Related: Students, Trinity, Women, Women's Leadership

Identity and Women’s Education


In 1898, when the Sisters of Notre Dame were going about the business of establishing Trinity College, they found a valuable ally in Bishop John Lancaster Spalding, an intellectual leader of the emerging Catholic social thought and the founding of Catholic University in 1888.  Bishop Spalding had written a treatise in 1895 that provided the best possible justification for the founding of Trinity as one of the first Catholic colleges for women.

In “Means and Ends of Education” Bishop Spalding argued in favor of the higher education of women as a matter of justice and equality:  “As to whether there should be higher education for young women, that is a settled question; higher education there will be, and higher education there ought to be.  There is not a religion, a philosophy, a science, an art for man and another for woman.  Consequently, there is not, in its essential elements, at least, an education for man and another for woman.  In souls, in minds, in consciences, in hearts, there is no sex.    What is the best education for woman?  That which will best help her to become a perfect human being, wise, loving and strong.  What is her work?  Whatever may help her to become herself.  What is forbidden her?  Nothing but what degrades or narrows or warps.  What has she the right to do?  Any good and beautiful and useful thing she is able to do without hurt to her dignity and worth as a human being…Like man, she exists for herself and God, and in her relations to others, her duties are not to the home alone, but to the whole social body, religious and civil.  Whether man or woman is a minor thing; to be wise and worthy and loving is all….There are not two educations, then, one for man and another for woman, but both alike we bid contend to the uttermost for completeness of life; bid both trust in human educableness, which makes possible the hope of attaining all divine things.”

Women’s colleges were not founded to exclude men or isolate women from society, but rather, to give women educational opportunities at times when women were largely excluded from the men’s colleges of that day.  These institutions began their existence as artifacts of cultural norms that frowned upon intellectually ambitious women.   In earlier centuries, some such women were considered to be witches and heretics to be burned at the stake.

The more enlightened upperclass communities of the 19th and early 20th centuries were more tolerant of learned women so long as they did not threaten the male enclaves.  So, the great women’s colleges — Mt. Holyoke, Vassar, Smith, Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, Trinity — came into existence in the 19th and early-to-mid 20th centuries because women could not gain admission to the men’s colleges of those days.  These women’s colleges were not founded as places designed to isolate or protect women from real life, but rather, to give women the knowledge and skills necessary to participate effectively in the larger world.

Over the course of the last 150 years, women’s colleges have done all of that and more, educating some of the most powerful women in the world — Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Kathleen Sebelius, Geraldine Ferraro, Drew Faust, Gwen Ifill, Cokie Roberts, Madeleine Albright, Elaine Chao, Jeanne Kirkpatrick…. the list goes on and on.

The best women’s colleges in America have always had a philosophy of engagement with the world, not isolation from it, and the remarkable track record of the women leaders who emerged from these institutions clearly demonstrated that the students who earned their degrees at women’s colleges could hold their own in the coed worlds of business, politics and the larger civic arena.

I was contemplating all of this today after I came across an item in about a new “debate” about whether the presence of transgendered students might somehow violate the pristine gender identity of women’s colleges or the few remaining all-male institutions.   I’ve heard this discussion before, at meetings of the Women’s College Coalition where some member institutions have had some fairly intense campus debates around this issue.

Haven’t we moved past biology as the reason for the existence of women’s colleges today?  Our purpose should not be about mere biology, but about educational philosophy.

Women’s colleges do not need to exist today.  Some of us persist, however, because we believe that some women can learn more effectively, develop more self-confidence, and acquire the tools of empowerment more successfully in an environment that focuses on their growth and success.  Does this mean that only women can benefit from these institutions, or that the presence of others — male persons — will somehow destroy the opportunities for women to flourish on these campuses?

Nuts.  Really.  We’ve grown up, most of us women’s colleges that are still here.  We’re no longer the isolated, male-free enclaves of the 20th Century.   We have a different philosophy of women’s education today — we are not defined by the absence of the male person, but by the emphasis on success for women.  We are no longer rigidly exclusive, but radically inclusive.

Many women’s colleges today have growing populations of men in various programs (adult professional and graduate programs, online and corporate sites), just as Historically Black Colleges and Universities have students of other races, and Catholic colleges have students of other religions.   Individuals of many different characteristics who want to learn in these special environments can do so quite successfully so long as they respect the special mission characteristics that set us apart from larger, more homogenized institutions.

Bishop Spalding, were he to posit the question today, might simply say that biological identity is not the main question, but whether the human soul is able to grow and flourish well in the educational environment.   We need less parsing of personal identities and more focus on the kinds of persons our students will become in our care.

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: