Carol T. Christ, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Spring 2007
In 1927, President William Allan Neilson joined with the presidents of Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Vassar, and Wellesley, and the dean of Barnard to form the Seven College Conference, which quickly became known as the Seven Sisters. The initial purpose of the organization was philanthropic; the presidents wanted to persuade donors to give as generously to women's colleges as to men's. They hosted a series of dinners to which they invited seven leaders from some significant fields—the law, journalism, foundations—and they organized larger gatherings at which they themselves addressed distinguished guests.
Although the original seven "sisters" are now five, we still gather every year (along with Vassar, now co-ed, but without Radcliffe, now a Harvard institute) to advance our common goals. This year, we focused on the significance and force of the "Seven Sister" identity today.
From its original philanthropic intent, the association of the Seven Sisters came to suggest, in popular culture, social elitism of the sort represented in Mary McCarthy's The Group. But the connection among these schools, both historically and today, is richer and more interesting than this popular stereotype suggests. Founded in the nineteenth century to give women access to a college education equal in excellence and rigor to that available to men, the Seven Sisters also have, in some of their histories, a strong evangelical strain that gradually transmutes itself into social service and activism, both here and abroad. From their earliest decades, they built markedly strong faculties, in large part because the many women they hired had restricted opportunities elsewhere. They all built an unusually strong culture of academic excellence that endures today.
If you are a frequent reader of obituaries, as I am, you certainly have noticed that women of the prominence to have their deaths noted in national media often have attended one of the Seven Sisters, which have produced, among themselves, generations of women leaders in every field. The Seven Sisters share a powerful historical legacy of achievement and distinction.
What does this legacy mean today, when historically male colleges have become coeducational and when women's colleges represent a smaller segment of the higher education marketplace? The remaining women's colleges of the original Seven Sisters share a set of aspirations and strengths that distinguish them in the world of American higher education. Within the context of liberal arts colleges, they have exceptional human and capital resources—faculties, facilities, endowments, libraries, museums—due both to the ambition of their founders and the success of the philanthropic project, urged by the presidents at that 1927 meeting. A culture of academic excellence, any college leader can tell you, is one of the most difficult things to build and one of the most valuable resources a college or university can have.
The Seven Sisters were founded to provide women access to excellence. Today, when elite colleges are struggling to increase the socioeconomic diversity of their student bodies, Smith and her sisters provide recognized models of success. Among selective colleges, we enroll the greatest proportion of international students, the greatest proportion of older students, and the greatest proportion of students from families in the lowest segments of American income distribution. At a point when college education is more important than ever and when college costs exceed the financial capacities of many families, this is a very significant achievement.
When students come to Smith—or her sister colleges—they become heirs to the legacy that generations of women have built. This means not simply buildings, programs, and scholarship dollars, but a history of leadership across many fields, a confidence that women can not only contribute to the piece of the world they choose to inhabit but change it. Although there has been much progress in the last forty years, we still, as humans on this planet, do not benefit as fully as we should from women's leadership—in politics, in business, in law, in medicine, in science. By the devotion of their considerable resources—both tangible and intangible—to women, Smith and her sister colleges shape women's aspirations and build their powers of achievement. If women dream it, we help them do it.