ivins, Yolanda King, Madeleine L'Engle, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Catharine MacKinnon, Margaret Mitchell, Sylvia Plath, Nancy Reagan, Florence R. Sabin, Gloria Steinem

Still a women's college: Smith College

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Radcliffe College

Helen Keller Radcliffe College
Helen Keller graduating from Radcliffe College, 1904. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Radcliffe College Profile

Located in: Cambridge, Massachusetts

First admitted students: 1879

Original name: The Harvard Annex

Formally chartered as a college: 1894

Traditionally affiliated with: Harvard University

Current name: Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study (for Women's Studies), part of Harvard University

Founded by: Arthur Gilman. First woman donor was Ann Radcliffe Mowlson.

Presidents have included: Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz, Ada Louise Comstock

Some famous graduates: Fannie Fern Andrews, Margaret Atwood, Susan Berresford, Benazir Bhutto, Stockard Channing, Nancy Chodorow, Mary Parker Follett, Carol Gilligan, Ellen Goodman, Lani Guinier, Helen Keller, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Anne McCaffrey, Mary White Ovington, Katha Pollitt, Bonnie Raitt, Phyllis Schlafly, Gertrude Stein - Biography of Gertrude Stein, Barbara Tuchman,

No longer admits students as a separate institution from Harvard University: Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study - Harvard University

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Bryn Mawr College

Bryn Mawr College
Bryn Mawr College Faculty and Students 1886. Future President Woodrow Wilson in doorway at right. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Bryn Mawr CollegeProfile

Located in: Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania

First admitted students: 1885

Formally chartered as a college: 1885

Traditionally affiliated with: Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, Haverford College, Swarthmore College

Founded by: bequest of Joseph W. Taylor; associated with the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) until 1893

Presidents have included M. Carey Thomas

Some famous graduates: Emily Greene Balch, Eleanor Lansing Dulles, Drew Gilpin Faust, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Josephine Goldmark, Hanna Holborn Gray, Edith Hamilton, Katharine Hepburn, Katharine Houghton Hepburn (the actress' mother), Marianne Moore, Candace Pert, Alice Rivlin, Lily Ross Taylor, Anne Truitt. Cornelia Otis Skinner attended but did not graduate.

Still a women's college: Bryn Mawr College

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Barnard College

Barnard College Baseball Team
Barnard College baseball team in training, about 1925. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Barnard College Profile

Located in: Morningside Heights, Manhattan, New York

First admitted students: 1889

Formally chartered as a college: 1889

Traditionally affiliated with: Columbia University

Some famous graduates: Natalie Angier, Grace Lee Boggs, Jill Eikenberry, Ellen V. Futter, Helen Gahagan, Virginia Gildersleeve, Zora Neale Hurston, Elizabeth Janeway, Erica Jong, June Jordan, Margaret Mead, Alice Duer Miller, Judith Miller, Elsie Clews Parsons, Belva Plain, Anna Quindlen, Helen M. Ranney, Jane Wyatt, Joan Rivers, Lee Remick, Martha Stewart, Twyla Tharp.

Still a women's college, technically separate but tightly integrated with Columbia University: Barnard College. Reciprocity in many classes and activities began in 1901. Diplomas are issued by Columbia University; Barnard hires its own faculty but tenure is approved in coordination with Columbia so that faculty members hold tenure with both institutions. In 1983, Columbia College, the University's undergraduate institution, began to admit women as well as men, after negotiation efforts failed to merge the two institutions completely.

About the Seven Sisters Women's Colleges