An article March 18 about the resurgence of women's colleges omitted the full name of Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Va. The school is separate from Randolph-Macon College, a coed institution in Ashland, Va.
For more than a century, the futures of thousands of young women have been shaped inside the pale yellow columned buildings at Mary Baldwin College, where generations of students have learned poise and good manners along with Shakespeare and Galileo.
But today Mary Baldwin, like most of the 110 women's colleges across the nation, is undergoing a dramatic transformation. In place of the liberal arts finishing school image that was once synonymous with southern women's colleges is a new emphasis on career and professional training. Mary Baldwin's catalogue has pictures of computers and microscopes and alumni who are doctors and corporate managers. "Preparation for independence" is the college's new motto.
"The mission hasn't changed," said Virginia L. Lester, the 54-year-old president of Mary Baldwin. "Women have changed. If you're still doing things the way you did 20 years ago, you're not serving women. We had to dispel the southern finishing school image."
Just 10 years ago, the survival of Mary Baldwin and scores of other women's colleges was in doubt as huge numbers of women flocked to men's schools that were becoming coeducational. In 1976, enrollment at Mary Baldwin dropped to a low of 577 students. And there were rumors of bankruptcy.
Now, after a decade of soul-searching and a marked change in academic focus, women's colleges are enjoying a renaissance. Enrollment at Mary Baldwin has climbed to 853. Nationally, the number of students at women's colleges has increased by 25 percent in the past decade, according to a study by the Women's College Coalition.
Only 2 percent of all women college students are enrolled in women's schools. But the presidents of women's colleges -- including the 10 in Virginia, Maryland and the District -- are convinced that, despite a decline in the population of college-aged students, their institutions will continue to be an indispensable alternative to coeducation because they have something unique to offer -- an environment defined by and for women.
"We have a clearer sense of our mission," said Nannerl O. Keohane, president of Wellesley College in Massachusetts, which had a record number of applications this year. "We have very important and validated mission in preparing women, and we have a pretty good sense of how to do it best."
Whether the school is Wellesley or Mary Baldwin, the new emphasis has meant revamping curriculums to attract a new generation of women students who are more interested in career preparation than liberal arts or old school traditions. In some cases this has meant a trade-off. At Mary Baldwin, for example, some humanities programs have all but disappeared with the emergence of management and communications courses, just as formal white-glove teas, house mothers and the school's traditional May Day, when seniors dressed in crinolines for a day while the younger students dressed as Li'l Bo Peep, disappeared 20 years ago.
"For most of this century women were being prepared [at women's colleges] to be nurturers or transmitters of culture to children, to be the nation's mothers," said Martha Church, president of Hood College in Frederick, Md. "Now we are very much more responsive to career planning issues."
Audrey Bondurant, a Mary Baldwin senior, said she hesitated at first to apply to women's colleges.
"I didn't think it was my style. Then I sent off for some catalogues, and I noticed some trends," said the 21-year-old communications major. "There was the liberal arts [Curriculum] and all that, but with an emphasis on preparation. The opportunity for real preparation was there, for women only."
Many women's colleges offer internship programs that give students access to and credit for on-the-job training in the public and private sectors. In the face of a post-baby boom enrollment dip, virtually all women's colleges have enlarged their student bodies by launching special weekend programs -- such as one at Trinity College in Northeast Washington, which includes a free day care center -- for women who want to return to school to finish their degrees.
"It is a survival tactic, but at the same time it is mandatory because the mission of women's colleges is the education of all women," said Alberta Arthurs, former president of Chatham College in Pittsburgh.
Goucher College in Towson, Md., has instituted departments of management and public affairs, majors in prelaw and communications, and a special program on public leadership.
Randolph-Macon College in Lynchburg, Va., has gone much the same route, launching minors in computer sciences and business and a major in communications. Hollins College near Roanoke has started programs in film-making, and it makes public speaking an integral part of every student's education.
"There are whole new fields opening to women, so obviously women's colleges had to expand their offerings to women," said Goucher President Rhoda Dorsey, a historian.
On the bucolic campus of Sweet Briar College near Lynchburg, there are programs in international studies, public administration and management. A Sweet Briar catalogue emphasizes the college's "education for reality" and has pictures of three alumni -- a vice president of the American Stock Exchange and two securities analysts -- at their jobs on Wall Street.
