Yale University’s plan to create a college in Singapore is only the most recent of many projects over the past decade in which American universities, either alone or in collaboration, have established campuses abroad. Such initiatives take advantage of the international reputation of American higher education and the relative shortage of university places in some of the world’s fastest growing economies. People assume that such globalization is a comparatively recent phenomenon, enabled by contemporary communication technology. But the long international experience of women’s colleges like Smith offers an instructive and perhaps alternative model of outreach, one with particular benefits for educating women worldwide.
In 1913, two women leaders in the American social reform movement, Helen B. Montgomery (Wellesley 1884) and Lucy W. Peabody, set out to inspect foreign missions. From that trip came an idea: they would raise money for seven recently founded women’s colleges in Asia by pairing them with seven American sisters. There was some overlap with the Seven Sisters group with which we are familiar today, independently initiated five years later, but the goal of the earlier group was distinct: to support the development of women’s colleges in Asia through partnerships with American women’s colleges. Smith’s partner was Ginling College in Nanjing, a connection that lasted more than three decades. There was a Ginling representative in every Smith club in America. In some years, the college and its alumnae were estimated to have provided one quarter of Ginling’s annual budget.
The international engagement of women’s colleges in the early decades of the twentieth century had its roots in missionary work. An important focus of this work was establishing schools for girls. The arguments used were startlingly similar to those invoked by girls education activists today. In her 1910 bestselling book Western Women in Eastern Lands, Helen Montgomery argued that schools for girls are “the mightiest lever for overturning low, contemptuous, and tyrannical ideas and customs concerning women,” that they are effective in postponing marriage and furthering better physical development, and that they train “the leaders of the future.”
Girls’ education around the world was strongly tied to women’s colleges. More than 150 Mount Holyoke graduates served as founders, presidents, principals, or teachers in girls’ schools and women’s colleges outside the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many early presidents of Asian women’s colleges were Seven Sisters alumnae. Susan Searle (Wellesley 1881) served as president of Kobe College, succeeded by Charlotte DeForest (Smith 1901). Alice Appenzeller (Wellesley 1909) led Ewha College. Matilda Thurston (Mount Holyoke 1896) served as president of Ginling College. Tsuda Umeko (Bryn Mawr 1892) returned to her native Japan to found Tsuda College.
The American imprint on these institutions began to dissolve as nationalist movements gained force in the decade leading to World War II. The history of these early connections is surprisingly obscure, even at our colleges themselves, perhaps because the evangelical and colonialist spirit of some aspects of the projects makes us uncomfortable. We know the history of our European connections far better—pioneering study-abroad programs and a deep involvement in efforts to promote international organizations, such as the International Federation of University Women. Yet the connection of the Sister colleges to institutions in Asia has much to teach us today, as we try to understand both how we can advance educational equity across the globe and how we can best teach our students to acquire a perspective beyond that of Europe.
An important step toward women’s educational equity was the 2004 founding, by Mount Holyoke and Smith, of Women’s Education Worldwide, a collaborative organization linking more than fifty women’s colleges and universities on five continents. In the United States, women’s colleges have a long and demonstrated history of developing leaders. We have excellent campuses and facilities. We have worldwide networks of well-placed alumnae. We have the capacity to educate international students, and resources to support those with financial need. In turn, our international counterparts have much to teach us, through the astute ways in which they connect vocational and traditional education, in the prominence they give to engineering and science in the education of all students, and in the different understandings they have of political priorities for women.
A remarkable number of women’s colleges are being founded—in the Middle East, in south Asia, in Africa. There is a growing sense of urgency about women’s education. The reasons are clear and compelling; as argued by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn in Half the Sky, no country can achieve prosperity with an educational deficit burdening and limiting half its population. Advancing educational equity will require resources, technological investment, person-to-person connections among faculty, alumnae, and institutional leaders—and enormous political will. Smith and its sister colleges have long understood the need to educate women for the betterment of societies around the world. There is still so much more to be done.