The formal education of girls and women began in the middle of the nineteenth century and was intimately tied to the conception that society had of the appropriate role for women to assume in life.
Republican education prepared girls for their future role as wives and mothers and taught religion, singing, dancing and literature.
Academic education prepared girls for their role as community leaders and social benefactors and had some elements of the education offered boys.
Seminaries educated women for the only socially acceptable occupation: teaching. Only unmarried women could be teachers. Many early women's colleges began as female seminaries and were responsible for producing an important corps of educators.
Full-fledged women's colleges offered women higher education, which had previously been reserved for men. They trained women in many of the traditionally male disciplines and were the only institutions where women could study science, mathematics, law and philosophy. Virtually all women of science from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries received their training in women's colleges.
THE ABOLITIONIST MOVEMENT gave rise to the women's college movement in a significant way, for women both championed the abolitionist cause and identified with its goals of emancipation for a disenfranchised group. Women's colleges were an important response to the demands that women began to make for greater participation in society. One male founder of a women's college articulated the reasons for establishing the institution in words that could have been spoken by the other founders: "It occurred to me that woman, having received from her creator the same intellectual constitution as man, has the same right as man to intellectual culture and development.... It also seemed to me, that if women were properly educated, some new avenues of useful and honorable employment...might be opened to her."
THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT of the 1960s had a similarly great impact on women's colleges. Women were among the leaders of the struggle for achieving civil rights for minorities, and they compared their situation once more to that of the minority groups. One response to the activism by women was the implementation of virtually universal coeducation in 1972.
THE MOVE TO COEDUCATION was motivated by politics and finances, not by what is educationally and developmentally optimal for women. Since that time, however, we have been learning about the continuing benefits to women of women's colleges.