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The Seven Sisters: How to Build an Old Girls' Network: Background information when reading A Woman of Intelligence

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A Woman of Intelligence

by Karin Tanabe

A Woman of Intelligence by Karin Tanabe X
A Woman of Intelligence by Karin Tanabe
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2021, 384 pages

    Aug 2022, 384 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Karen Lewis
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About this Book

The Seven Sisters: How to Build an Old Girls' Network

This article relates to A Woman of Intelligence

Print Review

Wellesley College campus covered in snowIn Karin Tanabe's novel A Woman of Intelligence, some characters attend all-women's colleges. The narrator Katharina graduated from Vassar and another lead, Ava, graduated from Mount Holyoke. Katharina's occasional babysitter, Sarah Beach, studies at Barnard. These colleges and four other historically women's colleges — Bryn Mawr, Radcliffe, Smith and Wellesley — have been nicknamed the Seven Sisters. Each college was founded to offer women intellectually rigorous undergraduate degrees during a century when the Ivy League and many other universities were restricted to men only. (Novelist Karin Tanabe is a graduate of Vassar College; her earlier historical novel, The Gilded Years, is based on the life of Vassar's first African American student, Anita Hemmings, class of 1897.)

Learning communities focused on women's education are meant to build intellectual skills, foster leadership, and encourage freedom from male-defined rules and roles. Over the past century, leaders in all fields from science to film have studied at the Seven Sisters colleges. The schools' network of alumnae continues to propel women through glass ceilings in law, politics, STEM, medicine and the arts.

Over the past few decades, Radcliffe has merged with Harvard and Barnard has become more entwined with Columbia University. Vassar remains independent but became coeducational in 1969. The other Sisters — Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Smith and Wellesley — remain (as of 2021) committed to the education of women-identifying students in their undergraduate degree programs. Each of the Seven Sisters attracts an increasingly diverse student body in terms of race, culture, international origin, gender identity, citizenship status and economic background. A perusal of these colleges' websites demonstrates robust financial aid programs and diversity outreach initiatives.

Here are a few fun facts about the Seven Sisters.

Barnard College, founded in 1889 and located in the heart of New York City, is partnered with Columbia University and all courses are open to students enrolled at either institution. According to the website, the schools are "two distinct communities that create a larger whole." Notable Barnard alumnae include Ntozake Shange; Jumpha Lahiri; Margaret Mead; Zora Neale Hurston; Erica Jong; Edwidge Danticat; and Olympic athletes Charlotte Buck, Jackie Dubrovich, Nicole Ross and Yasmeen Al-Dabbagh from Saudi Arabia.

Bryn Mawr was founded in 1885 in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania and originally affiliated with the Society of Friends (Quakers). In the early years, the college denied admission to African American women. Bryn Mawr now embraces diversity. The entering class of 2024 features 12% international students, 16% first-generation students and 52% students of color. Bryn Mawr's college motto is "Turn a passion for learning into a life of purpose." Notable alumnae include poet Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), NPR's Neda Ulaby, Academy Award-winning actress Katherine Hepburn and 1946 Nobel Peace Prize winner Emily Balch.

Mount Holyoke was founded in 1837 as a woman's seminary in South Hadley, Massachusetts, and one of the earliest students was poet Emily Dickinson. Enduring as a self-described "women's college that is gender diverse," Mount Holyoke's notable alumnae include playwrights Suzan-Lori Parks and Wendy Wasserstein, and the 2020 Academy Award-winning director Chloé Zhao. Notables in medicine include Virginia Apgar and Gloria Johnson-Powell (one of the first African American women to attain tenure at Harvard Medical School).

Radcliffe was founded in 1879 as a women-only affiliate of Harvard, and in 1999 the two schools officially merged. What is now called the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies hosts visiting interdisciplinary graduate scholars. Notable Radcliffe alumnae include Benazir Bhutto, Adrienne Rich, Helen Keller, Gertrude Stein, Bonnie Raitt and editor of the groundbreaking book Our Bodies, Ourselves, Judy Norsigian.

Smith College began in 1871 in Northampton, Massachusetts. Some notable alumnae are: Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Tammy Baldwin, Ng'endo Mwangi, Sylvia Plath and Julia Child. The college motto "Be your most powerful self" attracts an increasingly diverse student body.

Vassar in Poughkeepsie, New York was founded in 1861. Notable attendees include Meryl Streep, Jane Fonda, Jackie Kennedy, Katharine Graham and Mary Oliver. Class of 2001 graduate Anu Duggal is a founding partner of Female Founders Fund, an organization that provides financial backing to female entrepreneurs.

Wellesley College, was founded in 1875. Located near Boston, Massachusetts, the campus offers cross-registration courses with nearby MIT, Olin and Brandeis. Diane Sawyer, Nora Ephron, Soong Mei-Ling, Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton are some of many notable alumnae. Wellesley is dedicated to diversity, with 52% of the student body identifying as people of color. The 2003 Julia Roberts film Mona Lisa Smile uses Wellesley as a significant setting and the movie was filmed on campus.

In addition to the Seven Sisters, there are dozens of other historically women's colleges in the United States. Some are church-affiliated, others have merged with men's institutions, closed, or have become coed. As higher education continues to evolve, it is refreshing to see strong diversity initiatives at many schools that have a history of being exclusively white (in practice if not by official decree).

Wellesley College, courtesy of The Wellesley News

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

Article by Karen Lewis

This "beyond the book article" relates to A Woman of Intelligence. It originally ran in August 2021 and has been updated for the August 2022 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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