Seven Sisters (colleges)

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Seven Sisters
Established 1927
Continent North America
Country United States
University type Private women's liberal arts colleges

The Seven Sisters are seven highly prestigious, historically women's private liberal arts colleges in the Northeastern United States. The consortium traces its origins to a conference at Vassar College in 1915 to discuss ways to increase revenues. Subsequent conferences led to the name "Seven Sisters" being associated with the group. Their common efforts have expanded beyond fund-raising to include admissions requirements, academic standards, and common goals. The overriding goal originally was naturally to provide the best higher education for women. While for five of the colleges this is still a defining characteristic and significant goal, two of them, Radcliffe (which merged with Harvard College) and Vassar (which became coeducational in 1969), are no longer women's colleges. Nevertheless, the term "Seven Sisters" and the collegiality of the colleges continues to inspire and encourage young women to pursue excellence in their education and subsequent careers.

Seven sister colleges

The Seven Sisters are seven historically women's liberal arts colleges in the Northeastern United States. They are Barnard College, Bryn Mawr College, Mount Holyoke College, Radcliffe College, Smith College, Wellesley College, and Vassar College. They were all founded between 1837 and 1889. Four are in Massachusetts, two are in New York, and one is in Pennsylvania.

Institution Location School type Full-time enrollment Opened door to students Collegiate Charter
Mount Holyoke College/originally Mount Holyoke Female Seminary South Hadley, Massachusetts Private women's college 2,100 1837 1888
Vassar College Poughkeepsie, New York Private coeducational 2,400 1861 1861
Wellesley College Wellesley, Massachusetts Private women's college 2,300 1875 1870
Smith College Northampton, Massachusetts Private women's college 2,750 1875 1871
Radcliffe College/originally The Harvard Annex Cambridge, Massachusetts Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study (no longer accepts students) n/a 1879 1894
Bryn Mawr College Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania Private women's college 1,229 1885 1885
Barnard College Morningside Heights, Manhattan, New York Private women's college 2,356 1889 1889



In Women's Colleges in the United States: History, Issues, and Challenges, Irene Harwarth, Mindi Maline, and Elizabeth DeBra note that "Independent nonprofit women’s colleges, which included the 'Seven Sisters' and other similar institutions, were founded to provide educational opportunities to women equal to those available to men and were geared toward women who wanted to study the liberal arts".[1] The colleges also offered broader opportunities in academia to women, hiring many female faculty members and administrators.

Early proponents of education for women were Sarah Pierce (Litchfield Female Academy, 1792); Catharine Beecher (Hartford Female Seminary, 1823); Zilpah P. Grant Banister (Ipswich Female Seminary, 1828); and Mary Lyon. Lyon was involved in the development of both Hartford Female Seminary and Ipswich Female Seminary. She also helped establish Wheaton Female Seminary (now Wheaton College, Massachusetts) in 1834. In 1837, Lyon founded Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (Mount Holyoke College), the "first of the Seven Sisters."[2] Mount Holyoke received its collegiate charter in 1888 and became Mount Holyoke Seminary and College. It became Mount Holyoke College in 1893. Harwarth, Maline, and DeBra note that, "Mount Holyoke’s significance is that it became a model for a multitude of other women’s colleges throughout the country."[1] Both Vassar College and Wellesley College were patterned after Mount Holyoke.[3] Vassar was the first of the Seven Sisters to be chartered as a college in 1861.

Wellesley College was chartered in 1870 as the Wellesley Female Seminary and was renamed Wellesley College in 1873. It opened its doors to students in 1875. Radcliffe College was originally created in 1879 as The Harvard Annex for women's instruction by Harvard faculty. It was chartered as Radcliffe College by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1894. Barnard College became affiliated with Columbia University in 1900, but it continues to be independently governed. Smith College was chartered in 1871 and opened its doors in 1875. Bryn Mawr opened in 1885.

