The College for Women: The First Forty Years

by R. Jean Brownlee (July 22, 1911 - January 23, 1995)
reprinted from the Almanac February 12, 1974


A woman's college in the midst of a great University may seem to be an anomaly which is followed by the question of why it exists. The following is a celebration of forty years of the College of Liberal Arts for Women at the University of Pennsylvania and an attempt to give some reasons for its continued existence.

Prior to 1933 women could enroll in the University in a course in biology, which was primarily premedical in character, courses in fine arts and music in the School of Fine Arts, and teacher preparation courses in the School of Education. A woman had to enroll in the College Courses for Teachers, the predecessor of the College of General Studies, in order to gain a liberal arts degree. Many women earned the bachelor of science degree in the School of Education as an alternate way of getting a degree at the University even if they did not expect to teach.

In 1933 Dean John H. Minnick and the faculty of the School of Education decided that they wished to admit only juniors who had a commitment to teaching. This created the problem of finding an administrative home for women students who wanted a liberal arts education but not preparation for the classroom. The Trustees with some logic asked the College of Arts and Sciences to become coeducational. The College faculty, students and alumni were unanimous in rejecting the idea. The Trustees then decided to look to other Ivy League solutions to the problem. They saw that Radcliffe, Pembroke and Barnard all had been coordinate colleges within the structure of their universities for many years, and that each had established a record of excellence. The coordinate college pattern was an acceptable pattern for all concerned at the University. However, there were essential differences in the college which was established. A separate tenured faculty was never created, so all instruction was supplied by other faculties of the University. Some of these faculty members were appointed to serve as a policy-determining unit for the new school. It was financed from general administrative funds with neither specific instruction budget nor endowment. Thus from the beginning it was an administrative unit without its own faculty or its own funds. Its only power was persuasion.

Dean Merle Odgers of the classics department and Mrs. Virginia Kinsman Henderson opened the College of Liberal Arts for Women in Room 119. Bennett Hall in September 1933. Dr. Karl G. Miller, Professor of Psychology, succeeded Dr. Odgers in 1936 when he resigned to become president of Girard College.

Most of CW's first students came by transfer from the School of Education. Some came from other colleges, and a freshman class was admitted. The maximum enrollment was set at 500, and this limit was observed until World War II, at which time the numbers rose to more than 700. The majority of classes were segregated with a special section of established courses being offered for women. If it was essential that a woman have a course for her major and if there was not a sufficient number of other women to establish a section, she was permitted to take instruction with the men of the College. Dean Miller regularly surveyed the composition of classes and notified departments if they were not maintaining an adequate number of sections for women. World War II decreased the number of separate sections and early in President Harnwell’s administration, about 1955, he announced that all classes should be open without regard to sex.

The first three decades were years of building solid academic achievement. A separate section of Phi Beta Kappa was established in 1936 and CW alumnae were admitted to the most rigorous graduate programs throughout the world. During these years great emphasis was placed on the advising programs in which women were encouraged to discover their own talents and to cultivate them. A tradition of personal interest in and knowledge of each student was established. The College for Women developed its own loyal costituency of alumnae and friends who believed that the advantages of a small college were successfully blended with the resources of a great university.

After an extensive external and internal evaluation of the College for Women as part of the Educational Survey, the Trustees in March 1959 resolved that the faculty of the College for Women should “be charged with the responsibility of considering the special problems involved in the liberal arts education of women”. Further, “the faculty shall consist of a smaller body of persons representative of the various fields of liberal arts and sciences, and especially designated by the Provost because of their interest and experience in the problems of the education of women.” This significant far-sighted mandate from the Trustees has been the guide to the decisions of the faculty and college administration since that time.

