The oldest women's college in the United States is Salem College in North Carolina, which was founded in 1772 and chartered as a college in 1866. The oldest one on the West Coast is Mills College. Women's colleges began partly to train young upper-class women to assume the proper role in society, educating them in such subjects as dancing, etiquette, music, religion, and home economics along with the more traditional educational requirements of literature, history, math, law and the like. Seminaries taught women to be teachers, in one of the few professions that were deemed socially acceptable for women.

The movement for women's education happened around the world. For example, Indraprastha Girls School, the oldest women's college in India, was founded in 1904 and was recognized by the University of Delhi twenty years later, becoming Indraprastha College for Women. Japan Women's University was founded in 1901, has a female president, and has set up affiliate schools to provide education to young women from kindergarten onwards.

Women's colleges have always, inevitably, been in many ways a source of radical political action. Salem College educated girls of African-American heritage as early as 1785, and in the 1820s, the daughter of a Cherokee Indian chief attended the school but left to join the Trail of Tears. Converse College's "History of Women's Colleges" describes how in the United States "The Abolitionist Movement gave rise to the women's college movement in a significant way, for women both championed the abolitionist cause and identified with its goals of emancipation for a disenfranchised group. Women's colleges were an important response to the demands that women began to make for greater participation in society.... The civil rights movement of the 1960's had a similarly great impact on women's colleges. Women were among the leaders of the struggle for achieving civil rights for minorities and they compared their situation once more to that of the minority groups. One response to the activism by women was the implementation of virtually universal coeducation in 1972."

The integration of women into previously men-only colleges and universities, along with the backlash against the wave of 1960s and 70s feminism, damaged many women's colleges. Enrollment for women's colleges began declining in the 1980s, and many women's colleges were forced to go co-ed. Others managed to struggle on, like Mills College, which tried to go co-ed in 1990 but was prevented by a huge student effort including sit-ins and teach-ins, bringing the campus to a dead halt for several days. Enrollment and interest in women's colleges began to rise again in the 1990s, particularly as a variety of studies were published on how girls and young women are shortchanged in the classroom. In 1999, enrollment in women's colleges had increased 30% over 1989 enrollment.

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