Mount Holyoke College and Smith College are also members of Pioneer Valley's Five Colleges consortium, which also includes Amherst College, Hampshire College, and University of Massachusetts Amherst. Bryn Mawr College is a part of the Tri-College Consortium in suburban Philadelphia, with its sister schools, Haverford College and Swarthmore College.

Formation and name

The Pleiades by symbolist painter Elihu Vedder, 1885.

Harwarth, Maline, and DeBra state that "the 'Seven Sisters' was the name given to Barnard, Smith, Mount Holyoke, Vassar, Bryn Mawr, Wellesley, and Radcliffe, because of their parallel to the Ivy League men’s colleges" in 1927.[1]

The name, Seven Sisters, is a reference to the Greek myth of The Pleiades (mythology), the seven daughters of the Titan Atlas and the sea-nymph Pleione. The daughters were collectively referred to as The Seven Sisters and included Maia, Electra, Taygete, Alcyone, Celaeno, Sterope, and Merope. In the field of astronomy, a cluster of stars in the constellation Taurus is also referred to as The Pleiades (star cluster) or the Seven Sisters.

Late twentieth century

Beginning in 1963, students at Radcliffe received Harvard diplomas signed by the presidents of Radcliffe and Harvard. Joint commencement exercises began in 1970, and several Harvard and Radcliffe dormitories began exchanging students experimentally. In 1972, full co-residence was instituted, and the departments of athletics of both schools merged shortly thereafter. In 1977, Harvard and Radcliffe signed an agreement which put undergraduate women entirely in Harvard College. In 1999, Radcliffe College was dissolved and Harvard University assumed full responsibility over the affairs of female undergraduates. Radcliffe is now the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in Women's Studies at Harvard University.

Vassar College declined an offer to merge with Yale University and instead became coeducational in 1969.

Mount Holyoke College engaged in a lengthy debate under the presidency of David Truman over the issue of coeducation. On November 6, 1971, "after reviewing an exhaustive study on coeducation, the board of trustees decided unanimously that Mount Holyoke should remain a women's college, and a group of faculty was charged with recommending curricular changes that would support the decision."[4]

Smith College also made a similar decision in 1971.[5]

In 1969, Bryn Mawr College and Haverford College (then all-male) developed a system of sharing residential colleges. When Haverford became coeducational in 1980, Bryn Mawr discussed the possibly of coeducation as well but decided against it.[6]

In 1983, Columbia University began admitting women after a decade of failed negotiations with Barnard College for a merger along the lines of Harvard and Radcliffe (Barnard has been affiliated with Columbia since 1900, but it continues to be independently governed).

Wellesley College also decided against coeducation during this time.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Irene Harwarth, Women's Colleges in the United States: History, Issues, and Challenges (Diane Pub Co., 1997, ISBN 978-0788143243).
  2. About Mount Holyoke Retrieved September 10, 2015.
  3. Jennifer L. Crispen, Seven Sisters and a Country Cousin Retrieved September 10, 2015.
  4. Mount Holyoke:A Detailed History Retrieved September 10, 2015.
  5. Smith College Presidents Retrieved September 10, 2015.
  6. A Brief history of Bryn Mawr College Retrieved September 10, 2015.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Creighton, Joanne V. A Tradition of Their Own: Or, If a Woman Can Now Be President of Harvard, Why Do We Still Need Women’s Colleges? June 1, 2007.
  • Greene, Howard, and Mathew W. Greene. Greenes' Guides to Educational Planning: The Hidden Ivies: Thirty Colleges of Excellence. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2000. ISBN 0060953624
  • Harwarth, Irene. Women's Colleges in the United States: History, Issues, and Challenges. Diane Pub Co., 1997. ISBN 978-0788143243
  • Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz. Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women's Colleges from Their Nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the 1930s. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993 (2nd edition). ISBN 978-0870238697
  • Perkins, Linda M. "The Racial Integration of the Seven Sister Colleges". Journal of Blacks in Higher Education Spring, 1998, 104–108.

External links

All links retrieved January 26, 2023.


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