Noted Female Educator
“There is nothing in the universe that I fear, but that I shall not
know all my duty, or shall fail to do it”
~ Mary Lyon
In the nineteenth century, there were not many educational opportunities for women. But thanks to Mary Lyon, a pioneer in the struggle to establish institutions of higher education for women, women found a place to receive an education equal to that of men.
Mary Lyon founded the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1837 at South Hadley, Massachusetts, which became the model for institutions of higher education for women in the United States.
Mary Lyon was born on February 28, 1797 on the family’s 100 acre farm near Buckland, Massachusetts to Aaron and Jemina (Shepard) Lyon. Her parents were from strong New England Stock, her father being a veteran of the Revolutionary War. Mary grew up in the Christian faith passed down to her from generations. One of her great-grandfathers was a Congregational minister while another was a lay patriarch of the local Baptists whose faith he had planted there and whose right to worship without taxation he had won in 1773 after a long struggle. The family lived in a comfortable, story –and- a –half farmhouse surrounded by relatives living on the hillside and attended services in the local church.
When Mary was a child in the early 19th century, schooling for girls was considered by many to be a waste of time. A girls education was uneven, at best, and frequently non-existent. Most felt that girls did not need to be educated to become wives, mothers, and caretakers of the house. In most New England towns the school year was typically ten months long and divided into winter and summer terms. In many towns girls could only attend school in the summer, when boys were needed to do farm work. In these towns if girls were allowed to attend at all during the winter, they would have to sit on the school steps, hoping to catch bits of the teacher’s lessons. Mary was fortunate that the school in Buckland allowed girls to attend school year round and, though she left school at the age of thirteen, she had more education than most girls, who knew little more than the basics of reading, writing, and math, if that much at all.
In 1802, when Mary was only five years old, her father died, leaving his wife to raise seven children and run the family farm. At her mother’s side Mary learned the skills and crafts necessary for a 19th century New England farm girl. She cooked on an open hearth, baked breads, spun and dyed wool from family sheep, wove blankets, sewed clothes, preserved farm produce, churned butter, made cheese, jam, soap, and candles, cured meat, washed clothes, and swept floors. Mrs. Lyon remarried when Mary was thirteen and left the girl behind when she moved into her new husband’s home. Mary was considered a grown woman at thirteen! Mary stayed on at the family farm and kept house for her brother, Aaron, earning a weekly wage of one silver dollar, much of which she saved to further her education.
In 1814, when Mary was just seventeen, she was offered her first teaching job at a summer school in the nearby town of Shelburne Falls. At that time teachers needed no formal training, only a good reputation as a student, which Mary had. The job paid seventy-five cents a week, which was far less than the $10-$12 per month that male teachers received to teach the winter term. As was the custom of the day, Mary “boarded around” in the homes of her students, often having to move residences every five days. It was a difficult job teaching children from the ages of four to ten in the crowded one room school house, and it was even worse on rainy days when the older boys came in from the fields to attend school. However, Mary worked hard to improve her teaching skills and her ability to keep order in the schoolhouse.
Her experience teaching became the catalyst for Mary to seek to further her own education, which was no small task for a nineteenth century woman who had little money. While there were some private female schools springing up in New England, women of modest means, like Mary, could not afford their tuition. Besides the financial concerns, these schools offered mainly “lady-like” curriculums such as drawing and needlework, which were far less challenging than at male schools where students studied subjects like Latin and the sciences.
Though there were obstacles in her path, related to both finances and gender, Mary was determined to further her education. She spent the next several years partly in front of the classroom as a teacher and partly struggling to find a place for herself in classrooms and lecture halls so she could learn more and fill in the gaps of her education. She sometimes traveled three days by carriage to enroll at a school. Against the advice of her family Mary also cashed in a small inheritance from her father to pay for her education. Since she lived very frugally Mary was able to save a portion of her small salary and trade homemade blankets for her room and board as well.
Mary’s reputation as an educator spread all over the New England region. For the next twenty years she taught at schools in Massachusetts and in New Hampshire. She became an authority on the education of women and it was during these years that Mary developed her educational philosophy and gained experience in managing a school. During this time she taught at the Sanderson Academy, opened her own school in her hometown of Buckland, spent summers teaching at the Adams Female Seminary in New Hampshire and then became the assistant principal at Ipswich Female Seminary.
Her struggle in obtaining a good education gave Mary a new idea. Mary decided to establish an affordable college for women with an advanced curriculum equal to that available to men; one that prepared women for more than homemaking and teaching. In 1834 she left Ipswich to begin the fulfillment of her dream. In pursuit of her dream Mary traveled and fundraised to win support for her ideas and in 1837 she opened Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary. Eighty students were in that first class and the next year 200 women applied for 90 available seats. The cause of female education had entered a new era.
Mary’s innovative goals for Mount Holyoke set her school apart from other female seminaries of the day. They included:
~A curriculum equivalent to those at men’s colleges. An educator ahead of her time, Mary required seven courses in the sciences and mathematics for graduation, a requirement unheard of at other female seminaries. She also introduced science-laboratory experiments to the women, which they performed themselves, often collecting their own specimens for lab work from field trips. She also invited distinguished scientists to lecture at the school and inspired women to pursue careers in the sciences as college teachers and researchers. Mary herself, taught chemistry, one of her favorite subjects.
~A minimum entrance age of 17.
~Rigorous entrance examinations to make sure students were adequately prepared.
~Low tuition to make education affordable to students of modest means. When it opened, tuition at Mount Holyoke was $60 a year.
~Domestic work by students to keep operating expenses down.
~A wide base of financial support from people of various backgrounds.
~Independence. Mary Lyon sought no affiliations with a specific religious denomination or wealthy sponsor. Instead she formed a Board of Trustees, a group of dedicated male supporters, who donated their time to help Mount Holyoke succeed. I would like to note, however, that while the school was not affiliated with any one religious group, Mary’s devout Christian faith influenced the spiritual life of the seminary. Students were required to attend church services of their choice, chapel talks, prayer meetings, and Bible study groups. Twice a day teachers and students spent time in private devotions. Every dorm room had two large lighted closets to give roommates privacy during their devotional time.
The success of Mount Holyoke proved that women were as intellectually capable as men and opened the doors of higher education for women. It also proved that a school for women offering a regular college curriculum could survive financially. . Mary’s impact on education was felt not only in America, but world-wide. Students from Mount Holyoke Female Seminary carried Mary Lyon’s ideals and teaching methods into schools which they founded or taught at all over the world. Through the work of Mount Holyoke’s alumnae teachers, the quality of elementary and high school education improved throughout the nation and the presence of well-educated female teachers in the classroom offered role models for young women who aspired to make a difference in their worlds.
Mary Lyon served as the principal of Mount Holyoke for 12 years, during which time the curriculum and the school was expanded. Her energy and clear vision of her goal were the key ingredients in the school’s early success. In 1888 the school became Mount Holyoke Seminary and College and in 1895 it became Mount Holyoke College. It remains, today, as one of the leading institutions of higher education for women in the United States. For more information on Mount Holyoke College and Mary Lyon visit their website at: www.mtholyoke.edu