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Speeches & Media

A Heritage of Leadership

Historic Seven Sisters Colleges Set an Early Commitment to Women’s Equality

Kathleen McCartney, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Winter 2015

Last month, I had the pleasure of hosting the Seven College Conference, an annual gathering of the leadership of Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Smith, Wellesley and Vassar that has been meeting, in various configurations, since 1915. Vassar is no longer single-sex but continues to find value in the group; Radcliffe, now a research institute, no longer participates but the reference to “Seven” endures.

As a developmental psychologist, I proposed we focus this year on topics foundational to young adult development—identity formation, well-being and “belongingness,” failure and resilience, the ways college students assess risk and emerging findings from neuroscience about the adolescent brain. Given our membership, we placed a special emphasis on research about women’s development.

Our conversations took place in a context of renewed visibility for women’s colleges and women’s education. The Women in Public Service Program, now housed at the Woodrow Wilson Center under the leadership of Jane Harman ’66 and Gwen Young ’91, continues to bring leading women’s colleges together to advance women in governments around the world. Societies and institutions worldwide are experiencing the so-called Malala Effect, a global recognition of the educational rights of girls and women spurred by the courageous example of Nobel Prize–winning Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai. Each of the women’s colleges at the conference has seen strong growth in applications over the last decade, many setting records.

The 609 first-year students who enrolled at Smith this fall came from 521 secondary schools across the United States and around the world. As our admission staff and alumnae volunteers know, these young women aren’t followers, blindly tracing a path to a college where their high school has sent dozens before them. Rather, they are pioneers, independent thinkers from a wide range of backgrounds making a singular, affirmative choice.

Provost Katherine Rowe, who spent 16 years on the faculty at Bryn Mawr, offers a provocative assessment of women’s college students today. In making a decision to come to a women’s college, she observes, our students are already demonstrating capacity for the very qualities our society needs to confront its greatest challenges: self-knowledge, creative thinking, independence of mind. The distinctively intense, highly intellectual atmosphere of a women’s college campus is no accident; bring together a group of smart, high-achieving individuals self-selected for independence and challenge and you create a transformative campus experience that few other institutions can claim.

When I speak about Smith to prospective students and parents, I say that every young woman should have a women’s college on her list; I am so grateful to the alumnae who volunteer as admission coordinators and help share this message. The commitment to women’s advancement and equality set long ago by the presidents of Smith and the Sister colleges means that those who choose Smith, Wellesley, Mount Holyoke, Bryn Mawr or Barnard will join communities like no other, setting them on a path of leadership across a lifetime.