Was Swarthmore ever a women’s college?

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Unfortunately for everyone who has ever asked you if you go to “that girls’ school in upstate New York,” they have no excuse. Swarthmore was co-educational from the very beginning.

It was founded in 1864 by a liberal Hicksite branch of the Society of Friends which set forth three requirements for the Hicksite college: that it be a place where Quaker children could receive an education that was “guarded” from the outside world, that it emphasize the natural sciences and practical knowledge, and that it be coeducational, in agreement with Quaker teachings about the equality of the sexes.

In contrast, Haverford was founded by a group of Orthodox Quakers in 1833 as a men’s college and did not become coeducational until 1980. Bryn Mawr was founded as a women’s college in 1885. One of the reasons Haverford waited so long to become coeducational was because it was worried about the effect on Bryn Mawr, but once it made the switch, it gained female students quickly. Today, over half of Haverford students are female.

So why do people continue to believe that Swarthmore is a women’s college? Skidmore, that school in upstate New York with which we share a first letter and second syllable, was founded in 1922 and became coeducational in 1971.

Personally, I ascribe to my mother’s theory, which relies on the lasting cultural resonance of The Mamas and the Papas, the 1960s musical group whose hits included “California Dreamin'” and “Monday Monday.” Their 1967 song “Creeque Alley,” a musical autobiography of how the band came to be, includes the lyric “When Cass was a sophomore, planned to go to Swarthmore, but she changed her mind one day.”

This lyric referred to group member “Mama” Cass Elliot, who dropped out of American University during her freshman year and planned to continue her education at Goucher, a women’s college near her home in Baltimore. “Goucher” is a tricky word to rhyme, though, so “Swarthmore” was used instead. But because Cass actually wanted to go to a women’s college, this fact is subliminally communicated through the music, and as a result, anybody who has heard the song will assume that Swarthmore is a women’s college until corrected.

Think that’s a stretch? If you have a different theory you want to test, you know what to do… Ask the Gazette at dailygazette [at] swarthmore [dot] edu.


  1. What a fun article! Today a colleague and I connected on LinkedIn and I saw that she attended Swarthmore. I Googled, “is Swarthmore a women’s college?” I was never formally told that it was but the back of my mind I somehow connected the school to having only a female student body from the lyric “when Cass was a Sophomore, planned to go to Swarthmore.”

    Glad to know the correct answer and also that I wasn’t the only one that was mistaken.

  2. I learned about the school while studying Alice Paul chief organizer and activist for the National Women’s party in the early 1900s. She was part of the student government a Swarthmore and with a lack of women’s rights at the time, I wondered if the only reason she was allowed to be in student government was because it was a girls school. But how great the quakers believed in equal rights between the sexes!

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