Bryn Mawr College will launch a yearlong celebration of its 125th anniversary this weekend with a reunion of 1,000 alumnae and a renewal of its original mission.

Bryn Mawr began "in an era when there were doubts about whether women even had the mental and physical capacity to undertake serious study," said Jane McAuliffe, 66, president of the college.

The school was founded in 1885 with the goal of offering women a more rigorous academic program than had previously been available.

Alumnae include actress Katharine Hepburn; Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University; and economist Alice Rivlin, former director of the Congressional Budget Office.

Anniversary events began Friday with a reunion, including classes going back to 1940.

The highlight will be a women's education conference in September. Also on the bill are lectures, exhibits, and the creation of a mural in West Philadelphia in partnership with the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program.

The anniversary comes at a time when most women's colleges are competing with coeducational institutions, said Leslie Miller-Bernal, coeditor of Challenged by Co-Education: Women's Colleges Since the 1960s and a dean at Wells College in Aurora, N.Y., formerly a women's school.

The number of women's colleges in the nation has decreased from about 200 in 1960 to about 50 now. Rosemont College, a Catholic school near Bryn Mawr, began accepting male students last fall in hopes of boosting enrollment and finances.

But the picture is brighter for elite women's schools such as Bryn Mawr, which have a long history, prestigious reputation, and substantial endowments, Miller-Bernal said.

Bryn Mawr's incoming class of 378, and the school's current undergraduate enrollment of 1,300, are the largest in its history, McAuliffe said. Undergraduate applications are also setting records, she said.

Contact staff writer Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or kholmes@phillynews.com.