The Seven Sisters Colleges

Historical Background and History of Women's Higher Education

Historical photo of woman at Barnard
Woman walk down the steps of the Low Memorial Library at Barnard's 1920 graduation.

Paul Thompson/FPG / Stringer / Getty Images

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Seven Sisters Colleges

A campus building at Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts
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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.

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Mount Holyoke College

Mount Holyoke College from afar

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Vassar College

Vassar College Daisy Chain commencement
Woman stand in a line for the Vassar College daisy chain procession at commencement in 1909. Vintage Images / Getty Images
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Wellesley College

The Wellesley college dormitory

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  • 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

Black and white photo of smith college in the snow
Freshman Alice Worms walks across the quad in front of Smith College.

Alfred Eisenstaedt / Contributor / Getty Images

  • 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
  • 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, 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

Black and white photo of Bryn Mawr College
Bryn Mawr College Faculty and Students sitting on steps. Hulton Archive / Getty Images
  • 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 training on the grass
Barnard College baseball team trains on the grass in 1925. Hulton Archive / Getty Images
  • 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.