Seven Sisters Join Forces to Tell Shared History of Female Education

HUMANITIES, September/October 2015, Volume 36, Number 5

The Seven Sisters—Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley—were an association of prestigious East Coast women’s colleges that came together in the early twentieth century to provide women with a high-quality liberal arts education comparable to that offered by Ivy League colleges. With funding from NEH, these institutions have teamed up to create an online portal connecting their archives of historical photographs, scrapbooks, diaries, and letters that tell the stories of the women who attended them.

“College Women: Documenting the History of Women in Higher Education” was launched in beta on June 11. It started as a collection of three hundred items gathered from the digital collections of each institution, and new material is being added as more documents are digitized and cataloged.

Some of the archived items date to the nineteenth century, such as an 1832 miniature portrait of Mary Lyon, founder and first president of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, which later became Mount Holyoke College. There’s also a letter from Amelia Hall, a student at Wellesley, to her mother in 1880 describing the political excitement on campus surrounding the upcoming presidential election: “Red white and blue shawls festooned in all manners of artistic arrays,—with pictures of Garfield or Hancock,” depending on the sympathies of the student, even though women’s suffrage was still forty years away.

Planning for the College Women portal began in 2012, and in Spring 2014 NEH awarded the project $39,650.