"It's not that we have sought to chase fads or get on bandwagons," said Nenah Fry, Sweet Briar's president. "We have been able to recognize different ways of using a liberal arts education given the different futures of women."
Nowhere has the change been as dramatic as at Mary Baldwin, which became one of the first women's colleges to impose a professional curriculum on its liberal arts foundation in the mid-1970s.
"We are not here to take a young woman from Texas for a few years just to send her back home . . . to marry a Texan," said Lester, who is resigning after nine years as president to go to Stanford Law School. "We are preparing women for careers. Twenty years ago all we could hope for was the junior league or school principal. We didn't have a woman vice-presidential candidate."
For liberal arts purists, the story of Mary Baldwin's transformation is a painful one. When Lester took over in 1976, the college had a $170,000 deficit. Enrollments were skidding partly because of a drain of women to schools such as the University of Virginia that had recently gone coeducational.
"We moved very quickly to look at who we were, what were our strengths and what we wanted to hold onto," said Lester. A marketing analyst was hired to find out what 16- and 17-year-old high school girls wanted to study in college. An investment analyst joined the board of trustees to manage the college's portfolio and reinvest the endowment. Mary Baldwin hired a public relations firm to change the college's image and get its new "message" out to prospective students.
"I wanted [our publications to convey] energy and action, not the little southern lady thing," said Lester. "I was looking for the Mary Tyler Moore image. More action."
The result has been financial solvency, record enrollments, increases in fund raising, a new mix of students that includes older women and some gifted high school students along with the traditional undergraduates, and a heavily professional curriculum. It also has meant the extinction of once-popular majors in philosophy, religion and Spanish.
Like Mary Baldwin, most women's colleges had to struggle once they made the decision to remain single-sex. And they have had to continue to persuade female students to enroll at a time when all but two of the nation's men's colleges have turned coeducational.
"Women's colleges until the mid-1970s had been aping the men's colleges and weren't sure there was anything special they could do," said Paula P. Brownlee, president of Hollins College. "We've got a very different situation now."
In their brochures and through recruitment efforts, which often include fancy receptions and personal phone calls, women's colleges sell themselves as places where women can excel at all facets of campus life without interference from men.
"A woman who goes to a women's college sees the college as a place she can develop intellectually in an environment that is positive for her," said Ann Pauley, associate director of the Women's College Coalition.
"We're still living in a society where women are not treated as first-class citizens," said Robert A. Spivey, president of Randolph-Macon, which hired Hill & Knowlton, a national public relations firm, for marketing and publicity. "Women's colleges are one place they are."
Part of the equation, these educators say, is that women's colleges are among the few institutions in American life that are dominated intellectually, politically and socially by women. Of the women's colleges in Virginia, Maryland and the District, only Randolph-Macon has a male president, for example, a striking contrast to 15 years ago.
At the bulk of women's colleges, about 50 percent of the faculties and top administrators are women. "Our students have role models," said Sister Donna Jurick, president of Trinity College. "In top levels of administration, the faculty, on the board of trustees. That's very important."
Susan Anderson, a Mary Baldwin senior studying advertising and public relations, exemplifies the new prototype on women's college campuses. She is vice president of the student government, president of the student senate and one of three student members of the board of trustees. She plans a career in public relations, and she will spend one month in the spring working in the public relations division of a Virginia trade association.
After going through a large coeducational high school, Anderson went to a women's college, she said, because she "wanted to make it" in an all-female environment.
"I think women are very competitive in an all-women environment," she said.
Despite the rosier picture recently for women's colleges, the future is not necessarily bright. With the population of college-aged students declining, all small colleges face stiff competition for students. The situation is particularly acute for women's colleges. Some presidents worry that efforts to enlarge the application pool will mean a decline in the quality of students. Others are concerned that cuts in government support could undo their progress.
"We're full of energy and stronger internally financially than we have been for some time," said Goucher's Dorsey. "But public policy could gravely affect our circumstances.
"In a perfect world there would be no need for a separate institution for women. But we haven't reached a state of perfection or equality yet. That will take some time."