Chemist and educator Mary Lyon founded Mount Holyoke College—then called Mount Holyoke Female Seminary—in 1837, nearly a century before women gained the right to vote. At the time, there were 120 colleges for men in the United States, but none for women. With the opening of Mount Holyoke, college-aged women could claim their own institution of higher education.
Lyon was born on February 28, 1797, in Buckland, a rural town in the hills of western Massachusetts. One of seven children, she began her education at age four in the village school. Though her father died the next year, Lyon was able to continue attending school. When it moved to a more distant location, she left her family and lived for the school term with relatives and local families, doing chores to pay for her room and board. As was common for the times, Lyon attended school until she was 13 and then helped with the family farm.
Lyon began teaching in 1814 at age 17 to earn money to continue her own education. Although private female academies—often called seminaries—were springing up in New England, Lyon and other women of modest means could not afford their fees. Moreover, the curricula, which included “ladylike” skills such as drawing and needlework, were far less challenging than at male schools, where students studied such subjects as geometry, science, and Latin.
Between 1817 and 1821, Lyon pursued her own education. She then taught for another three years and opened a school back home in Buckland. Her next job was at the Ipswich Female Seminary, where she spent six years. In 1834, Lyon left Ipswich and began raising funds to create a permanent institution of higher education for women. Inspired by her own struggles, Lyon was determined to create a school that was both academically rigorous and affordable; her plan was to keep tuition low by having students assist with the daily chores and domestic work of the school. She wrote circulars and ads announcing the plan for the school, persuaded prominent men to back her enterprise, developed a curriculum, visited schools and talked to educators as far away as Detroit.
Despite the fact that the United States was in a severe economic depression, Lyon’s tireless fundraising over the course of three years was successful. The Mount Holyoke Female Seminary opened on November 8, 1837 with 80 students, all of whom all had passed difficult oral entrance examinations in English grammar, math, U.S. history, and geography. One year later, places at Mount Holyoke were in such demand nearly 200 women applied for entrance; 90 were accepted.
Lyon, who also taught chemistry at Mount Holyoke, was an educator ahead of her time. She required seven courses in the sciences and mathematics for graduation, a requirement unheard of at other female seminaries. She introduced women to “a new and unusual way” to learn science—laboratory experiments that they performed themselves. She invited distinguished scientists to give lectures at Mount Holyoke and organized field trips on which students collected specimens for lab work. Her interest in the sciences and her high expectations for women sparked a tradition of leadership in science education that continues to this day at Mount Holyoke.
Lyon served for 12 years as the principal of Mount Holyoke before her death on March 5, 1849. She had proven that women were as intellectually capable as men and created a new model for their education. In 1861, the school’s three-year curriculum was expanded to four; in 1893, the seminary curriculum was phased out and the institution’s name was changed to Mount Holyoke College.
As the first of the Seven Sisters—the female equivalent of the once predominantly male Ivy League—Mount Holyoke led the way in educating women. A model upon which many other women’s colleges were patterned, it has been synonymous with brilliant teaching and academic excellence.
In 1987, Lyon was honored by the United States Postal Service through its Great American series of postage stamps. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993. To date, more than 33,000 women have been educated at Mount Holyoke College. They, too, have sought to create opportunities for women and have made lasting contributions in the fields of business, education, government, health care, law, medicine, the arts, and science.