Women in Higher Education

Public Higher Education Superstar

Mina Rees, a graduate of Hunter College, was head of the mathematics branch of the Office of Naval Research and founding president of the CUNY Graduate Center.

College students at Arizona State University participate in Upward Bound program, c. 1970.

Men have "denied her the facilities of a thorough education, all colleges being closed against her." - Declaration of Sentiments, Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention, 1848.

When Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott wrote these words, very few colleges were open to women. Later, more private colleges would open for women and after the Civil War, public universities, land-grant colleges, and normal (teaching) schools also educated women. The growth of public schools and the need for teachers led to increased enrollment for women, who were seen as particularly suitable to care for and educate children. Not coincidentally, school districts were also able to pay women much less than men.

States approached women’s education in the 19th century in two ways. State universities in the Midwest and West, such as the Universities of Michigan and California, would become co-ed. In contrast, Southern states created separate women’s colleges, such as the Florida State College for Women. In the Northeast, New York City opened the Normal School (later renamed Hunter College) in 1870 as the sister school for City College. Rutgers, an all-male land-grant college which became a public university in 1945, established the New Jersey College for Women in 1918. By 1970, sex segregation had ended at most state colleges and universities.

Women’s opportunities in the first half of the 20th century continued to be limited mostly to traditional nurturing professions like teaching, nursing and home economics. Fewer women than men attended universities and college, but that changed radically after World War II, when women took advantage of the college building boom of the 1950s and 1960s. In 1950, women accounted for 32% of all college students; by the early 21st century, they were 57%. The women’s rights movement and the increased demand for women’s labor created greater opportunities in traditionally male professions, like medicine and law. Although women are underrepresented as a group in science and math, they now achieve higher grades than men, and show higher graduation rates.

Students at Lincoln University, Missouri, work in the science lab, 1937.
Student teacher/majorette at SUNY Brockport campus school leads her students in a march, c. 1955.
Students exiting Normal (now Hunter) College/CUNY, on Park Avenue, New York, 1890.
Student with infant, LaGuardia Community College/CUNY, c. 1980.
Noted aviator Amelia Earhart, an advisor to students at Purdue University, Indiana, sits on top of her Lockheed Electra plane, 1936.