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What are the Seven Sisters?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Seven Sisters are liberal arts colleges on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. Several of them are also sister schools to the formerly all male Ivy League colleges. Since 1927, when the term Seven Sisters, in honor of the Pleiades, was coined, two of the colleges have become coeducational. The Seven Sisters were all founded in the 19th century with the goal of opening up educational opportunities to women, since most colleges were all male at the time. Today they routinely show up in the top educational rankings for the United States.

The colleges considered part of the Seven Sisters are: Mount Holyoke College, Vassar College, Wellesley College, Smith College, Radcliffe College, Bryn Mawr College, and Barnard College. These colleges claim a host of famous graduates, including Jackie Kennedy, Margaret Mead, Katharine Hepburn, Gertrude Stein, Julia Child, Emily Dickinson, and many others. Members of the Sisters that remain all female believe that maintaining a female student body has important value for their graduates, and many famous graduates have written about the benefit of attending a women's college.

Mount Holyoke College, located in Massachusetts, is the oldest of these colleges, founded in in 1837. Mount Holyoke prides itself on educating unusual and strong women and has focused on providing high quality academics since 1837, when the College used the same textbooks utilized in male colleges. In addition to being part of the Seven Sisters, Mount Holyoke is part of the Five Colleges Consortium, which allows students to take classes at Amherst College, Smith College, Hampshire College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Mount Holyoke college also pairs with Dartmouth College and the California Institute of Technology to offer a highly regarded engineering program.

Vassar College, in New York, was founded in 1861. In 1969, it became the first of the Seven Sisters to go coeducational, after declining an offer to merge with Yale. In addition to granting undergraduate degrees, Vassar offers a Masters program in chemistry. A number of famous figures in the arts have graduated from Vassar.

Wellesley College, also in Massachusetts, opened in 1875. Wellesley has a strong program in the sciences, and many students go on to attend medical and other professional schools after graduation. Wellesley's goals include educating empowered women who intend to make a difference in the world at large, and the school is well known for its handsome 500-acre grounds, including gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmstead.

Smith College, another member of the Five Colleges Consortium, was established in Massachusetts in 1871 as a private women's college. Smith's undergraduate population remains all female, although men are admitted as graduate students. Smith is the largest private women's college in the United States and it remains very committed to high quality education for women. Smith has a strong program in the sciences, especially engineering, as well as a rich tradition of graduates in the arts.

Radcliffe College was founded in 1879, originally as an annex of Harvard for educating women. Radcliffe has since been absorbed into Harvard, and today it is a coeducational Institute of Advanced Study. The Radcliffe name is still used by many organizations at Harvard, and the Radcliffe crew team retains its own colors and mascot.

Bryn Mawr was established in 1885, and is one of the most elite of the Seven Sisters, accepting a limited number of applicants. It was originally affiliated with the Society of Friends, although the religious connection has since been dropped. Along with Haverford College and Swarthmore College, Bryn Mawr forms the Tri-College Consortium, with reciprocity between schools allowing students to take classes at all campuses. Bryn Mawr, like Smith, admits men at the graduate level of instruction.

Barnard College is the youngest of the Seven Sisters, founded in New York in 1889. It is affiliated with Columbia College, although it maintains a separate faculty, administrative staff, and budget. Undergraduate admission to Barnard is restricted to women, although men from Columbia are permitted to participate in classes and activities.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon989296 — On Feb 28, 2015

Although Jacqueline Kennedy attended Vassar for two years, she is not a graduate of Vassar. Her degree is from George Washington University in the District of Columbia (DC), where she went after she returned from her year in France at the Sorbonne.

By burcinc — On Feb 26, 2011

@anamur-- As far as I know, the seven colleges (which are now five) were mentioned together because they held yearly conferences where they came together to discuss issues about the colleges like tuition, education or the student body. The name "Seven Sisters" is from mythology. It is "Pleiades" in Greek which refers to the seven daughters of the Greek god Atlas.

By serenesurface — On Feb 26, 2011

All I knew about the seven sisters before this article were from the Simpsons episode where Lisa Simpson was offered the opportunity to attend one of the seven sisters at the national spelling bee contest.

What I'm curious about is how did these colleges decide to be named together as the seven sisters? Was there a particular reason for doing so?

By fify — On Feb 24, 2011

There are many advantages of attending one of the seven sisters for a college education. First of all, they all have very high reputations. My sister went to Smith and she says that even though people who are not from the East Coast have rarely heard about it, all of her prospective employers certainly did when she went for interviews. That prestige and history is sure to open up some doors for you as you start your career or continue your education. The seven sisters provide good education, many other top universities in the US also recognize them for their academic capacities.

I guess on the other hand, it is not so easy to get into these schools and even though alternative colleges may not carry as much prestige, they still offer equally good education. I would say that if you have the means to attend one of these colleges, it will be an important and positive step in your life. If not, there are many other universities that can provide the environment and education that you are looking for in college.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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