Dan Miller retired in 1959 and the author, a political scientist who had been vice dean, was appointed as of July 1, 1960. At that time no one could foresee the changes which would come to all higher education and to the College for Women in particular. The first was the decision of the faculty of the School of Education to become exclusively a graduate unit and therefore leave almost 300 undergraduate students without an academic home. Since 90 percent of these were women, the College for Women faculty was charged with the responsibility for developing a curriculum which would meet liberal arts degree requirements and also professional criteria in teacher preparation. Two programs were developed: a Bachelor of Arts degree with eligibility for certification to teach in secondary schools, and a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education. The students in the School of Education were given the choice of qualifying for their degrees by following the previous curriculum or changing to the new. The College of Arts and Sciences adopted the program in secondary education which was developed, but never approved the degree in elementary education. In 1971, with the encouragement of the State Department of Education, the Graduate School of Education presented a combined Bachelor of Arts and Master of Science in Secondary Education degree which was adopted by the College for Women faculty. It is now possible for highly motivated and talented students to start their graduate-professional work while still undergraduates and to earn both bachelor's and master's degree in four years. Fewer students will be candidates for certification from the University, but it is believed that the quality of preparation will be improved. Dr. Betty Daskin was appointed pre-Education Advisor in January 1973 with responsibility of advising the undergraduates in all schools on questions involving teaching as a profession.

New Fields for Women

The College for Women from its beginning admitted only full-time students, as was the policy in the College of Arts and Sciences. By the early sixties it became apparent nationally that there were many women who wanted to prepare for a variety of vocations as soon as their children were in school or because of widowhood or divorce. In order to test the local situation, the Board of Association of Alumnae in 1961 circulated a questionnaire to their members who lived in the Philadelphia area asking if they would be interested in taking regular daytime courses at the University on a part-time basis. There were a large number of enthusiastic replies, and a Carnegie Foundation grand was obtained to finance the first two years of the experiment. Provost David R. Goddard agreed that up to 10 percent of the enrollment of any school could be made up of this group of women. Mrs. Henderson, who had worked closely with the Association to identify the need, was named Director of Continuing Education for Women. Two important guidelines were set: a woman would be evaluated as she presented herself during an intensive interview and her intentions must be purposeful. The program was not for dilettantes! The record shows that a serious and talented group was attracted. As of June 1973, the following degrees had been earned: 218 bachelors, 45 masters and 3 doctorates. In addition, many women qualified for specific jobs in which degrees were not relevant, such as reading aides or museum guides. At present the enrollment is limit3ed to six hundred and is under the directorship of Miss Charlotte Fiechter, who succeeded Mrs. Henderson in August 1972.

The third and most recent program initiated under the supervision of the College for Women is that of Women's Studies. In the spring of 1972 a group of women faculty, administrators and students formed the Penn Women's Studies Planners with the purpose of developing a program in the University. The Planners proposed a design which they presented to President Meyerson, who received it with interest and suggested the plan be developed over the summer of 1972. The result was a careful survey of existing programs in the United States, opinions of leaders in the field of Women's Studies and suggestions for curriculum in the University. The "Summer Project Report, a Descriptive Analysis of the Results of a National Survey", printed in October 1972, has had wide distribution throughout the country and is now considered an early classic in the field. During the fall of 1972 a number of experimental courses was prepared for inclusion in the College of Thematic Studies; since then, twenty-two courses dealing with women have been offered under the sponsorship of traditional departments. In the spring of 1973, 89 students enrolled in the thirteen courses which were offered and enrollment has doubled for the spring of 1974. Also the position of coordinator of women's studies was established, with the stipulation that the incumbent should be of faculty rank and have the responsibility of interpreting and stimulating research in this neglected area. Dr. Elsa Greene, an Emily Dickinson scholar from the University of Minnesota, reported in September as Coordinator of Women's Studies and Lecturer in English. Thirteen courses are again begin given this spring in the College of Thematic Studies--with more students registering than there are available places-- and emphasis is also being placed on the incorporation of women's studies into the regular curriculum by creating new courses or restating existing materials in a way which gives meaning to the role of women in society. The Carnegie Corporation on Higher Education in "Opportunities for Women in Higher Education" has endorsed this approach: "The movement to introduce courses on women and interdisciplinary women's studies programs should be encouraged by institutions of higher education, at least on a transitional basis, but these courses and programs should be organized within existing disciplines and not under separate departments of women's studies."

The Multiple Choice Question

Advising has continued to be of special concern to the administration of the College for Women. It is distinguished by having full-time personnel who have shown a strong academic commitment either as teachers in the University of as advanced graduate students. Their aim is to help each student have the academic experience best suited to her needs and at the same time to serve as role models for women students in a university which is traditionally male-oriented.

As just one measure of the complexity, a recent study showed that one third of the students were not following the typical liberal arts program. Others are preparing to do graduate work or follow careers in emerging fields and fields in which the University does not provide specialists.

The choices they face are numerous. At present, a student can select from 39 major programs ranging from American Civilization to Urban Studies. She may become a Benjamin Franklin Scholar, take courses in the College of Thematic Studies, design independent study courses or develop an individualized major. She may work for a double degree in CW (i.e., B.A. and B.S. in Education) or dual degrees with the School of Allied Medical Professions or Wharton, for example. She may commute to Bryn Mawr, Haverford, or Swarthmore to enrich her major, participate in the University Year for Action or leave campus for study abroad. The most talented may choose to submatriculate in one of the graduate programs and count some of their undergraduate work toward that advanced degree. In the fall term, 132 CW students were registered in graduate-level courses: 61 in Arts and Sciences, 2 in Engineering, 32 in Wharton and 37 in Fine Arts. In these "600" courses undergraduates compete on equal footing with duly registered graduate students. Some find the decision to graduate in six, seven, or eight terms is perplexing and they have to be helped to evaluate their own goals.

Students are attracted to the University by this flexibility in programs and choice of courses. Each year new opportunities are being presented and the student requires help to find these resources and evaluate them in relation to her own talents and goals. Often she needs help in finding the specialist in the field who may know the answers to questions. The advisors in the College for Women are the generalists who seek to open eyes and open doors in this complex environment.

A program entitled "Life Options for Women", developed by the College for Women, is one formal ways in which the college helps young women to set their goals of life achievement.

Present and Future

The current structure of the College for Women is rather simple when one considers that there are 2000 undergraduates and 600 continuing education students who are served. Approximately 80 members of the faculty of the College of Liberal Arts for Women are appointed annually by the Provost from other faculties of the University. At present there are 63 men and 26 women, 57 of whom are faculty members of the College of Arts and Sciences, while the rest are drawn from 11 other schools of the University. They meet regularly to consider the welfare of the college. A Committee on Instruction which has six faculty and (since 1965) three student members recommends policy to the faculty and the dean while an executive committee of six members applies the policy to the individual student. In the fall of 1972 the former Advisory Committee to the Dean of Women was changed to the Advisory Committee to the Dean of the College for Women. This committee is composed of 29 distinguished Philadelphia women who advise the dean on a variety of matters. The College for Women Alumnae Society, whose program centers around seminars bringing women graduates and faculty together, has a record of a decade of service. It is also gratifying that 19 percent of the graduates contribute to Alumni Annual Giving.

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences has been created and there is a search committee for the first dean. This new faculty will include the former faculties of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the College of Arts and Sciences, four departments of the Wharton School and the College for Women. The identity of the College for Women—and with it an official and formal concern for the special educational problems of women—must not be lost within such a new structure. David Truman, president of Mount Holyoke College, has stated “The problems of young women are fundamentally different from those of young men in this society and there must be a specialized concern in education, especially higher education, if the waster of dysfunctional stereotypes are to be reduced.”

The University has a unique opportunity to continue and expand its programs for women at a time when our nation is looking anew at the role of half its citizens. The Carnegie Report summarizes it as follows:

"Revolutionary changes are underway in the development of greater occupational opportunities for women, in the nature of the family, in sexual roles, in child rearing obligations, and in many other ways. No one can as yet know how they will all turn out. This situation must be kept under continuing review."


Last update: Wednesday, 02-Apr-2003 08:59:44 EST
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